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New Envoy Says Egypt Has Turned Page on Dictatorship
The Washington Diplomat / November 2012

By Larry Luxner

In Mohamed M. Tawfik’s crime thriller “Murder in the Tower of Happiness,” the strangled body of a beautiful young actress named Ahlam is found in the elevator of a luxury high-rise apartment building overlooking the Nile River. Yet for the book’s hero, Sergeant Ashmouni, solving Cairo’s latest gruesome killing without a single witness or trace of blood to guide him is relatively easy compared to the enormous challenges facing author Tawfik in his real-life job as Egypt’s new ambassador to the United States.

In a 90-minute interview last month, Tawfik — a modest career diplomat who studied civil engineering and then international law before joining the foreign service — didn’t even mention the fact that he’s written two novels and three volumes of short stories in Arabic (we had to Google him to find out). Or that he translated this satirical thriller into English himself, recently suggesting to an Egyptian journalist that “Murder in the Tower of Happiness” can be read as a whodunit, a ghost story, a political parody or a spiritual work — and that he didn’t want any of it to get lost in translation.

“Most people waste most of their lives in completely mundane activities and are only compensated for that by a nagging sense of boredom,” Tawfik told Lisa Kaaki, Cairo correspondent for the Saudi-based Arab News website. “My diplomatic life has afforded me a scope of experience that is beyond what most writers can hope for. On the other hand, my literary background gives strong cultural depth to my diplomatic activities. This can be very effective in carrying through Egypt’s message.”

Tawfik, 56, occupies a unique place in Egyptian diplomatic history as his country’s first new ambassador in Washington since the Arab Spring revolution that toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak and replaced him with Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Along with eight other ambassadors, Tawfik presented his credentials to President Obama in a Sept. 19 ceremony at the White House. His predecessor, Sameh Shoukry — who appeared on the cover of The Washington Diplomat twice during his four years in Washington — has since retired.

“We’re completely different people, serving at completely different times,” said Tawfik, interviewed at the ornate Egyptian Residence fronting Sheridan Circle on Massachusetts Avenue. “I’m the first ambassador to serve here after the revolution. Therefore, I come energized by the revolution, so I have a different outlook on things. I’m sure Ambassador Shoukry did his best.”

This isn’t Tawfik’s first assignment in Washington; from 1986 to 1990, he was posted here as a junior officer. It was during that time when he first met Mubarak — a frequent visitor to the United States. He only saw the former president on two later occasions, once in Zimbabwe and another time in Geneva.

The idea that the Arab world’s most populous country would one day be ruled by a man Mubarak had thrown in prison was unthinkable for millions of Egyptians, though Tawfik said he had long felt the Mubarak regime’s days were numbered.

“In the last two years before the revolution, my job at the Foreign Ministry was not a political job. I was, in a sense, glad for that,” he said. “Certainly I took the side of the revolution, within the limits of what was proper for a diplomat. And I think the vast majority of Egyptians supported the revolution.”

He added: “It was inevitable that Hosni Mubarak would step down. What was unexpected was the degree of coherence between different strata of Egyptian society. It was not just a revolution of those who were suffering, but also rich people, very well-educated people with fantastic jobs and a good lifestyle, people who had decided that the time for change had come.”

Tawfik happened to be in Ireland the day the anti-Mubarak uprising began in Tahrir Square in January 2011.

“I was able to get back to Cairo as it was going on, which allowed me to witness it firsthand,” he recalled. “The situation in Egypt has been stagnating for a very long time. Problems that Egyptians face in their everyday lives have not been addressed. Issues of democracy and human rights were not respected, and it was, I think, a natural outcome that you’d have revolution.”

He argues that Mubarak — now 84 and serving a life sentence at a Cairo prison — would have been overthrown even without the massive street protests that erupted nearly two years ago in Tunisia, ultimately bringing down President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and sparking turmoil across the entire Arab world, where economic decay and political repression have led to legions of frustrated citizens.

“All these regimes were promising reforms, and people were hoping they’d fulfill their promises. When it became clear that was not going to happen, they revolted,” said Tawfik. “Within a year, a revolution would have taken place in Egypt in any case. It may be that [events] in Tunisia made it happen sooner rather than later, but it was inevitable that the Mubarak regime was coming to an end.”

