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As Gazans Look for Way Into Egypt, Cairo Looks for Way Out of Crisis
The Washington Diplomat / February 2009

By Larry Luxner

On Jan. 9, at the very moment Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shoukry was sharing his vision of the Middle East with The Washington Diplomat, thousands of anti-Egyptian protesters were taking to the streets of Muslim capitals from Abu Dhabi to Jakarta.

The subject of their rage: Egypt’s refusal to throw open its Rafah border crossing to Palestinians trying to flee the besieged Gaza Strip amid accusations that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has somehow aligned himself with Israel in its war to dislodge the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) from power in Gaza.

“People have been aggrieved. Emotions run high,” said Shoukry, in one of his few media interviews since taking on the job of ambassador four months ago, after the departure of his longtime predecessor, Nabil Fahmy, who was in Washington for nearly nine years.

“There’s been a lot of disinformation from certain quarters to extract political advantage, and to unfairly lay blame at our door,” Shoukry told The Diplomat without naming names. “They’ve taken advantage of the inflamed sensitivities of ordinary people. We are all outraged with what we have seen, but people are unaware of the truth. We recognize this is not necessarily a fundamental opposition to Egypt” — which, along with Israel, controls the only access to Gaza.

In the midst of fierce fighting between Israeli soldiers and Hamas militants that by press time had taken the lives of more than 1,100 Gazans, nearly half of them civilians — and 13 Israelis, mostly soldiers — Shoukry characterized the issue of the border crossing as one of logistics rather than loyalty.

“Much ado is unjustifiably made of the Rafah crossing,” says Cairo’s man in Washington. “Many people do not recognize the logistical difficulties associated with it. The Rafah crossing has always been open to receive Palestinians and those with emergencies have never been denied access. But this is not a commercial crossing with loading docks or the necessary equipment to handle large shipments of assistance.”

That hasn’t appeased everyone though. In addition to worldwide calls for Israel to allow humanitarian access into the strip, the majority of which is surrounded by the Jewish state, aid groups have been urging Egypt to open up the seven-mile portion it controls at Gaza’s southern end — an area Israel says is also commonly used to smuggle weapons.

On Jan. 8, Human Rights Watch issued a report saying that “Egypt is also preventing timely evacuations of severely wounded from Gaza, despite pledges from Turkey and Qatar, among others, to receive the wounded at Egypt’s Rafah border crossings and evacuate them to hospitals in third countries,” the group charged. “For Israel and Egypt to continue blocking the evacuation of severely wounded people is not only unlawful but heartless.”

The issue has also riled emotions in the Muslim world, even as Egypt — the most populous Arab country, with 80 million inhabitants — works feverishly to reach a ceasefire compromise between Israel and Hamas.

“We’re of course very much involved with the crisis,” Shoukry explains. “From the outset, we had extensive consultations with Hamas in efforts to maintain the ceasefire, and to extend the six-month ceasefire so that the environment in the region would be conducive to the peace process. We were restricted by political transition in the U.S. and by elections in Israel, and we wanted to build on Annapolis. Unfortunately, those efforts were not successful.”

That previous truce expired Dec. 19, with each side blaming the other for the collapse — Hamas accused Israel of breaking the terms first by blocking almost all aid from entering Gaza and its policy of targeted killings, while Israel cites the repeated barrage of Qassam rockets fired from within Gaza at Israeli civilians. The homemade rockets have killed relatively few people, but they have traumatized entire communities for the past eight years.

Shortly after the original ceasefire fell apart, the current war began Dec. 27, when Israel launched a massive air and ground offensive against Hamas in the densely populated strip. Since then, the disproportionately high Palestinian death toll — especially among women, children and other noncombatants — has triggered international condemnation of Israel, which was amplified after several high-profile humanitarian incidents involving the Red Cross, CARE and the shelling of U.N. facilities.

On Jan. 8, the U.N. Security Council voted 14-0 to demand an immediate ceasefire between the warring parties; the United States abstained but urged Egypt to use its leverage with Hamas to try to stop the bloodshed.

Shoukry says Egypt is doing all it can, but Israel isn’t making it easy. “Our role is to protect the civilians and those vulnerable to the Israeli onslaught,” says the ambassador. “We cannot in any form or manner justify or find any political rationale behind Israel’s activities. We hope both sides will immediately respect the Security Council resolution and bring an end to this crisis.”

Shoukry, 56, is an articulate and polished career diplomat with an excellent command of English. Originally from Cairo, his family roots are from both Upper Egypt and the Delta region — “not a very common mixture,” he says. Before coming to Washington, Shoukry was Egypt’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva. He’s also served as Mubarak’s secretary of information and has held a variety of diplomatic posts in London, Vienna, New York and Buenos Aires.

Despite his extensive world travels, Shoukry has never set foot in the Gaza Strip, though he did visit Israel three years ago. He insists nothing — not even Israel’s war in Gaza and repeated calls to sever ties with the Jewish state — can endanger the Camp David peace treaty that has now endured for three decades.

