The panel discussion "The Future of U.S. - Egypt Relations" took place at the 62nd Annual Conference in November, 2008.
Graeme Bannerman; Sameh Shoukry; Frank Ricciardone; Michele Dunn
Graeme Bannerman: Our topic today is “The Future of Egyptian-US Relations.” Let me say something about this panel. This panel is stacked with people who believe that the US-Egyptian relationship is essential to both countries and we have both benefited from that relationship. That said, I think you are going to see a diversity of views on where we should take the relationship, where the relationship is going and the problems we have to address.
My name is Graeme Bannerman. I have been with the Middle East Institute for about a year. Let me just say that I have worked on US-Egyptian relations either for the United States government or in the private sector, starting with the second Sinai II disengagement agreement. There are people around who have done that. I am a firm believer in that agreement.
We are going to begin with our two ambassadors. We are going to start with the Egyptian ambassador and then Frank Ricciardone, our former ambassador to Egypt until last spring. Then Michele Dunne and then I will make a few comments. We will hopefully leave plenty of time for questions. Mr. Ambassador.
Sameh Shoukry: Thank you very much, Mr. Bannerman. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me at the outset to express my appreciation to the Middle East Institute and to its president, Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin, for inviting me to participate in this 62nd Annual Conference. I am also happy to be on this panel with Ambassador Ricciardone, who just finished a very fruitful tenure as US Ambassador to Egypt, and with Michele Dunne, who is a renowned scholar in her field, and of course with Mr. Graeme Bannerman, who is a longstanding expert on the Middle East.
I am going to be very conventional. I am going to give you a prepared statement but I think it is an important one because this is probably my first addressing this issue. I certainly do not want to misstep so I will play it safe.
In trying to gaze at a crystal ball to look toward the future, one is necessarily obliged to refer to the past. We extract from past experiences our ability to analytically project the future. Sometimes we base this projection on a comfortable application of the status quo; at other times we unleash our ambitions and aspirations to project what we would like to achieve rather than what is practically achievable. In any case, it would probably be safe to say – and especially among this august group of experts and scholars – that the future of US-Egyptian relations rests on the political will of both states. This will must continue to be governed by their individual assessment of the degree to which their objectives and interests are being fulfilled through this relationship.
Having said this, I believe that our assessment leads us to project and strive towards strengthening Egyptian-US relations in the future for a variety of reasons. Before addressing these reasons let me emphasize that we are committed to Egyptian-American relations and to the strategic nature of our alliance. We have consistently demonstrated this commitment during the last thirty years. Nevertheless our relations have faced and withstood several challenges, some in the past and others more recently. This was possible primarily due to our conviction of the central role that this relationship plays in maintaining regional and international stability.
The reasons why both parties shall and should strive towards consolidating this relationship in the future revolve essentially around the complementary and interdependent nature of this association. On Egypt’s part, its political and cultural influence in the Middle East is longstanding. Its population is well skilled, young and comprises – at 80 million – around a quarter of the total Arab population. This undoubtedly enhances its leadership role in the Middle East, thereby providing the United States a strong proponent to advance common policies and objectives in the region. In addition, Egypt’s geostrategic location on the Suez Canal cannot be overlooked by the United States or replaced.
The United States, as a global power with a wide range of interests in the Middle East and beyond, will remain keenly engaged in developing its relations with Egypt in order to safeguard its long-term interests in the region. These interests are deeply rooted in the realm of global energy interdependence. These interests are to defuse tensions and resolve critical regional conflicts through which extremism and terror stem. In pursuing these interests, long-established and well-tested friendships like those that exist between the United States and Egypt will be pivotal.
Since the reestablishment of our diplomatic relations more than three decades ago, Egyptian-American cooperation has been and continues to be essential in the efforts to bring peace, stability, development and modernization to the Middle East. This has remained the cornerstone on which Egyptian-US relations are predicated. We expect that these common goals will continue to guide and motivate our relationship well into the future.
I need not draw the attention of this audience to the realities that persist in the Middle East. The region faces serious and dangerous challenges that threaten not only its security and stability but that of the international community at large. It is the declared goal of both countries to deal effectively with these challenges. This in turn should present the necessary incentive for them to double their cooperation and strengthen their dialogue in the future. The same logic applies in regard to the gamut of specific regional challenges that can only be effectively dealt with by means of a greater degree of coordination between Egypt and the United States, whether it is the situation in Iraq, the Iranian nuclear issue, security in the Gulf, stability in Lebanon, Darfur or piracy off the coast of Somalia. The parallelism in interests and objectives of the two countries necessarily promotes and sustains unity of joint action. Of course and above all else, both countries desire to achieve a just, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Palestinian-Israeli and to the Arab-Israeli conflicts, which reinforces the complementary nature of the roles and their interdependence.
