The Washington Diplomat / November 2004
By Larry Luxner
Egypt's first terrorist attack since 1997 will undoubtedly hurt tourism but won't dissuade Egyptian leaders from pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, vows Nabil Fahmy, Cairo's ambassador to the United States.
Fahmy was interviewed just days after terrorists killed 34 people at three tourist sites in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. The Oct. 7 car-bombings targeted the Taba Hilton just 500 meters from the Israeli border and two other beach resorts long frequented by vacationers from the Jewish state.
In late October, the Egyptian government identified the mastermind of the attacks as Ayad Said Salah, a Palestinian who had lived in the Sinai and who died in the hotel attack along with an Egyptian accomplice.
The Egyptian Interior Ministry said Salah had acted "in reaction to the deteriorating situation in the occupied territories to carry out an act targeting Israelis," though it did not mention a broader conspiracy involving al-Qaeda.
Fahmy said the culprits "will be given due process" and could very well face the death penalty.
"There will be no wavering on our side in dealing with the issue of terrorism," he declared. "And the nationality of the terrorists or their victims will make no difference."
A statement issued by the Israeli Embassy in Washington said the attack, whose victims included 12 Israeli citizens, "shattered an oasis of coexistence" in the Middle East.
"Israel deeply appreciates the close cooperation with Egypt in coordinating rescue operations. We share a long border with Egypt, and many security concerns, particularly involving terrorism," the statement said. "The fact that thousands of Israelis choose to vacation in the Sinai on the eve of the terrorist attacks is testament to the durability of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty."
Fahmy, 52, was born and raised in New York, and attended American University in Cairo. He was appointed Egypt's ambassador to Washington in October 1999, two years after the country's last terrorist attack, in which Muslim fanatics massacred 64 Swiss, Japanese and other foreigners at the ancient ruins of Luxor, south of Cairo. Since then, and especially since 9/11, security had been stepped up at all hotels, antiquities and other places likely to attract Western tourists though obviously not enough to prevent the latest atrocity.
"The fact that we had seven years of calm is testimony that our security measures were quite rigid," said the ambassador. "But yes, we will nevertheless increase those measures. Egypt's minister of interior has already visited several hotel sites to make sure everybody is on top of things."
Asked if the Egyptian Embassy itself has been the target of threats, Fahmy was vague.
"We haven't received anything over the last few weeks. These things come and go," he said without elaborating.
But Fahmy isn't vague when it comes to the so-called Middle East "road map" being pursued by the Bush administration. Egypt, with 70 million inhabitants, is the most populous nation in the Arab world, and the most influential when it comes to the film industry, publishing and other aspects of popular culture.
In 1979, two years after the late President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem, it also became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. As a reward for making peace, Egypt receives $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military assistance and another $535 million in economic aid the highest in the world after Israel.
Fahmy said Egypt is committed to using its considerable clout to help the Israelis evacuate the Gaza Strip as quickly and peacefully as possible
"What happened in Sinai will not deter us from pursuing an active role in the peace process," he stated. "Creating an Arab-Israeli peace allows for the evolution of an environment of stability, and consequently helps communities deal with issues like terrorism. In terms of our practical role, we have had emissaries going to Palestinians in Ramallah, and to the Israelis, to try to push the 'Gaza first' withdrawal and build a bridge between that and the road map, leading to a two-state solution."
To that end, said Fahmy, a unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza as long as it's coordinated with the Palestinian Authority would be a positive step.
"We have requested that there be withdrawal from some settlements in the West Bank as an indication that it's not Gaza last, but Gaza first. As is always the case, the devil is in the details," he said. "We want to help end the cycle of violence and ensure that the withdrawal creates a viable Palestinian entity by empowering the Palestinians themselves. This should be a complete, comprehensive withdrawal that allows Palestinians to move freely between Gaza and the West Bank."
In addition, he said, Israel should not end up controlling Gaza's border with Egypt, as is currently the case. That's why Egypt is seeking to train Palestinian police to ensure border security as the Israelis evacuate the 7,000 Jews living in heavily guarded settlements in the midst of over one million Arabs.
Despite considerable outrage from right-wing factions of his government, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed to withdraw from Gaza, saying Jews have no future there. While declining to comment specifically on Sharon, Fahmy agrees with the Israeli leader that the cost of remaining in Gaza is higher than the risk of withdrawing from it.
"But if it's only a partial withdrawal, you will have sources of friction, and the Palestinian Authority's role will be diminished," he cautioned. "If you have a full withdrawal from Gaza and let Egypt train Palestinian police, the Palestinians will once again be able to reassert their authority."
He urged Israel not to destroy its settlements in Gaza as it did in Yamit in 1982, just before giving the Sinai back to Egypt.
"The destruction of the Yamit settlements left a bitter image. It was really uncalled for," he said. "Egypt didn't want the settlements, but they were destroyed for no particular reason. I would hope that Israel will leave its settlements intact [when it withdraws from Gaza]. Why destroy something that could be useful?"