“The Egyptian people are very savvy and understand the complexities of the [Arab-Israeli] situation. We’ve been living with it for 60 years,” he says. “Egyptians are committed to the strategic objective of peace. There’s no inclination in any way that this will affect the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.”

But he adds that “we have gone through previous cycles of optimism, when we had greater openness. Unfortunately, those have been short lived because of the consistent emotional attachment of Egyptians to the plight of the Palestinian people.”

And nowhere is that plight more evident than in the densely populated, impoverished and isolated Gaza Strip. Barely a third the size of Montgomery County, Md., it is home to 1.5 million people, 99 percent of them Sunni Muslims. Israel captured Gaza from Egypt during the Six-Day War of 1967 and occupied it for the next 38 years.

In September 2005, facing increasing unrest, Israel unilaterally withdrew its troops from Gaza. For the next two years, the Rafah crossing — the only entry-exit point along Gaza’s border with Egypt — was jointly controlled by Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, with the European Union monitoring Palestinian compliance on the Gaza side.

But fighting soon erupted between the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party, and Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in January 2006 but is listed as a terrorist group by the United States, Canada, the European Union, Israel and Japan. After Hamas seized control of the territory in June 2007, the EU pulled out, and Egypt agreed with Israel to shut down the crossing — effectively sealing off the Gaza Strip on all sides.

“Hamas arrived at its current status by virtue of the elections,” says Shoukry. “In Egypt, we recognize the Palestinian Authority as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. Abbas was duly elected as president, and for the sake of the Palestinian people, we’ve been working to bridge this rupture of relations between the two parties.”

The rupture also reveals a split within the Arab world toward Hamas, an Iranian-based organization that is banned in Jordan. The group isn’t looked at upon kindly by Egypt either, yet Shoukry declined to condemn Hamas outright.

“The support in Gaza for Hamas is primarily humanitarian, as a manner of rejecting the [Israeli] occupation,” he says. “It’s up to the Palestinian people to decide who will represent them and address their political aspirations. What’s fundamental is that we are in a state of occupation. It’s an unnatural state, and there’s a sense that the whole Palestinian people are under siege. I think they will tend to rally around whoever they perceive as their ally.”

Observers generally agree though that Mubarak fears Hamas because of the group’s perceived ties to the Muslim Brotherhood — an organization whose stated goal is to instill the Koran “as the sole reference point for ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community and state.”

The Brotherhood has been an illegal organization in Egypt since 1954, when it was convicted of attempting to assassinate then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“They are not a political party, though they do have a presence in Egypt. They have a social network and informal representation in parliament, but we still feel that their political inspirations are not in conformity with the constitution,” Shoukry explains. “We have a very large Christian population, therefore the constitution limits political activism based on religion. Until the Brotherhood rectifies its position toward the constitution, they will be shunned [because] their political platform is unacceptable.”

So were the terrorist attacks against Israeli and other foreign tourists in the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel returned to Egypt in 1982 under terms of the Camp David accords.

The coordinated series of bombings in the Sinai beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2005 killed more than 80 people, most of them Egyptians, and injured over 200. As a reminder of those attacks, the entrance lobby of the Egyptian Embassy on International Drive is decorated with framed photographs of President George W. Bush and his wife Laura signing a book of condolences following the blasts, which were the deadliest terrorist attack in Egyptian history.

Sharm el-Sheikh was also a reminder of Egypt’s uneasy relationship with Islam. Shoukry called the attack “very unfortunate,” though he says it was quite different than the brutal episodes of bloodshed that terrorized Egypt in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“Then, it was more of a radicalized Islamist opposition which lost a great deal of credibility and fizzled by virtue of the government’s activities,” he says. “What’s happening in Sinai was more complex. We have indications there have been exterior interests like al-Qaeda that might have taken advantage of conditions in Sinai, choosing the tourism industry as a soft target. We’ve been able to plug the gaps in that regard.”

But no real progress in the war on terrorism will be achieved until the larger Arab-Israeli conflict is solved, he says. Given the current crisis in Gaza, that may be a long way off, concedes Shoukry, whose country was the first Arab power to make peace with Israel 30 years ago. In all that time, only two other Arab countries have followed suit: Jordan, in 1994, and the North African republic of Mauritania, in 1999.

“We always maintain our optimism. This crisis has festered for so long, and has adversely affected the well being of both Palestinians and Israelis. We hope both sides will recognize the need for normalcy,” he says. “This can’t go on forever, and it’s had an enormous toll on all those involved. It’s time for people to see the light. Resorting to the primitive use of force and brutality will never be capable of resolving these problems.”

Only diplomacy will, says the ambassador — and only if it results in an independent Palestine alongside Israel.

“Everybody knows what the elements are: the creation of a Palestinian state [based on pre-1967 borders] with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of return,” Shoukry insists. “These differences of opinions are not insurmountable — if there is a political will to end this crisis and if all parties apply themselves faithfully and recognize the importance of normalization.”