It is through this constant and in-depth direct involvement of both countries in the region and their ability to influence events that they find themselves intrinsically bound by their common goals. Such a state can only be considered a healthy sign of a vibrant nature and of a relationship that is conducive to its strength and continuation. I could elaborate in demonstration of the future direction of bilateral relations by repeating the specifics of the role that each should play vis-à-vis all these challenges, but I won’t. I am sure this distinguished audience is capable of deducing this on its own.
Having said this, it would be disingenuous to avoid the fact that despite the convergence of Egyptian-US interests and objectives concerning regional and international issues, we have on many occasions not seen eye-to-eye in regard to formulating policies to address these issues. I suspect this will also at times be the case in the future. I am happy to report that despite these differences both sides have shown equal commitment to avoid that such instances detract from their common commitment towards the strategic framework of the relationship. This I believe is strong proof of the maturity of this association. It also guarantees sustainability in the face of future pressures.
Finally, I will try to address the future of US-Egyptian relations and their traditional bilateral dimensions – in other words, the cooperation between the two countries supporting Egypt’s efforts toward political, economic and social development. Here again there exists a fundamental convergence of interests that is capable of sustaining and propelling the relationship to greater heights. It would be naïve to even try to propose that there also exists in this regard a convergence of objectives. Nonetheless this does not in itself restrict the benefits that both may extract and build upon to enhance our relationship.
Egypt, in fulfilling its aspiration toward political, economic and social development, will continue to embrace and value US assistance. We are committed to political pluralism, freedom of expression, democratization and promoting and protecting human rights as the necessary tools for the development of our people and their prosperity. Equally, we have ambitious economic and social agendas. US assistance and capacity-building in all of these fields will be a source of appreciation that directly impacts the results of our future relations.
Since I mentioned that the objectives in this regard are not necessarily convergent – and I need not elaborate – we must assess the manner in which the US will implement its policy in these fields to be able to anticipate their effect on the future of our relationship. For this policy to be appreciated and beneficial it should be implemented while recognizing national objectives and priorities reached through a wide national deliberative process. This process was and still is and will continue to be based on societal consensus, and certainly not influenced by an external imposition or duress through pressure of naming and shaming or conditionalities. This in fact is a central message for any US administration to reckon, as we have had challenges to our strategic partnership that we have successfully withstood in good faith. We look forward to solidifying our cooperation and partnership based on mutual respect, one that attends to Egypt’s needs and the aspirations of its people.
Ladies and gentlemen, in conclusion allow me to put forward what I believe to be a fundamental reality in assessing the future prospects of our partnership. The Middle East today stands at a crossroads. The daunting challenges facing our region will affect the course of its developments for decades to come. The way we address these challenges will decide whether the region moves in the direction of more instability, violence and extremism, or towards the path of peace, security and prosperity. It is my firm belief that Egypt’s strategic relationship with the United States can have a profound effect in deciding the outcome. Our partnership is strong. It has been tested by regional tensions and crisis. It has withstood numerous challenges. More importantly it has proven its worth in influencing the course of regional events towards a more positive direction. Our steadfast attachment to this partnership is therefore an investment in our future and the future of our region for generations to come. It is my firm conviction that both countries possess the wisdom and the foresight to realize that future. I thank you very much.
Frank Ricciardone: Thanks to the Middle East Institute and Ambassador Chamberlin, my old friend, and to all of you. Mr. Ambassador, Michele and I are familiar here in Washington with the degree of interest in all things Egyptian. You have been here a few months now and I hope you have detected not just the high interest but a warmth and you see that in the expertise and engagement we have here today. Thank you all of you for your attention and for coming.
It has been my peculiar privilege to serve three times in Egypt in three very different capacities over many years, since 1986, and since my first visit as a tourist in 1977. I am very humbled by what I understand about the country. Sometimes the more I learn, the more confused I can become. What I am going to say today reflects my own views. I am on leave from the State Department. I have the privilege of being with the United States Institute of Peace now, where I get to read and study and delve more deeply into a lot of the work that many of you have actually done and have been able to read only superficially in the past. It is great fun.
