A More Assertive Arab Foreign Policy

Former Ambassador to the United States Nabil Fahmy believes that a democratic Egypt will not abandon its strategic commitment to peace but will pursue a more pro-active approach in international relations

CAIRO REVIEW: How did you get involved as one of the “wise men”?

NABIL FAHMY: January 25 was a holiday, Police Day. I live close to Tahrir Square and was very curious to see whether the announced demonstration was going to actually develop. It turned out to be even larger than expected even by the youth organizers of the event. So that was sort of the first surprise. The large presence of the police also tended to heighten the tension on both sides. This was a very strange beginning.

CAIRO REVIEW: What did you encounter?

NABIL FAHMY: Against all odds, it remained peaceful from the side of the demonstrators. Whether they were faced by violence or not, they did not take the initiative of using violence. They only defended themselves in certain circumstances. To have this size of a demonstration is not normal for Cairo. You normally have economic and social topics being the genesis of the demonstrations of much smaller size. I have young children and the youth were the voice behind the protests, so as a father I had an eye on what is happening here. That was really my first reckoning of how serious these kids were.

CAIRO REVIEW: What happened?

NABIL FAHMY: My son came in with eight or nine of his friends who were demonstrating after the curfew was announced. They came to have a meal. Because I was a father, I said, “Okay, why don’t you all sleep over.” They said, “Why?” I said, “Because there is a curfew.” They said, “Who decides there’s a curfew? We own the country.” That kind of statement could be taken as naïve. For me, it was an indication that they wanted to own the country. This was a commitment they were making. It wasn’t a passing comment that was made rhetorically. Within an hour, they were all back on the street demonstrating again. Was a societal change being made here, led by the youth? That was really the beginning of my personal involvement in it. I wanted to see how this was going, and to make sure that rational minds remained the ultimate deciding factor. I also felt that these kids actually needed to find fulfillment and satisfaction in their aspirations. Otherwise we were going to have a generation that was going to be tremendously disappointed.

CAIRO REVIEW: That was a personal turning point?

NABIL FAHMY: The second turning point, on a personal level, was the day when the hooligans went into Tahrir Square on horses and camels and had a pitched battle that was broadcast on television. Watching peaceful demonstrators battle hooligans for twelve hours with no one intervening, for me, was just simply a shock. At that point, I thought, “How could we, as a generation with this set of values, hand over a country to the younger generation?” That’s really the moment I decided that I cannot remain just a passive supporter of the objectives of the demonstrators.

CAIRO REVIEW: So how did you become involved with the “wise men”?

NABIL FAHMY: On that same day, coincidentally, a group of independent public figures, from different walks of life, some lawyers, some engineers, architects, former diplomats, and businessmen, released a statement that essentially called for the president to hand over power to his vice president. He could remain in office as a titular president for the remainder of his tenure, provided that he handed over power, and a number of other steps were taken: dissolving the parliament and Shura Council, establishing a transitional committee for changing the government, changing the leadership of the majority party, ending the state of emergency. So they set forward a seven-point plan, to start the process of ending the Mubarak rule in a dignified fashion. Not only ending it, but beginning the rebuilding of Egypt constitutionally, legally and politically. That evening, I contacted them and said I had been informed of the statement and, if they wanted my support, I would join. They did, and consequently a group of about twelve was established and became the signatories of what others called the “Wise Men Group.” It was an informal, independent group. No one had any party affiliations of whatever sort, in the former majority party or any of the minority parties. We were not all men, in spite of the name. There were women in the group.

CAIRO REVIEW: What did the group’s work entail?

NABIL FAHMY: The group mandated two of our members to go and meet the vice president [Omar Suleiman], and convey to him the proposals. He listened attentively, but his response on the issue of the president mandating authority to the vice president was that this was a non-starter. Then he discussed the other suggestions, regarding the parliament and constitution, and said he would look into those, although he did get into an explanation of why these things could not happen quickly. We then went to meet the prime minister [Ahmed Shafiq], who basically said the same thing. After that, we were very careful to continue to support the demonstrators, and to continue to look for solutions. We were not trying to find a compromise between the two sides. We were trying to actually help build the new Egypt, but do it in a fashion where the demonstrators came out with results rather than simply lost.

CAIRO REVIEW: What was the group’s relationship with the protesters?

NABIL FAHMY: We started to meet with the representatives of the demonstrators. They had many representatives, but nobody really mandated to speak on their behalf. There were at least five different groups. They all came speaking for their own group and it was interesting because you had the groups like the Muslim Brotherhood youth, not the elders, but the youth movement, which are of course religious in inclination, and secularists also there.