Shoukry scoffed when asked about the so-called “three-state solution” proposed by John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In a Jan. 5 opinion piece in the Washington Post, Bolton proposed that Gaza revert to Egyptian control, while the West Bank is returned to Jordanian sovereignty — effectively putting an end to the dreams of an independent Palestinian state, and relieving Israel of Palestinian responsibility.

“Without a larger Egyptian role, Gaza will not, and perhaps cannot, achieve the minimal stability necessary for economic development,” Bolton wrote. “Having the two Arab states re-extend their prior political authority is an authentic way to extend the zone of peace and, more important, build on governments that are providing peace and stability in their own countries.”

Garbage, says Shoukry, deriding Bolton’s proposal as “a malicious idea that has no room in the current dialogue and should be totally discounted.”

It probably will be anyway, given that neoconservative Bolton will have no place in the new Barack Obama administration. Shoukry though didn’t want to delve much into U.S. politics, except to say that he tries to spend as much time as possible on the Hill, “interacting with senators and congressmen” on issues relating to the Middle East.

“From Obama’s campaign statements and other indications, we are very optimistic that the incoming administration will exert additional efforts and be involved with the Middle East peace process,” he says, ambitiously predicting that the United States will soon “regain its leadership role” in the region.

The Egyptian ambassador seemed equally unwilling to comment on the upcoming Israeli elections, in which the leading candidates are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima Party, Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor.

“I hope whoever wins the election will be committed to the peace process,” he says, suggesting that Washington must keep up pressure on Israel to continue negotiations with the Palestinians. “The U.S. role is fundamental. We’ve always advocated for strong U.S. involvement as the sole superpower, because of its special relations not only with Israel but also with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.”

In the meantime, according to the ambassador, Egypt’s chief domestic challenge is economic development. “We have a rapidly growing population, and we must generate 300,000 jobs per year. Our resources are limited,” explains Shoukry, whose country has received $50 billion in U.S. handouts since 1975. The $1.3 billion a year Cairo gets in military aid, along with $815 million in annual economic assistance, make Egypt the world’s second-biggest recipient of American largesse, after Israel, which receives about $3 billion a year in grants.

Yet Egypt’s share has done almost nothing to promote democracy, freedom of speech, women’s rights and other values held dear by the American people, say human rights groups.

“The Mubarak regime is inching toward political reform and democratic pluralism at a pace so slow that many question the sincerity of the government’s pro-democracy rhetoric,” according to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor.

New York-based Amnesty International says that in practice, there’s little democracy under Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since Anwar Sadat’s assassination 27 years ago. The group warns that it has “long-standing concerns on systematic torture, deaths of prisoners in custody, unfair trials, arrests of prisoners of conscience for their political and religious beliefs, or for their sexual orientation, wide use of administrative detention and long-term detention without trial and use of the death penalty.”

Amnesty adds that online bloggers have alerted the world to Egypt’s human rights abuses, but that the Mubarak government is responding by arresting prominent bloggers. The group says it’s also worried “that the war on terror is hindering human rights in Egypt. The country has been in a state of emergency since 1981, and despite minor reforms, state of emergency legislation continues to give the government significant powers to use special courts, detain political prisoners and limit speech.”

Shoukry calmly defended Mubarak’s track record, downplaying Amnesty’s accusations of abuse and insisting that “Egypt has achieved a very high level of democracy” under the current government.

“We have a vibrant parliament which is freely elected. The ruling party forms the majority in Egypt, but that’s the case everywhere,” he says. “There are sufficient independent and opposition voices to guarantee pluralism. In general, elections are free, though there might be some discrepancies here and there.”

Yet because presidential elections in Egypt are single-candidate referendums, no one can really vote against Mubarak. Nor can Egyptians freely discuss the subject of succession — at least not on the record.

Nearly everyone assumes that when Mubarak dies, he’ll be replaced by Gamal Mubarak, the president’s younger son and a powerful force in the ruling National Democratic Party. But even hinting about Mubarak’s physical end is dangerous — the country’s top religious official recently issued a religious edict saying that journalists who spread rumors about Mubarak’s health should receive 80 lashes.

The Washington Diplomat, operating under no such limitations, asked Shoukry point-blank what will happen when Egypt’s leader dies. The ambassador had an official answer at the ready: “We will have a new president who will be selected from within the institutions that the constitution has defined to undertake this process.”

Meanwhile, he insists, anybody in Egypt is free to say whatever he or she wishes — in print, on TV and via the Internet. “There’s such a variety of independent media now available in Egypt — see the degree of openness and criticism we have,” says Shoukry, whose country last year led a successful initiative at the U.N. Human Rights Commission to suppress criticism of Islam, on the grounds that such speech defames the Arab world’s dominant religion.

“Editors are not under any form of detention or intimidation. Every day, tons of journalists express their critical views of the government, and at the highest levels, even the president and his family,” says Shoukry.

“But there’s always room for improvement,” he adds, “as there is room for improvement in the nature of their criticism.”

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