I would like to make three key points and embroider a bit, and then we can come back in our conversation together to some of them. Some of them will sound all the more mundane after the eloquence of Ambassador Shoukry. First, Egypt matters; secondly, Egypt is changing fast and deeply; and thirdly, Egypt will frustrate all foreign attempts to change her but we can nurture her in positive directions. Indeed, as the ambassador has pointed out, Egypt welcomes that engagement when we do it right. It depends on the manner.
First, the point that should be obvious but has come into some question perhaps in recent times: Egypt matters to the United States and obviously, as the ambassador has pointed out, vice versa. It is mundane but it is central, whether we are going to focus on tradecraft – as I prefer to do today if I may – over policy. It remains a country of pivotal importance to us, to the world, to its region – what Egyptians think, what they do, what they decide for themselves really does matter and shapes the direction of history beyond its own.
What can obscure that sometimes in recent times are two facts that people cite and justly so. One is the observation that many other states in the region are rising in wealth and the power and influence that goes with great wealth, and with cultural changes of opening up, as we see in the Gulf to most people’s great delight and welcome. The second one is the obvious stresses and strains that Egypt is undergoing as it is changing so profoundly and so quickly. For me, neither of those things suggest that Egypt is declining either in some objective measure or standard of its own or in its importance to us.
Egypt has defied foreign attempts to impose change on it over time. No foreign power that I am familiar with in my study of Egyptian history has really succeeded in coercing Egypt and bending Egypt to a foreign will against its own will, or even for that matter to bribe it very seriously and publicly beyond what she really wants to do. Yet over time Egyptians have accepted and even embraced some foreign influences and engagement more than others, and some – like first Christianity and then Islam and more recently even the modern concepts of the state and democracy and personal freedoms – have been absorbed there and are taking root and have accreted in the Egyptian outlook and character and identity. Again, done right and consciously, those of us outside can work with those forces that are within Egypt itself.
That is my thesis, that with the right application of our best diplomatic art and all our skill we can engage Egypt even more successfully to our mutual benefit. As the ambassador suggested, we can make our engagement a source of appreciation, as you put it. I would like to come back momentarily to the question of how to do that and to what purpose, and why.
Now my second point, that profound and historic change really are already well underway in Egypt. Egyptians themselves and all of us foreign friends of Egypt are fixated on the prospective change in the top political leadership. It is the central political question in the salons of Cairo and we can all join in that favorite Egyptian parlor sport together today if we’d like and speculate on what is going to happen next. There is no greater authority than my colleague and friend to my left. I commend to everyone Michele’s several recent articles on this subject, very insightful and brilliant. I would be delighted to get into that and defer even more to you when discussing it later.
I do have some hunches about this subject and I will offer those, on the subject of change in Egypt. Number one, Egypt will see through its political transition just fine. There will be excitement, there will be stresses, there will be noise but I do not expect any trauma to the state or the society. Though many Egyptians and foreigners are anxious about it, I am really confident that Egypt will at least do all right. It will at least survive and probably much better than just survive.
Number two is the question of change and what it means, the Egyptians are profoundly patriotic of course and in Egypt, even as in some Western democracies, any unpopularity of political leadership does not equal illegitimacy of that leadership, much less of the state itself. Again, that may sound mundane but I came into the Foreign Service from the Shah’s Iran and this is a critical distinction between what I perceived then as a guy hanging out in the bazaars of Tehran and going around on the buses and taxis there. There was a real popular question of legitimacy. I never felt that among Egyptians and I do not mean just as an ambassador in our fortress there in Garden City. When I was there in earlier years and as our political officers do now, we were out among taxi drivers and students and professors and journalists and fellaheen and officials and all kinds of people. They are all complaining, everyone is upset about government services, corruption, politics, you name it. But no one questions the legitimacy, the presence, the importance of Egypt as a state and its relations with its people. I do not see much comparison at all with the situation of the last days of the Pahlavi dynasty as I experienced it.