Tawfik talks with an air of confidence that the uprising was all but inevitable — the insights, perhaps, of an erudite diplomat who served as ambassador to Lebanon before coming to Washington, as well as postings in Australia, Geneva and Harare. Yet while Tawfik’s novels are well known in Egypt, the blogosphere has little to say about Tawfik the diplomat.

Cairo’s new man in Washington is for the most part an unknown entity — much like the enigmatic government he represents. Neither an ally nor an enemy — that’s how President Obama has described the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamic group that under the Mubarak regime was outlawed and whose members, including Morsi, were regularly thrown in prison.

Morsi narrowly won the June 24 presidential election with 51 percent of the 26 million votes cast; Ahmed Shafik, the final prime minister under the Mubarak regime, won 47 percent. Morsi himself, an American-trained engineer, was the Muslim Brotherhood’s second pick after the courts disqualified its leading candidate, Khairat el-Shater.

The close result exposed the deep divisions that still fester among religious conservatives (and ultraconservatives like the Salafis), the secular democracy activists who first flooded Tahrir Square, and defenders of the old guard. The vote nevertheless made history by ushering in the first Islamist ever elected to be head of an Arab state, making Egypt the testing ground for whether Islam and modern democracy will clash or coexist.

Tawfik insists there’s no reason to fear the Muslim Brotherhood, precisely because the group will be constrained by the very system that brought it to power.

“I don’t think Americans should be concerned about different political parties in Egypt. What’s more important is our democratic evolution. In a democracy, nobody stays in power forever. Democratic principles are what really count. Personally, I don’t see anything to fear about the Muslim Brotherhood. They’re a group of Egyptians, just like any other group. The current president belonged to the Brotherhood, but the first thing he did after his inauguration was make very clear that he is president of all Egyptians.”

In his emotional victory speech, Morsi told the crowd, “I have no rights, only responsibilities. If I do not deliver, do not obey me.” He also reached out to Egypt’s army, police and intelligence services, thanking them for their support and promising to preserve the country’s armed forces.

“The military played a very useful role in Egypt when the Mubarak regime fell,” Tawfik observed. “There was no other option but for the military to take matters into their control. They promised they’d be there for a limited period of time, that they would hold parliamentary elections and then presidential elections. They adhered to that scrupulously. Until the last moment, we weren’t quite sure who was going to win. But in the end, the democratic process succeeded, and everybody accepted the outcome.”

Since Morsi’s initial outreach, however, Egypt’s first-ever civilian president has shrewdly begun to sideline the military, which has long dominated Egyptian national security and foreign policy. In August, he forced the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the country’s defense minister, along with other senior generals in a bid to consolidate influence. At the same time, he reinstated the Islamist-dominated Parliament, which had been disbanded in a maneuver many say was engineered by the military. Morsi has also sought to elevate his stature as a regional player, reaching out to countries such as Turkey and Iran to resolve the crisis in Syria.

At the same time, he’s worked to allay fears of an Islamist takeover, appointing technocrats to his Cabinet and sidestepping conservative touchstone issues such as alcohol and headscarves, for example. But Morsi is also clearly exerting the Brotherhood’s authority to shape the country’s nascent democratic institutions (notably the drafting of the new constitution) — authority he says was granted to him by Egypt’s voters.

Tawfik himself hasn’t returned to the country since becoming ambassador, though he does speak with the Foreign Ministry every day. “Whatever is expected of me changed hour by hour, minute by minute. It’s a constant give and take.”

Asked how well he knows Egypt’s 60-year-old leader, the ambassador responded that he’s “had a few conversations with him” and has met Morsi on a number of occasions. “I found him to be a serious, dedicated man who has the best interests of Egypt at heart.”

But precisely because he may have Egypt’s interests at heart — not America’s — Morsi’s hands are tied when it comes to relations with Washington, argues Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Americans consistently fail to recognize that Arabs have their own politics and have the ability to calculate their own interests independently of what Washington demands. As a result, whenever a crisis erupts that presents Egyptian leaders with a choice of kowtowing to Washington or protecting their political position at home, domestic politics will win virtually every time.”

