A More Assertive Arab Foreign Policy
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
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.
REVIEW: How did you get involved as one of the “wise men”?
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.
REVIEW: What did you encounter?
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.
REVIEW: What happened?
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
REVIEW: That was a personal turning point?
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.
REVIEW: So how did you become involved with the “wise men”?
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.
REVIEW: What did the group’s work entail?
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.
REVIEW: What was the group’s relationship with the protesters?
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.
REVIEW: What did they tell you?
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.
REVIEW: What happened next?
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.”
REVIEW: And they did?
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
"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.”
REVIEW: Is there anything President Mubarak could have done?
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.
REVIEW: Where did that put the wise men group?
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
REVIEW: That was a turning point for Egypt.
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.”
REVIEW: So the army role was decisive here?
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.”
REVIEW: What lessons do you see in your efforts?
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.
REVIEW: And, as you said, the Egyptian youth showed a great deal of political
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.
REVIEW: You have faith?
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.
REVIEW: The challenges ahead?
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.
REVIEW: Why do you think the revolution came now?
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.
REVIEW: That was a trigger?
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.
REVIEW: As an Egyptian diplomat, how do you see the international dimension to
the political change in Egypt?
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.
REVIEW: How do you evaluate the U.S. posture during the days in Tahrir Square?
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.
REVIEW: Could the U.S. have done anything differently to better influence
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
CAIRO REVIEW: We didn’t see anti-American or anti-Israel messages in
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
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
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.