Finally, one other note about the stresses and strains of changes underway. Everyone always focuses on the question of political Islam. It is something that is vividly debated among Egyptians themselves in the parliament, in their media and of course everyone always raises the question of the Muslim Brotherhood. From what I understand, from a very limited and respectful arms-length contact between American officers and members of parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood, and from what we know from reading their website and other publications, they evidently do not expect to take over Egypt anytime soon. I have to say, I share that estimation. I do not mean to minimize the threat of religious demagoguery or any other form of extremism to Egypt’s interests or to our own. But Egyptians across the spectrum evidently perceive those threats quite without our having to preach them to them, or to point them out to people who are blind to them. I think the Muslim Brotherhood does, too, and it is for that reason that they themselves appeal to their countrymen in the most moderate and peaceful of tones and language. When they do so, they appeal not only to Egyptians’ very famous piety – whether of the Christians or the Muslims – but rather they appeal to Egyptians’ everyday interests and frustrations, whether it is with traffic or problems of government service or corruption or political issues, rather than a direct and emphatic appeal to political Islam per se. Whether they are sincere in their appeals of course is a matter of lively debate and conjecture, again quite openly. At least here I am not going to offer a conjecture of my own in that regard.
But it is clear that whatever we think about the way that Egyptians are going about dealing with the question of political Islam or the Muslim Brothers, the state and its leadership are not about to tolerate any kind of practical test of the sincerity of the Muslim Brothers or any other Islamists. A good many Egyptians – again, whatever some of us may think here – judge it as the right course for their state to take, that it is prudent and maybe even vital.
Let me say another word about change. It is changing profoundly and not only economically and socially but I would argue also politically. As Ambassador Shoukry’s predecessor once told me: Egypt is changing, she just doesn’t want to admit it. Certainly not to us and probably not even to herself. Egyptians for one thing are now accustomed to and they expect a future civilian leader. That is mundane, it is ordinary to Americans of course and most Westerners, but it is not something there in modern Egypt. Each of the four presidents of the republic have been military officers. It could be that there will be another former military man who rises to power, we do not know. But I think most Egyptians do not really expect that there will be an extra-constitutional change of power or one in which a military man necessarily is going to be running the country in the future. Indeed, throughout President Mubarak’s tenure he has accelerated what President Sadat began doing, removing officers from positions of authority (with the exception of state security positions like many, but not all, of the governors, and not even the governors of the major provinces such as Cairo and Giza, who in fact have been professors and administrators). So there is a civilianization of government going on, a healthy thing.
Secondly, for all the well-advertised and very objectionable official constraints on freedom of expression, including both overt and subtle official attempts at repression, free public talk is exploding in Egypt. It is not only with the stridently independent newspapers but also with independent satellite television, the proliferation of blogs despite very famous and prominent arrests, SMS, and then recombinant applications of these technologies. My daughter Francesca showed me this was happening during the April 6 demonstrations, with Twitter crossing SMS with the Internet and spreading news around much more quickly than the state or even professional news organizations could do with their own means. To hear Egyptians vividly expressed themselves on any subject, including the political leadership, it is sufficient to tune into any television channel at 10 o’clock at night, including a few of the state itself, and just watch what happens if you can understand Arabic, or even if you cannot, just watch the vitality of it. I have had the pleasure myself of being grilled on several of those shows and it is an illuminating and chastening experience.
There are several things underlying all this change that is going on. Remember, this is a country that famously has devised the monuments of mankind to the defiance of change and time. I would look out my office overlooking the Nile; on a clear day you could see the pyramids, reminding you that this is a country that knows how to resist change, how to resist the foreigner. I think the forces that are prompting that change are the young demographics to which the ambassador referred and the unavoidable economic stresses of a burgeoning population in a very limited and contained geographic reality.
I would make one other point regarding change before going back to tradecraft. What is very visible in Egypt about its change is the reaction to it. It is sometimes very harsh, unacceptably so to many Egyptians and certainly to many foreigners. Other times it is subtle. Sometimes it is personal, often it is collective and cultural. Sometimes it is official. It is certainly very visible. I do not see that as surprising. I see it rather as evidence that indeed important change, dramatic change is happening – so dramatic, so powerful as to engender powerful resistance. If the change were not very meaningful, especially in a conservative country like Egypt, you would not see much meaningful resistance. Despite that resistance, it continues happening.
Let me return to my third point and the main thesis. Neither we nor any other foreign power obviously can or even pretend to decide Egypt’s future or what it ought to do. But it is true, I have found that with the right ways of engagement Egypt may choose to do more than cooperate, to welcome that engagement and to find it a means of attraction.