In fact, says Cook, “there continues to be an odd cognitive dissonance affecting much of Washington when it comes to Egypt: There is recognition of the major changes that have occurred since February 2011, but there is a desire to do business pretty much as usual. The problem is that business pretty much as usual was based on a deal with authoritarians who agreed to carry Washington’s water in exchange for political support, diplomatic recognition and aid.”

On that note, the ambassador says it’s important to consider that the Mubarak regime lasted for 30 years partly because it was propped up with massive American aid. As the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world (after Israel), Egypt receives roughly $1.5 billion a year from American taxpayers, the bulk of which goes to the military.

“You have to remember that the U.S. supported dictators all around the world for a very long time, so you can’t expect people to sympathize with the United States,” the ambassador pointed out. “However, there’s been a shift in U.S. attitudes toward opening up to the Arab people. That probably started with Obama’s speech. I will do my best to make it change even more.”

Tawfik, in fact, calls Obama’s 2009 “New Beginning” speech to the Muslim world, delivered from the reception hall at Cairo University, a turning point, although the president’s critics said it was another example of his soaring but ultimately empty rhetoric.

“The president’s speech was fantastic. It was the best thing to come out from the United States to the Arab world in a long time. It made a very profound impact. The message was well received in Egypt,” Tawfik countered. “However, it’s important to follow these very good words with deeds.”

The Obama administration had in fact been tentatively reaching out the Islamists who now control the linchpin Arab country, offering economic and political advice and aid. Roger Cohen of the New York Times says the U.S. really has no choice but to engage not only the Brotherhood but the more hard-line Salafis, noting the theory that, “Every Salafi in Parliament is one less potential jihadist.”

“What is the alternative to supporting Morsi and the Brotherhood and urging them to be inclusive in the new Egypt? Well, the United States could cut them off and hope they fail — but I can think of no surer way to guarantee radicalization and aggravate the very tendencies the West wants to avoid as a poverty-stricken Egypt goes into an economic tailspin. The same would be true of any attempt to install the armed forces again, with the difference that there would also be bloodshed,” he argued in the Oct. 22 op-ed “Working With the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The United States tried Middle Eastern repression in the name of stability for decades: What it got was terrorism-breeding societies of frustrated Arabs under tyrants,” he added. “The Brotherhood narrowly won a free and fair election. If they fail, throw them out next time. That’s democracy.”

But the tepid rapprochement is being threatened by the violent anti-U.S. demonstrations that erupted across the Muslim world in September after the appearance of a YouTube video trashing the prophet Muhammad. The 14-minute video — a trailer for a movie that may not even exist — was made by an Egyptian Christian who was later arrested in California for violating terms of his probation.

In Cairo, hundreds of angry protesters throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails were tear-gassed by police after they tried to storm the U.S. Embassy, some of them screaming, “With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, Prophet Muhammad!”

Morsi, in his first crisis since been sworn in only two and half months before, ordered police to arrest protesters and safeguard embassies only after receiving an angry phone call from Obama warning that U.S. relations with Egypt hinged on Morsi’s response.

Morsi quickly issued a statement denouncing the embassy attack, though he dismissed criticism that he waited 24 hours to do so (and early on had even called for more protests). At the U.N. General Assembly in September, he was also adamant that free speech can never come at the expense of insulting Islam.

Morsi has said his government is not an enemy of the West, but he’s also said that the old way of doing things — whereby “successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region” — will no longer fly.

While such tough rhetoric may please his hard-line constituency, it also puts him in a bind. He desperately needs investment and aid to revive Egypt’s ailing economy, which faces an estimated budget shortfall of $12 billion. The United States is critical to securing a $4.8 billion loan being negotiated with the International Monetary Fund.

Separately, the Obama administration has offered the government a $450 million emergency infusion of cash, part of a $1 billion assistance package, mostly in the form of debt relief. But Congress blocked the move in the wake of Morsi’s unapologetic reaction to the embassy protests and general leeriness toward the Brotherhood’s true intentions.

Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, told NPR that Morsi isn’t going to be able to have the best of both worlds, appeasing Islamists while winning over Washington.

