Foreign Minister Sameh Shokri speaks out about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and Cairo’s relations with Ethiopia and the Gulf States.
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—As Israel continued its barrage against the Gaza Strip this week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shokri reiterated Cairo’s commitment to securing an immediate ceasefire to safeguard Palestinian civilians, citing Egypt’s “historical responsibility” towards the Palestinian people.
As the conflict there entered its 14th day, Shokri stressed that Egypt would not stand idly by while Palestinians are killed in the Gaza Strip. Sunday witnessed the bloodiest day in the two-week conflict between Israel and Hamas, with more than 100 Palestinians killed, mostly civilians.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Shokri detailed Egypt’s foreign policy towards a number of regional crises, not least the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the Syrian crisis. The Egyptian foreign minister also spoke about Cairo’s relations with Ethiopia, the Gulf states and Washington.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire in Gaza has come at a critical stage. Was this move spontaneous, or was it preceded by contact with the concerned parties, specifically Israel and the Palestinian factions? What are the most prominent elements of this initiative?
Sameh Shokri: First, let me make clear that Egypt bears a historical responsibility toward the Palestinian people. As you know, Egypt has done and continues to do much for the Palestinian cause, in the firm belief that the Palestinian people have the right to establish a sovereign, independent state along the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital. The Egyptian initiative, with that in mind, is an expression of our confidence in the importance of the work to stop the suffering of the Palestinian people under attack in the Gaza Strip. Egypt cannot stand idly by while the number of casualties and injuries increases. Our move was motivated to quickly stop the attacks in order to secure the safety of the Palestinian people, first and foremost, and also to alleviate their suffering and preserve their dignity and right to live in safety.
It is a comprehensive initiative that goes well beyond the call for an immediate ceasefire, despite its great importance, and includes other elements such as timing and methods of implementation. It demands an end to all hostilities, the prevention of any ground invasion, and that civilians not be targeted. It further calls for a solution to opening borders and the facilitation of the movement of people and goods through the border crossings.
Q: What are the chances this initiative will succeed?
The chances of its success depend on the ability to implement it on the ground, especially with regard to an immediate ceasefire. This is contingent primarily on whether the concerned parties accept this proposal and cooperate, but it also depends on the extent to which they are prepared to accept responsibility for the continuation of military operations which are killing innocent people in the Gaza Strip.
Allow me to take a moment here to say that the Egyptian initiative is not, as you think, spontaneous or merely a reaction that doesn’t take into account the dimensions of the crisis and surrounding circumstances. Rather, it is a natural result of Egypt’s comprehensive efforts, based on a deep understanding of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. It is not an exaggeration to say that we were expecting an escalation in tension, especially during the recent period of worsening attacks by Israel. This led Egypt more than once to caution all parties against the impasse that has damaged efforts to achieve peace, given the noticeable increase in tension between Palestine and Israel.
The purpose of our efforts is to address the real causes of the current crisis and to reach a just and comprehensive solution to end the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. This can be achieved through serious negotiations conducted in accordance with a specified timetable and on the basis of agreed terms and international principles.
Q: How do you view the reactions to this initiative from Arab states and the international community? What did the foreign ministers discuss behind the scenes at the emergency Arab League meeting on July 14?
Overall, Arab states and the international community have welcomed the initiative. Arab states expressed their appreciation for it and committed their support. This support was made evident when the ministers decided to confirm their full support for the ceasefire initiative and demand that all parties announce their acceptance and commitment to its terms at the Arab League’s emergency meeting. The Arab League also thanked Egypt for its efforts to stop Israel’s aggressive escalations and to deal with the repercussions of the attacks on Gaza.
At the international level, I have received phone calls from a number of foreign ministers in support of our efforts, including from the United States, France, Germany, Greece, Canada and Australia, in addition to a visit from Middle East Quartet Special Envoy Tony Blair.
Q: Can you comment on Egyptian relations with the Gulf states more generally?