Let’s look for a minute or two at the question of, to what purpose? Why? On what subjects? And how? Among the pleasures of being at USIP as a guest scholar, I am getting to read a lot. I am reading a lot of USIP’s good work on this. Our president, Dick Solomon, has written on the negotiating behavior of the Chinese; he draws very heavily on the work of Ray Cohen on the cultural context of negotiating and he uses a lot of Egyptian examples. One of the things that Cohen pointed out and Dick Solomon also reiterates is that culture influences not only how a people negotiate but what they decide is negotiable, what you can engage in.
My allotted time is up and for the full answer as to how to do this, you should look forward to what I hope will be my forthcoming book on this subject. But in very quick summary, we have to be very attuned to what others hear when we say something, whether it is Egypt or any other country. We have to deploy not only talking points but maybe listening points, asking good questions, leading questions, even if we know the answers, rather than necessarily laying out what others must do or should do as if we are releasing (as Nick Veliotes has said) the “inner American” that we think is there in everyone. Among my other great mentors that I have seen here in the past few days is Nick.
In summary, a successful strategic dialogue, as the ambassador has pointed out and all of us agree, across our two different cultures is both necessary and possible but requires every bit of patience and empathy that both sides can deploy. I do not think we should confuse empathy with sympathy, much less with weakness. Nor should we confuse courtesy, particularly in public discourse, with a lack of clarity or commitment to our values or our purposes. Diplomacy is not rocket science but it is diplomacy. Egyptian-American relations and diplomacy are not for sissies. It is however for committed friends as we are. Thank you.
Michele Dunne: Good afternoon and thank you to the Middle East Institute for inviting me to join this august panel. I am going to be speaking about the US-Egyptian relationship not so much as a diplomat but as an analyst looking at it from the outside. I want to make a few observations. As Graeme warned you, I share with the other members of the panel a deep interest and belief in Egyptian-US relations and the importance of the relationship. So I want to share with you a few observations and thoughts on how to move forward.
The first observation, you will forgive me if it is phrased a little bit less diplomatically than the previous two speakers. I think this very important relationship is at a point where it needs some repair. I think the US-Egyptian relationship, while still solid at its base, has been fraying around the edges and both the Egyptian and the American side have been asking questions about whether it still works and specifically whether the understanding that we reached in the 1970s still applies today.
So as I think about the relationship, I believe it has always sort of proceeded – the US-Egyptian partnership – on two legs. One of those legs is cooperation on regional peace and stability. The other leg is cooperation on the development of Egypt, development inside Egypt itself. The first leg of the relationship, the cooperation on regional affairs, was strained during the Bush administration but actually survived surprisingly well. Although there were clear US-Egyptian disagreements on the invasion of Iraq and so forth, Egypt did still offer indirect help and was the first Arab state to send an ambassador to Iraq. Also on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, clearly Egypt did not necessarily agree with the Bush administration’s approach to that issue and yet Egypt still tried to be helpful on a number of things. For example, the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, serving as a channel to Yasir Arafat when the United States was not talking to him, now to Hamas and so forth. I think these are all things that Egypt did because it was in Egypt’s interest. Egypt had its own clear national security needs and interests and it was in the Egyptian interest to do these things.
The second leg, the cooperation on the development of Egypt, on internal affairs in Egypt, has emerged as a greater source of tension. There has been good cooperation on economic reform and probably a greater meeting of the minds on economic reform, between the United States and Egypt, in recent years than there was before that. But inside of Egypt, as Ambassador Ricciardone was just discussing, there are definitely increased calls for political reform, improved respect for human rights, greater civil liberties, et cetera. I think there has grown in the United States – and this is certainly observable in the US Congress and how Egypt is viewed there – a sense that these things are somehow necessary for the further development of Egypt and necessary also to greater economic prosperity in Egypt. So the Bush administration pursued this strategy related to President Bush’s “freedom agenda” in Egypt to some extent from 2002 until early 2006 or so, through a combination of assistance programs, a certain amount of diplomatic pressure and so forth.
My argument is that to really fully repair and renovate the US-Egyptian relationship, we need a new understanding on these two issues. On the regional cooperation, I am not so worried. I agree with what Ambassador Shoukry said about the very strong shared US-Egyptian interests in the region and our ability to continue to cooperate together even if we sometimes disagree on tactics and so forth, which clearly happened during the last eight years.
