President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is expected to arrive in New York next Wednesday to take part in the general debate at the 70th United Nations General Assembly, according to Egypt’s permanent UN mission.
Over the past year, Egypt has taken part in regional conflicts, including the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. It has also been nominated for a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Egypt has also achieved some targets of the Millennium Development Goals agenda adopted by the UN and which will come to an end in 2015. This year, a new developmental agenda will be adopted by member states until 2030.
Daily News Egypt spoke to Egypt’s newly-appointed permanent ambassador to the UN, Amr Abouelatta, to review the country’s efforts and struggles towards its presence on the foreign relations map.
Does Egypt have a chance of acquiring a non-permanent seat on the Security Council?
This year, five countries have been nominated for Security Council membership, and they all have a clean slate, without opponents. Egypt has been nominated from North Africa, Senegal from West Africa, Japan from Asia, Ukraine from Europe, and Uruguay from Latin America, so there is no opponent, but the challenge is getting a large number of votes. But generally, I don’t think there should be a problem to hinder Egypt’s chances.
Egypt’s official media has been adopting a hostile discourse against US foreign policy towards Egypt, and claims it supports the ousted Muslim Brotherhood regime. To what extent do you think those claims are true?
The relationship between Egypt and the US has its ups and downs, and this is healthy. The US is a superior country internationally, and Egypt is a major country regionally. So it’s natural that both countries deal with each other, and it’s also natural to have disputes over some issues from time to time, but this does not affect the ties between them, because if the relation is static, this would mean that Egypt is a follower of the US.
What do you think of Egypt’s stance towards regional conflict zones, especially in Yemen?
The war in Yemen unfortunately led to the destruction of its infrastructure and a humanitarian disaster, and the UN here is aware of that and is doing its best, but this needs a ceasefire and certain steps to be taken. Egypt is part of the Arab Coalition, which is also encouraging the Houthis to abide by the Security Council decisions. Egypt also has ships near Aden and the Red Sea, and is participating in investigations and strategies with Saudi Arabia and other countries. We also try to play a political role by getting the Houthis to accept the Security Council resolutions, because without the political resolution, nothing will be solved, but it needs ground to start. The ground is not present yet for the political resolution.
The UN can only interfere according to the will of its member states’ representatives. Regarding conflicts, the UN can only interfere with peacekeeping forces in areas categorised as conflict zones, but in Egypt, Sinai for example is not one of them. Sinai has a bunch of terrorist groups, and the military forces and police are dealing with them, it’s only a matter of time, only a few months and this will end in Egypt, but the problem is with border countries, such as Libya, which face the same threat and also have millions of Egyptians there.
Regarding the video featuring the beheadings of 20 Egyptians in Libya, do you think the Foreign Ministry’s response was commensurate with the crisis?
The response was very quick from the Foreign Ministry’s side after the video was released, but it’s very hard to prevent such incidents in advance, because those militants are in different parts of the country. Every step should be taken by the Egyptian side, and it should take into consideration the safety of millions of Egyptian expats there. After the video, the National Defence Council (NDC) gathered with all its members and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry came here and met with me. He also called on holding the Security Council session the same day, which is what we did. He also discussed the matter with the five permanent countries [on the UN Security Council](P5), and Egypt launched airstrikes immediately on the same day.
According to UNHCR reports, Syrian refugees are facing many struggles in Egypt. How do you think Egypt’s Foreign Ministry could help them?
Egypt is the only country where Syrian refugees are not suffering from anything, for two main reasons. Firstly, they receive free education and healthcare, and this is a burden; their numbers [in Egypt] have now reached 400,000. Secondly, they are assimilated within the society, not staying in camps such as those in Jordan and Turkey. They live within the society, and many of them started working.
How do you view the Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs) progress in Egypt?
I do not think we are in the lowest ranks, as is being reported in some global studies. For example, in terms of women’s empowerment, I think we have made great progress, but there are many developmental issues in Egypt that are linked with ancient, and deeply-rooted, traditions. I am not saying we are developed, but we are getting there, when it comes to the MDGs as a whole. There is a difference between the success metrics of the MDGs in Western communities and our Eastern communities, such as same-sex marriage. We try to highlight that there should be more customised metrics for MDG progress for each group of countries because of its traditions.
There is also a concept that we are trying to adopt now at the UN, which is sharing a common responsibility, to take global actions. For example, the environment issue, when we look at who destroyed the environment in the beginning, we would find that Egypt is a developing country and still cannot afford or have the tools which can help reduce hazardous gas emissions, such as developed countries in the west. So those developed countries should reach out to other countries which are in need of technical assistance with environmentally friendly methods, instead of just pointing at them and holding them responsible for ruining the planet.
How does civil society also share this common responsibility, along with the country’s officials?
NGOs need more support, definitely, but we have to take into consideration that Egypt is currently going through a rough patch. Especially over the past four years, significant changes took place and we are still at the beginning of the development road. Until now, there are terrorist attacks daily in Egypt, with an economy that has almost collapsed, despite attempts over the past year to elevate it, but still tourism figures are down, and we still have a long way to go. NGOs are very important for any country’s development. I know there are criticisms on the West over the new NGOs law in Egypt, but eventually if we looked at the NGOs law in the US, you will find it also very restrictive. They should submit financial records and notify the government of their funding and uses of it. It’s not open for anyone to do anything, and this is in every country not just in the US, so the criticisms are just not logical.
Many laws have been issued over the past year, including the protest law, which was highly criticised by the US government. How do you respond to those criticisms?
I am not aware of all the laws that were issued, but we have mentioned the protest law a lot here. If you had a look at the American protest law you will find it stricter than the Egyptian one, as nobody here can protest without prior notification.
No one is taking into consideration the circumstances Egypt is currently going through, which are the daily terror attacks. Any assembly could potentially be joined by unknown extremists.
What have you found to be most challenging in your time as an ambassador?
The local circumstances in Egypt and the unjustified criticism towards Egypt from certain countries. But I believe when we have an elected parliament, it will take us to a better level. Yet there was progress from Egypt’s side over the past year, as we have participated in many peacekeeping operations and many Middle East-related decisions. Moreover, there were many international events that were hosted in Egypt after several attempts from our side.