CAIRO REVIEW: What did they tell you?

NABIL FAHMY: They were unified in their demands for what had to happen now, and committed to working together, in spite of their different opinions about how to build Egypt in the future. They said that openly: “No, we don’t necessarily agree on what Egypt should look like, but what is required now is the president leaves, and then [implement] all of the other six points that we had made.” They asked us to convey these opinions to the government, but not to negotiate on their behalf, which was fine with us. Since they weren’t mandated, we didn’t feel comfortable getting a mandate from those who were not mandated. These were extremely insightful and enlightening to us, youth from different walks of life. Some were affluent, some were less affluent. The majority was from Egyptian public universities. Some had gone to university abroad, but not that many. They were all extremely well educated politically, and they knew exactly what they wanted. They wanted a new system, they wanted a new way of governance, and then they had specific targets in the short term. For example, the president had to leave. Then you would address all the constitutional and legal issues, but without the top target, they would not move. Our approach was a bit different, in terms of the first target, but they at least respected our integrity, and believed we would convey their message as told to us.

CAIRO REVIEW: What happened next?

NABIL FAHMY: At the same time, the vice president was meeting with a larger group of opposition leaders that he chose. It did not include anyone from our group, except businessmen. So there were many different processes going on here. What was very amusing and interesting was that the vice president was essentially meeting the “political parties plus” but the political parties had no influence whatsoever in Tahrir Square, in the demonstrations. He should have been meeting “demonstrators plus some of the parties,” rather than meeting the parties plus some of the demonstrators. That in many ways reflected the lack of sensitivity to what had actually happened. One of the demonstrators we had met at the end of our meetings had mentioned, “Oh, the vice president is meeting opposition leaders from the parties and people he has chosen. They are trying to control the agenda. We will.”

CAIRO REVIEW: And they did?

NABIL FAHMY: And they did. They increased the pressure in different parts of Egypt systematically in the next few days. In all candor, they were strengthened and supported by mishandling on the government side at every point in time. If you look at the sequence of the president’s speeches, substance-wise he actually gave quite a lot even before he resigned. But it was done piecemeal, always late, and always in a form that made it very difficult to accept, and very easy for those who did not want to accept it to say, “You shouldn’t believe this.” As I mentioned, [the regime] rejected our proposal for the president to hand over power to the vice president. He finally announced he would accept that proposal fourteen days later, the day before he resigned. At that point, you couldn’t even convey that to the other side. It was dead on delivery at that point.

“Because I was a father, I said, “Okay, why don’t you all sleep over.” They said, “Why?” I said, “Because there is a curfew.” They said, “Who decides there’s a curfew? We own the country.”

CAIRO REVIEW: Is there anything President Mubarak could have done?

NABIL FAHMY: There is the issue of when the President announced that he would not run for office again and that he would not leave Egypt, he wanted to die in Egypt. Egyptians are emotional. Egyptian society was actually divided on this, not the demonstrators, but the society. Many people said, “Well, this is a respectful way out. Why don’t we accept?” President Mubarak for his first ten to fifteen years had a very good record as president. Most of the criticisms and arguments came in the second half of his tenure. The president made the speech at night. The next day, by about two o’clock, you had the hooligans going into Tahrir Square with the camels and horses. To have the violence go on for twelve hours on live television. It turned the most passive Egyptian against the system and in support of the demonstrators. That killed the president’s offer that he would not run again and he wanted to die in Egypt. That killed all of the emotional support that he could have gotten from the public. It was those supporters of the majority party that organized, financed, and encouraged the hooligans to go in to Tahrir Square, and those that remained passive allowing these battles to go on for twleve hours, who turned the tide in terms of the political support of society for the demonstrators. There was no return from there on. There simply was no return.

CAIRO REVIEW: Where did that put the wise men group?

NABIL FAHMY: We went down to Tahrir Square the day afterwards. It took us forty-five minutes to cross the square because of the crowds and we received a tremendously warm welcome, but very loud chants: “He leaves! He leaves! He leaves! He leaves!” One was touched by this. On the one hand, they were open to dialogue with people who were looking for a way out and not necessarily completely responsive in the short term to their emotional desires. They welcomed us very well, but they were sending us a strong message: “He leaves.” None of us going into the square that day, after the violence, was ready to ask for less.

CAIRO REVIEW: That was a turning point for Egypt.