The cooperation on the second leg of the relationship, the development of Egypt, is a bit more complicated. I think the United States in recent years has been searching for a better understanding of where Egypt is going. We have heard Egyptian leaders talk about a greater commitment to democratization and improved human rights practices and so forth but I do not think we feel that we really have a sense of where they are trying to take Egypt and how the United States can be a partner to Egypt in that. This is complicated by the current stage in Egyptian politics. There is this extended preparation for succession or transition to succession going on in Egypt. Opposition and civil society forces in Egypt have become a bit cynical about formal politics, parliamentary politics and so forth, after the experiences of some of the elections – particularly those after 2005, the elections in 2006 and 2007 in which opposition was really not allowed to participate in any meaningful way.
So there has been a bit of disillusionment with some of these forces for change inside Egypt with formal politics but there is still a great deal of dynamism. Again, Ambassador Ricciardone was just pointing to this. Taboos on criticism have really been lifted. I think fear of the government is much less than it used to be in Egypt, although there are still consequences. There are still arrests and torture and lawsuits and so forth against journalists, bloggers, political activists, et cetera. Yet that does not seem to have closed down those in Egypt who are pushing for some kind of peaceful change. We have been seeing all different kinds of protest movements popping up in Egypt, mostly small, sometimes larger. It is not clear where all this is heading. I am certainly not making any kind of argument that Egypt is heading toward a revolution but I also do not expect this to peter out totally. I think there are forces for change inside Egypt today and it is very interesting to watch them and see them evolving and changing according to the circumstances.
The new US administration needs to think about rebuilding the relationship with Egypt. When I say Egypt, I mean the Egyptian people as well as the Egyptian government. The United States needs to find a way to be on the right side of positive, peaceful, gradual change in Egypt that involves economic development, improved respect for human rights, democratization and so forth without alienating the Egyptian government. This is a difficult road to walk but I do think it is possible. I do not think this is a matter of imposing some kind of a US model or finding the “inner American” in every Egyptian. I really do not think this is it. I think that there are demands for change within Egypt and a fairly clear shared agenda among different groups in Egyptian society – not completely shared but there is a lot of overlap about what kinds of changes people are looking for. It is a question of how the United States can lend a certain degree of support to those demands without alienating the government.
This is why up until now I have spoken out repeatedly against the idea of cutting or directly conditioning US aid to Egypt. I am not in favor of alienating the Egyptian government, alienating the military, sending the message that the United States wants them out of power or something like that. I do not think that is wise. But I also do not think that the new administration is going to be able to just ignore or postpone these questions because I think quite a lot is going to be happening in Egypt in the next few years. As I mentioned, there is a succession transition going on that will come to fruition at some point, do not know when that will be. There will be parliamentary elections in Egypt in 2010, presidential elections in 2011 or before that. There is the question of whether the emergency law in Egypt will be renewed. There are protest movements popping up all the time. Journalists, bloggers, opposition figures pushing at the limits. The United States is going to have to have a policy toward this. I do not think it is something where we can just say we will put that aside for another day, put it in the “too hard” category.
I want to respectfully disagree with Ambassador Ricciardone about whether it is an option for the United States to be neutral. I do not think it is. I think that United States influence and US assistance and so forth is going to serve one set of interests or another. We will be used in one way or another to support different agendas inside Egypt and we really have to choose wisely about what are the sort of agendas that we want to support rather than just saying this is too hard for us and we will just try to remain neutral.
I will add a word on the question of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition movement up until now. This question of how the United States should deal with the Muslim Brotherhood – I wanted to raise this because I have been talking about the United States supporting agendas for change and so forth but in a very abstract way and I have not said concretely what I think that means. Here is a fairly difficult question: what to do with the Muslim Brotherhood? We hear sometimes people who are interested in promoting democracy in Egypt and elsewhere talking about how the United States needs to engage with Islamist movements and persuade them to become more moderate and so forth. In my opinion, I see no reason why US diplomats should not have regular low-key contacts with members of the Brotherhood who are members of parliament, who are intellectuals and so forth. The Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization, even by Egyptian government definition. But I am also not really in favor of some kind of broad, high-profile engagement initiative by the United States with movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. I do not think it is our job to reengineer Egyptian political movements or the Egyptian political spectrum. I really doubt that we could do it well even if we wanted to.