“President Morsi and the Brotherhood are doing a very difficult dance. They’re trying to appeal to two completely different audiences who want to hear two completely different things. They have ultraconservative Salafis who don’t like the U.S., who want to defy Washington, and who are asking Morsi to take a stand against this film. Egypt is becoming more democratic. That means that Morsi has to worry about popular sentiment,” Hamid said.

“And the other audience there is obviously the U.S. and the international community, which want to hear something very different from Morsi. And this is why anti-Americanism is a problem, because it constrains what elected leaders can do. And this is the new Middle East we’re talking about. We can no longer rely on elected leaders to do exactly what the U.S. wants them to do.”

Tawfik, however, played down the anti-American protests, noting that the number of demonstrators at the U.S. Embassy was “in the hundreds” — which by Egyptian standards is very small.

“On a normal Friday, you have half a million people in Tahrir Square,” he said. Though that number may be an exaggeration, protesters still routinely swarm the iconic square. The most recent protest in mid-October, pitting Morsi supporters against secular opponents, turned violent and injured more than 100 — a sign of how the struggle to define Egypt’s identity continues to play out every day.

But the anti-Islamic video clearly touched a unifying nerve in the Arab world. “There is no doubt that the Egyptian people as a whole, including Muslims and Christians, were offended by the video. And the U.S. is not responsible for the video,” Tawfik said.

But who made the YouTube video isn’t even the point, he argues.

“The issue is that we need to respect each other’s beliefs and learn how to accept each other,” the ambassador told The Diplomat. “I don’t think cultural diversity is a bad thing; it’s why we have a very rich human civilization. But as the world gets closer through developments in communications, we have to be able to deal with each other’s sensitivities,” he added, sidestepping the larger issue of how to accommodate those “sensitivities” without infringing on freedom of speech.

Nor did he comment on whether the obscure, crudely made video justified the level of violence it provoked, though he did say: “You cannot judge Islam as a religion or as a culture based on the actions of a few people. If we were to judge Christianity through the actions of a few Christians, or Judaism through the actions of a few Jews, we’d basically misjudge the whole thing. The principles of Islam are basically those of all religions.”

Tawfik, a Muslim, also doesn’t like to use the term “minority” to describe Egypt’s Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of his country’s 83 million inhabitants.

“Egyptians — Muslims, Christians and Jews — have lived in this country for thousands of years, and we have traditionally not had differences of any kind. I do not believe that Egyptian Christians were in danger at any time in the past, or that they will be in the future.”

He also denies that violent attacks against Egyptian Christians are becoming more frequent.

“Over the past few years, we have had conflicts that weren’t related to religion, that suddenly took the appearance of conflicts between Muslims and Christians,” he said. “But if you look deeply, you’ll find these were really problems dealing with the rule of law. You have individuals quarreling, and suddenly things get out of proportion. But with democracy, such problems will become less and less.”

He does admit, though, that the West misunderstands Islam and vice versa.

“We would like to see a more active American role in achieving peace in the Middle East,” Tawfik told us. “But generally speaking, many of the perceived problems between our two cultures come out of ignorance, and it’s important to educate both peoples. I don’t feel there’s a fundamental problem between the United States and the Islamic world. However, there are practical issues and perception issues that need to be dealt with.”

Tawfik’s main objective, as he sees it, is to “widen the scope of the bilateral relationship” beyond governments to include the Egyptian and American peoples.

“Government-to-government is no longer enough,” he said. “We must explain to the people in both countries that these relations are vital for their own interests. Here in America, I need to explain to ordinary people that democracy in Egypt matters — for the U.S. economy, for the world economy, and for stability and security everywhere.”

Yet democracy can sometimes conflict with stability and security and is a double-edged sword for its Western proponents, empowering new governments that better represent popular opinion — even if that opinion is decidedly against Western values. Perhaps nowhere is this dissonance more evident than Egypt’s troubled relationship with Israel. Mubarak maintained a chilly peace with the Jewish state, one that was detested by his people. Now, Israel waits to see if the landmark peace treaty that has underpinned security in the region but is deeply unpopular among Egyptians will fray under the Muslim Brotherhood.

Like his predecessor Shoukry, Tawfik said the treaty — enshrined in the 1978 Camp David accords — is not a matter of debate.