NABIL FAHMY: Another turning point is ironic, but anybody who understands Egypt should recognize this. The minute the army went down in the streets, the government lost control. Let me rephrase that: the minute the army hit the street, it was clear that the demonstrators had won, because the Egyptian army does not shoot at Egyptian civilians. It has never done it, and its code of honor is that it will not. They are now between you and the people. If the choice is put to them, “You have to make a choice,” they’ve already announced that they will go with the people. That’s always been their position, so rather than be a source of stability and strength for the government, it actually was a source of stability and strength for the demonstrators. So you had the army, and the chant of “we and the army are one” from the demonstrators. This was confirmed in all the public statements from the army. There was not a single reference to the president in the first statement, not a single reference to the government. It was always the army and the people and that’s a continuous message. Then the army issued a statement, “We as an army high commission have met and we are in constant session.” For analysts of army statements, that means, “We are watching. We are no longer a passive participant here. We are watching as an active participant.” In that same statement, they say, “We support the legitimate demands of the demonstrators.” So you see a political shift here. The first mistake was sending the army down, but [the regime] had to do that because of what happened with the police. But that actually strengthened the demonstrators. Towards the end, when it became closer to the army being asked, “Well, you’re going to have to use force,” they knew they would not. But they did not want to disobey an order. So they issued a statement saying, “Okay, we are watching, and we will make our own decisions.”

CAIRO REVIEW: So the army role was decisive here?

NABIL FAHMY: You had in the last twenty-four hours an expectation of a statement from the president. But it didn’t come out as “I will mandate Omar Suleiman”—which is what we had suggested much earlier—and the army saying “We will guarantee that he does that.” Instead, you had the army waiting to watch the people in the street, and when the people in the streets said, “No,” the army said, “Enough is enough.”

CAIRO REVIEW: What lessons do you see in your efforts?

NABIL FAHMY: You can draw three conclusions from this. One, it’s a wonderful case study in how not to manage a crisis. I mean, all of the elements of what not to do were exercised. Second, it clearly showed that there was this huge gap between what the presidency thought was reality and what was the reality on the ground. That’s a function of long-term government and age and isolation. Thirdly, it shows you the true limitations of power. In other words, the tank on the street was less effective than mobile phones and Facebook. The tank was there but it couldn’t be used, they couldn’t shoot. It is a testimony to what constitutes power in this day and age. Military power is, and will continue to be, important. But the power of communication, the power to network, the power to organize—because we live in a transparent world and you can’t simply react without ramifications worldwide—is extremely important to take into account here.

CAIRO REVIEW: And, as you said, the Egyptian youth showed a great deal of political maturity.

NABIL FAHMY: How did they have such clarity of thought? I remember once in our discussions, just to understand the limits of how far we could go, I asked one of them a couple of questions. He responded “We have just undertaken revolution. This is not about technicalities. It is about a revolution, and you all should understand this. We want to change the system. Help us develop the mechanics to change the system, but nothing less than changing the system will serve us.” We talked about everything from constitutional reform to the reconciliation process, and so on, and one of them shot back—they shot back in their emotion, but not once did they lose tempers, did they speak impolitely or inappropriately, these were truly admirable kids—one shot back and said, “Gentlemen, my friend was standing right here at my shoulder when he was killed. So don’t get lost. This has to be commensurate with the loss that I have and that his family has.” It was actually quite touching.

CAIRO REVIEW: You have faith?

NABIL FAHMY: Egyptians are retaking ownership of their own country. Now, that will have implications. If you engage them in building the politics and legal system of the new Egypt, you will have progress. If you don’t, you are going to have problems, because they will not back off.

CAIRO REVIEW: The challenges ahead?

NABIL FAHMY: The military has been exceptionally astute politically from day one, to my astonishment. How subtle they’ve been, and how careful they have been. Now that they are also the governors of the country, the leaders of the country, they are going to have to satisfy the political leanings of everyone, and that’s a much more complicated situation. They, on the one hand, have announced a program to hand over in six months civilian rule and hold four elections—three elections and a referendum. They need to be continuously transparent and they need to be continuously inclusive because this is not about changing the president, it’s about changing Egypt.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why do you think the revolution came now?

NABIL FAHMY: We were going toward a political confrontation in the summer of 2011 because we would have an election for president in the fall. There was a big question whether President Mubarak was going to run again, or nominate his son, and who else, so there were a lot of questions here about that. Add to that that we have a population where 56 percent is younger than twenty-five years old, an anxious population, an impatient population, a vigorous population, looking for their own future, trying to determine their own future. One had to expect that we were going to reach a boil at one point. Did I expect a revolution? No. But, yes, I expected political tension. Why did it reach the point that it did? The first thing is that the demographic mix is ripe for that. Secondly, there was this blatantly arrogant result in the last parliamentary elections in November where the majority party got 97 percent of the seats. You have to be a political amateur to even want to achieve that kind of majority, because it means putting all of the opposition outside of parliament against you, even though they differ from each other.