Egypt’s relations with the Gulf states have been historically close, and they have strengthened over the years. Egypt is primarily concerned with the safety and security of the Gulf states and would not allow any acts against them, because they are also a part of our national security in Egypt. Our relations with the Gulf are political, economic, commercial, cultural, and so on, and each field is continuously witnessing significant development. There is also a high degree of mutual coordination in order to realize security and stability in the region, particularly given the challenges facing the Arab region at this time. I do not need to reiterate that we appreciate the fact that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain stood with Egypt; their support embodies the spirit of Arab solidarity. This is a solidarity we have called for and which has inspired prominent [national] models in the history of the Arab nation.
Q: How have Cairo’s relations with the Syria regime and opposition changed? What is your view of the recent developments in Syria?
There is general consensus that there can be no military solution to the crisis in Syria and that a political solution is the only option. Despite this, the political solutions previously proposed have not worked, and that includes the Geneva talks. This has led to the continuation of the military conflict on the ground, where every armed party hopes that the conflict will be resolved through a military solution, which we see as unlikely.
There are some in the moderate opposition forces that are willing to reach a political solution, if that solution means moving toward a new stage of Syrian governance that realizes the aspirations of the Syrian people for a democratic state governed by neither sectarianism nor extremism. This is the proposal backed by Egypt, and we will work to bolster it. We have worked with the opposition forces to see their visions materialize and to unify their position. We will continue to communicate with the Syrian National Coalition, which we have welcomed in Egypt and which has a branch in Cairo. We are also in communication with other opposition parties and continue to push for a peaceful solution in coordination with Arab states, regional powers and international forces, led by Russia and the United States.
Q: What can you tell us about the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project? Has Cairo made any progress with Addis Ababa over resolving the outstanding issues related to Nile water rights?
We feel that the recent developments in this case are the result of concerted efforts made by Egyptian diplomacy. Thanks to these efforts, many concerned parties and international financial institutions have changed their position on the dam. This happened after we explained the legitimacy of Egypt’s concerns. Some of the Nile Basin countries have also changed their positions to take into account Egypt’s situation regarding the Nile, given that it is a desert country with enormous population density and no other source of water.
The most significant development came recently, during a meeting between the Egyptian president and the Ethiopian prime minister in Malabo. There, both countries highlighted that they have a serious desire to strengthen and develop bilateral relations, and Ethiopia showed clear commitment not to harm Egypt’s water interests. A joint statement was issued in order to express these understandings. That meeting has now inaugurated a new stage where the leaders of these two countries look to establish a relation of cooperation and mutual understanding through a commitment to the principles of mutual respect, good neighborliness, respect for international law, and the achievement of mutual profit. This new stage is also founded upon an agreement to immediately start preparations for the Joint Bilateral Commission over the next three months. It is further built on the understanding that the Nile River is an essential resource for the livelihood of the Egyptian people while also recognizing the needs of the Ethiopian people for development. The importance of dialogue and avoiding harming one another was also reiterated. Ethiopia also announced that it welcomes a tripartite dialogue with Sudan to reach an agreement on the dam.
I would also like to point out the important meeting held between the Egyptian president and the Tanzanian president that addressed the Tanzanian proposal to reactivate dialogue between the Nile Basin countries in order to find common ground and move beyond points of contention in the framework agreement for the Nile Basin Initiative. Egypt appreciates this effort and is currently considering it [the Tanzanian proposal]. Finally, I would like to reiterate that the issue of water security is the responsibility of various state agencies, not only the Foreign Ministry, given that it is a security issue and we cannot be complacent in dealing with it.
Q: Can you tell us about developments concerning Egyptian ties with the United States?
In general, Egypt’s ties with the United States represent a strategic relationship with a long history, through which both sides work to achieve their common interests. Both parties understand the importance of this relationship, although our views differ on a number of issues. The US administration is well aware that Egypt will no longer allow it to interfere in our affairs or accept any conditions on our interactions. This relationship must continue on the principles of equality in dealing with one another, security of our common interests, non-interference in domestic affairs, and mutual respect.