“Our peace treaty with Israel is a fact, and it’s been there for a number of years,” he said, insisting that there’s been no request by either side to renegotiate the treaty, despite campaign threats by Morsi that he would do just that if elected. “Currently, we have a treaty that works and is respected by all parties.”

Still, Israeli-Egyptian tensions have been heightened in recent months by a series of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists that have blown up pipelines and killed soldiers of both countries. The worst clash took place Aug. 5, when gunmen ambushed an Egyptian checkpoint in the Sinai Peninsula, commandeered Egyptian armored vehicles, and crashed the border crossing.

Despite the volatility, “I wouldn’t say there’s a state of anarchy in Sinai. We do have some problems in the uninhabited part of Sinai, and we are taking care of this,” Tawfik says. “The Sinai is part of Egypt, and Egypt’s role is to enforce the law. Basically, what you have is a flow of illegal immigration — people looking for better opportunities — and Israel is a rich country. These people are transported by criminal gangs; they can’t do it on their own.”

Tawfik hasn’t yet met his Israeli counterpart in Washington, Michael Oren. But no conclusions should be drawn from that, because he hasn’t had time to meet the PLO representative here, Maen Areikat, either.

Noting Egypt’s efforts to mediate a reconciliation between the PLO’s Fatah party and Hamas — which rules the restive, overcrowded Gaza Strip and is ideologically linked to the Brotherhood — the ambassador said, “We are committed to a just and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem. On the other hand, we’re trying to unify the Palestinians. We feel that whenever the Palestinians are divided, it does not serve their interests in any way.”

But Egypt is now more embroiled in a more urgent Middle East crisis: the ongoing civil war in Syria, which has taken an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 lives.

While his government “is not in a position to supply” weapons or financial help to the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, Tawfik said, “We’re giving as much support as we can to the Syrian people. We have about 100,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt and we’ve opened our universities to them, free of any tuition fees. We’re actively trying to unify the Syrian opposition so that they’ll have a more coherent political approach.

“We feel the Syrian people deserve democracy just as much as the Egyptian people,” he added. “We cannot support a regime that is killing its own people. We feel we should support the cause of democracy in Syria, as a matter of principle.”

Despite Egypt’s historic gains, the long shadow of dictatorship and corruption under Mubarak won’t soon be forgotten, says Tawfik.

“Obviously, power corrupts, and staying in power for a long time definitely took its toll on the regime and the whole country,” he said. “The country’s economy was growing, but for the benefit of a small minority. The majority of Egyptians were not feeling the benefits of this growth, and the major problems facing Egypt were not being addressed.”

Even so, the country wasn’t that corrupt, he adds.

“The Arab world is a very diverse place, and if I were to compare corruption in Egypt with countries of a similar population and GDP, Egypt would not fare that badly. But the difference is that Egyptians have very high expectations of themselves. They belong to one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known, so they’re not satisfied with situations that may be OK for others.”

To that end, besides promoting Egypt’s image in the United States as an emerging democracy, Tawfik’s job is also to push tourism and foreign investment in his country. Tourism understandably plunged in the wake of the Tahrir Square protests, though the numbers are gradually rebounding. And despite the country’s poverty, Egypt’s growing population provides a potentially enormous market for U.S. products.

“Millions of people are visiting Egypt as we speak, and they’re having a great time,” Tawfik said. “Investors also find very good opportunities in Egypt today. The business environment is serious. Just a few weeks ago, we had a very large delegation with 50 major U.S. companies visit Egypt, and they came back impressed with what they saw.”

Yet Egypt also hosted a U.S. business delegation at the height of the anti-American video protests on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — its government courting American dollars while its people trashed the U.S. Embassy.

And in Cairo, as the ancient Pyramids at Giza keep a watchful eye over the bustling, traffic-clogged capital, what they see is history being written, though no one knows what the next chapter holds. Yet one thing’s for sure — the modern pharaoh is gone, Tawfik says, and there’s no turning back now.

Egypt, at least, will never again be a dictatorship, he vowed, despite the ongoing protests by liberals, leftists and revolutionaries in Tahrir Square that now target Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood instead of Mubarak.

“If you had been in Tahrir Square during those 18 days, you would have no doubt that the Egyptian people risked everything for democracy — and they will not accept anything short of true democracy,” Tawfik said. “I think that’s the best guarantee.”

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