CAIRO REVIEW: That was a trigger?

NABIL FAHMY: So the oil was spilled out there on the street waiting for it to be lit up. It was lit up by Tunis. What lit it up in January rather than June was basically the events in Tunis. Had it happened differently, it could have possibly have led to a compromise of the president not running for office again and without everybody being thrown out of government.

CAIRO REVIEW: As an Egyptian diplomat, how do you see the international dimension to the political change in Egypt?

NABIL FAHMY: I’ve always criticized fundamentalists because they don’t think rationally about certain things. But on foreign interference, I’m a fundamentalist. I simply do not encourage foreign players to get engaged as long as violence is not used against civilians. The reason is not because I have a problem with the moral issues, quite the contrary. I understand people raising questions about violence and human rights and all that. And expressions about violations of human rights are completely understandable as long as the facts are there. It’s just because all countries have their own challenges, they have their own political calendars, and their own interests, their own priorities. And they may not be consistent with ours.  I don’t like to determine, define, or even calibrate my own domestic agenda with a domestic agenda that is foreign.

CAIRO REVIEW: How do you evaluate the U.S. posture during the days in Tahrir Square?

NABIL FAHMY: Initially, it was clear they were lost and completely surprised. Lost, they should not have been. Surprised, I can understand, because we all were, but only on timing. For years, the U.S. body politic has had no respect for Arab public opinion. When we would convey the public sentiment to our American interlocutors they would ignore or snicker! I am sure this will stop now. Nevertheless, I think President Obama’s last comments about being inspired by the youth touched the square tremendously. When Obama said, “I was inspired by these kids,” they felt they were heard. Everything in between that, they frankly were not focused on.

CAIRO REVIEW: Could the U.S. have done anything differently to better influence events?

NABIL FAHMY: I did not want them to influence events. Even if we failed, this had to be an Egyptian thing. I didn’t want it to be tarnished by a foreign element. But let me add to that. Frankly, sending [former U.S. ambassador to Egypt] Frank Wisner was a big mistake. I understand why America would feel obliged to do that. But, in fact, it was over by then. It again reflected to you that they did not understand what was happening in the street. The minute the army went into the street, the demonstrators won. At the end of the day, President Mubarak was leaving, one way or the other, the minute the army went into the street. So sending the emissary here, and then you had contradicting reports about what he actually said, and then conflicting reports about Frank’s opinion and the administration’s opinion, that was frankly a weak point. I’m not criticizing Frank himself, I’m simply saying that was the weakest point of the process. I know that they have been constantly in touch with the presidency and the military and with anyone that they could get in touch with here to keep emphasizing to them, “don’t use force.” Generally speaking, President Obama’s statements were much better than any European statements where he focused on Egypt’s demonstration and Egypt’s rights, whereas some of the European statements immediately jumped into “You have to respect your agreements with Israel.” They brought in the Israeli debate even though this was a purely Egyptian thing.

CAIRO REVIEW: We didn’t see anti-American or anti-Israel messages in Tahrir.

NABIL FAHMY: It’s an interesting point that in all of my discussions with everybody here, foreign policy was not mentioned once by the demonstrators, not once. They didn’t argue about it, they didn’t reject it, they didn’t send any messages to anybody. When the army took charge, the army said that they would respect international agreements, just to calm people’s nerves. After the demonstrations ended, the demonstrators said that they were changing Egypt domestically and that they would respect international agreements and discuss these later. So this was not about foreign policy. What’s important now, frankly, is to build a better Egypt. We will need some time.

CAIRO REVIEW: Will the revolution reorient Egypt as a more nationalist society with a more nationalist foreign policy?

NABIL FAHMY: The people have taken charge of the government. They are going to hold their government officials more accountable in the short term. In all of our actions, including foreign policy, while we will have strategic agendas, they are much more sensitive to urgent tactical concerns and pressures. I’ll give you an example. I don’t see the situation on the borders in Gaza—I never did and I still don’t see—being a tenable situation. That’s not that I support Hamas, or that the revolution supports Hamas. But we need to find a creative way to ensure that the border breathes and preserves security at the same time. It is not viable politically to say, “They have done wrong, therefore we will apply a blockade.” Yes, you will see a much stronger Egypt in responding to double standards, in responding to, for example, Israel’s settlement policy, and in emphasizing the interests of developing countries in the World Trade Organization. These kids, this youth, and this society has taken charge now and they want to be engaged and they are holding public officials accountable.

CAIRO REVIEW: So that is bound to affect Egypt’s foreign policy posture on some issues?