Meanwhile, bloodshed continues throughout the Gaza Strip, with casualties on both sides rising every day. The Israeli Army argues that Palestinian fighters are smuggling weapons into Gaza via secret tunnels from Egypt, and that Israel must protect itself from terrorism.
Fahmy counters that Egypt "has made a concerted effort to deal with these tunnels," which he said were built in the 1970s by Arab and Israeli smugglers profiting from the contraband trade.
Despite 25 years of peace with Israel, current trade between the two countries is negligible, and very few Egyptian tourists have the money or desire to visit the Jewish state. That's why many Israelis have labeled the relationship a "cold peace."
Nevertheless, Fahmy said the important thing is the noun, not the adjective.
"The peace itself has stood up to very serious challenges. When it was a separate peace between us and the Israelis, neither party backed off. When it enlarged to become a peace with Jordan as well, it continued to evolve, even during lapses in the peace process. The only Arab or foreign party that continues to broker peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is Egypt.We have always argued that the warmth or the coolness in the relationship will be affected by how large we can widen the scope of peace between us and the Israelis."
He added: "Warm peace can and will happen, but not to the degree people expect by government decree. The people have to want it, and the government cannot ignore the public. When the Egyptian people see Palestinian children getting killed, they get angry. Even so, our commitment to peace is unwavering. The government has a responsibility to lead, and at the end of the day, we have to make sure rational minds prevail."
Fahmy said Egyptian trade with Israel has declined over the last few years, though the two countries are on the verge of signing a deal in which Egypt will supply Israel with gas from the Red Sea. Several joint projects are underway, including the Medor oil refinery in Alexandria; also on the drawing board are Qualified Industrial Zones that take advantage of Israeli prowess in high-tech industries and low-cost Egyptian labor similar to the many QIZs that have popped up along the Israeli-Jordanian border.
In addition to seeking peace in the immediate vicinity, Egypt has taken a high-profile role in pushing for a settlement in Iraq. Later this month [November], Egypt will host a conference at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for the foreign ministers of G-8 countries and the Arab League.
"This is an indication from our side that we want the Iraqi situation to move forward," he said. "What's important for Egyptians is to preserve a unified Iraq that's inclusive of all its constituencies. You cannot divide up Iraq on an ethnic basis. Iraq must have a stable government which is sovereign over all its territories."
Sadly, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and continuing bloodshed in that country has led to increasing anti-American sentiment in Egypt, as in most of the Arab world.
"I don't think there's an inherent anti-American feeling in Egypt, but there is much more anxiety, and that emanates from frustration. It's not that we're angry with America, but we want peace and we have other problems."
Anxiety is also rising in Egypt for a completely different reason: many Egyptians have grown weary of the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, 76, and fear that his attempts to groom his son Gamal may signal the beginning of a long dynasty.
Mubarak, who has been in power for 23 years, shows no intention of quitting. According to a recent Associated Press report, "the severely circumscribed electoral system guarantees the overwhelming dominance of his National Democratic Party, and if his son succeeds him, reformers fear Egypt's future will look a lot like its past: a virtual one-party state led by a Mr. Mubarak."
Fahmy dismisses those concerns, noting that three months ago, a new prime minister and 14 new cabinet-level ministers were appointed, and all of them are relatively young, liberal and progressive-minded.
"In just 90 days, they've taken economic measures that have brought down tariffs by an average 40%, announced a concrete program for liberalizing the market, have addressed educational problems and are dealing with social issues," he said. "In 2005, both parliamentary and presidential elections will take place. The majority party will attempt to maintain its majority, but they've also said they want to have a more balanced field for everybody."
He added: "I think we've progressed in some areas far beyond anywhere else in the Arab world. On other issues, we have a ways to go. Women have had the right to vote in Egypt before they did in Switzerland. We've had a constitution since the 1930s. Are we happy with our system? No, we want to make it better. I find that the debate in Egypt where the opposition party has criticized the government and the government feels obliged to respond is healthy. We've actually had televised debates."
As recently as 15 years ago, said the ambassador, Egypt had only one political party. Today it has 14.
"The president announced that he wanted the party and the opposition to engage in a dialogue on the electoral process itself to ensure that the next elections have a wider participation," he said. "Mubarak's son says the party opposes inheritance of power. What you are seeing in Egypt is a clear, open debate about all the issues, including the next elections, with some opposing the present system and others supporting it."
Nevertheless, moving too quickly toward democracy could also bring instability. Ruling party officials, according to AP, warn that "Egypt only recently emerged from its bloody decade-long war against Islamic extremists and say the fundamentalists would exploit any political opening to impose a religious dictatorship."
While Egyptians debate the future of their country, the seemingly endless bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians is never far from their minds. Whether a negotiated settlement will ever happen in the West Bank and Gaza remains to be seen, though Fahmy takes a realistic view of things.
"You'd have to be naοve to think that peace is around the corner," he told us. "I'm not optimistic, but I'm not going to give up."