NABIL FAHMY: If we do it right, we will be under the same pressures that everybody is under in a democratic country. Where, yes, we have strategic goals and you need to find a balance with your people of what you can do in the short term and what you can do in the long term. But you can’t ignore short-term concerns. [American officials] would come very often to me when I was in Washington and say, “Oh, we can’t do that, we have congressional elections.” Well, now we’ll have them, too. So, you can stop giving me that, or you’re going to start hearing it from me at the same time. When we would say, “The Israelis need to go back to the 1967 borders,” [American officials] would say, “Well, the Israelis have a coalition government, and there is this small, minute, political party that is way off the wall here but holds the seat in some subcommittee.” Well, we have it too. So yes, you are going to see a much more assertive Egypt, an Egypt that is not less concerned with strategic objectives—they won’t change—but much more concerned with immediate short-term things. That’s good, if you go back through the history of the Middle East. Egypt always led the region by being the trendsetter in ideas, in political, economic, and social trends. That’s where we are going to be now again. We may not be raising the flag of pan-Arabism, but we will be raising the flag of a stronger, more proactive, better Arab world. We won’t fall back in history, but we will go forward. Frankly, I have been annoyed by this for a number of years, and I said it when I was in service: we have to be less reactive and more proactive. When you are reactive, especially for a medium-sized country in a global society, there are so many things everywhere in the world you get dizzy reacting to all of these things. You have to, especially in your region, be one of the forces that determine the agenda. We will be a more useful, more valuable [partner] to the U.S. than ever before, because we will have more influence in the region than ever before. Will we dance to your music all the time? We actually never did.

CAIRO REVIEW: So Washington has to get used to a different Egypt?

NABIL FAHMY: I think it’s a different region. If you [Americans] look at it only from the perspective of the Arab–Israeli conflict, you will lose. With the Arab–Israeli conflict, frankly, you have not been particularly effective in pushing it forward. Look at the region differently. It’s not the same region that can swallow anything as long as you keep looking at the longer perspective. Whether it’s those in government dealing with government, or the analysts writing about what’s happening in Egypt from Massachusetts Avenue, they don’t understand what’s actually happening in Egypt.

CAIRO REVIEW: How will the revolution affect Israel and the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty?

NABIL FAHMY: This revolution actually serves Israel as well. It may not serve the Israeli right. It definitely will not serve those who do not want peace between Israel and the Arab world, those who do not want a two-state solution. They will hear our voice much louder when they hear the Arab voice. It will be much louder when they enter east Jerusalem and try to place Jewish settlers in that part of town. Therefore, the Israeli public will realize how wrong these steps are from the Israeli right and how this will lead to postponing peace. Yes, it may worry people initially, but I think it will energize the peace movements on both sides, give a strong message to the right that if you go too far, your own people will push you out, not us.

CAIRO REVIEW: How will the new Egypt affect the Arab world?

NABIL FAHMY: Parts of the Arab world will worry, because once again they will see us ahead of the curve. But more and more, we will try to take them with us, rather than try to do it alone. If we do this properly and if [political change] slowly seeps into their systems, then they can actually do this without the confrontations that we had to go through.

CAIRO REVIEW: Considering that Islamist groups antagonistic to Israel may be in the government for the first time, what is the risk to the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty?

NABIL FAHMY: The Islamist movement had a role without having any responsibility in the past. They were in parliament, in the press, but they didn’t have the responsibility of governing. They have both won and lost from this process. What will determine their weight, is, will the secularists continue to be activists, continue to be engaged, continue to turn this energy into political action plans and parties? That’s what will determine the Muslim Brotherhood’s role. The Muslim Brotherhood was not the leader of these demonstrations, but they were there, and they were significantly there. How would this influence the effect on U.S. relations or relations with Israel and the Israeli peace agreement? The only statement mentioned throughout this process was made by some spokesperson from the Brotherhood. He said Egypt would respect all of its agreements both internationally and regionally, but review them at the same time. I don’t see anything wrong with that position. The Muslim Brotherhood has always made their position clear. Their agenda is mostly domestic, it’s not based on foreign policy. If I was a foreigner watching from abroad, I would be applauding that somehow, something got all of the Egyptian middle class and the secularists to come out and be activists. So I’m not following things with too much anxiety.

Nabil Fahmy is the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. A career diplomat, he served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 1999–2008, and as ambassador to Japan between 1997 and 1999. He has also been a member of Egypt’s mission to the United Nations in New York as well as a senior government advisor on nuclear disarmament. After Egypt’s revolution began on January 25, he became a member of the informal group of “wise men” who met with government officials and demonstrators. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Fahmy in Cairo on February 25, 2011.

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