I think instead the United States should try to, in its dealings with the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people, stand in favor of a political opening that allows Egyptian Islamists and non-Islamists to work out the important issues themselves. This is their country; it is their future. This process was really starting to happen back in 2004-2005 when there was a bit more of a political opening than there is now. We saw very productive dialogue between secularists and Islamists in Egypt about what kind of political change they were looking for, what about human rights, what about the rights of women, what about the rights of non-Muslims in Egypt. The authority of the state derives from whom, and so forth. A lot of very profound questions were being discussed and I think the Brotherhood was being required, not by outsiders but by other Egyptians, to really look at important questions like that and come up with more pragmatic answers. That is the kind of thing that the United States should be promoting: enough political openness that Egyptians themselves can have a productive dialogue about the future of their country, and shaping the rules of the game such that there can be more political contestation in the future but the rights of citizens will be guaranteed and so forth.
I also think the United States should be a little bit more consistent than it has been in the past about standing up for the human rights of peaceful activists, whether they are Islamist or secular. I will leave it there. Thank you.
Question & Answer:
Graeme Bannerman: Being a moderator I was going to make a few comments, but the most telling comment to me is that when I listen to this discussion of US-Egyptian relations, it is very typical of what we hear in Washington. The entire discussion was about Egypt. I really believe in following the philosophy of that great American philosopher Michael Jackson: we should start with the man in the mirror. We are half the relationship. I think before you can understand and talk about Egypt, we should talk about ourselves. We need to think about where we are going in the relationship. What do we want? What are our interests?
When I was a sixteen-year-old and my sister was twenty, we traveled one summer in Europe. She was cursed by having her Calvinistic sixteen-year-old brother with her. She would have had a lot more fun without me. After six weeks we were having one of these frank and honest discussions. I said to her: we have got to spend a day apart. I am going to go my way, you go your way and we will just spend the day apart. As I walked away she grabbed me on the shoulder – and this reminds me of the United States and the Middle East – turned me around and said to me: let’s sit down, talk this thing out and find out what’s the matter with you.
We cannot improve the relationship between the United States and Egypt if the American attitude is – at every conference – we sit down and talk about what’s the matter with Egypt. We have to talk about what’s the matter with us and how do we settle both problems. It is a mutual interest. I am old enough to know. When I first went to Egypt – this is kind of embarrassing – I went to Aswan and I watched the Russians build the high dam. In fact, I watched the Egyptians build the high dam under Russian supervision. It was a very different country at that time. The world was a very different place. When I taught at AUB in the late 1960s the president of Egypt could give a speech and put 10,000 people on the street in Beirut demonstrating against us. That has not occurred since that relationship changed. As a historian I have seen that since World War II there have only been two fundamental changes in the balance of power in the Arab Middle East. One was in the mid-1950s when Egypt turned to the Soviet Union and its allies for economic development and military equipment. The second was when in the 1970s President Sadat made a determination that Egypt’s interests rested with the United States.
We cannot have a conversation about US-Egyptian relations in the future unless we realize what the importance of that relationship has been to us. I believe Egypt has benefited greatly from that relationship also in the years. It evolves, it changes, that is normal. But we need to look at ourselves as much as we look at the Egyptians. I would like to throw open to anyone on this side, to comment on where they think the US relationship will go. Michele said we cannot have one set of interests. I say we have only one set of interests with Egypt, and that is our interests, American interests. If we look after our own interests, the Egyptian-US relationship will be fine.
Frank Ricciardone: I might offer one response to Michele. I hope no one here took anything I said as suggesting neutrality or lack of commitment on democracy or human rights, whether since 2006 – I think the Secretary of State would be shocked, certainly I would be and President Mubarak would be from the conversations we have had across the board. There is no question of neutrality. It is not only our policy but our law. We have been promoting democracy and human rights. You can argue how far back or whoever, but certainly since I came into the Foreign Service under Jimmy Carter, when we started the annual human rights reports to Congress. It is a pretty bracing report that we send in every year. We talk about it, I talked about it. We do religious freedom reports. We engage with the government, we engage with civil society. We see opposition people. It is all about the manner and how one engages. Doing it in a different way than a more overt, naked use of punishing by withholding aid, as you argued against, does not mean you are not doing it at all. I have to object to that or disagree if I left that impression. There is no neutralism there. I think certainly the minister of foreign affairs and the president of Egypt quite understand that Americans are always going to talk about democracy and human rights and will be active on that. I quite agree with you, Michele, it is a central policy issue between us and will remain.
Sameh Shoukry: I think probably Mr. Bannerman’s remarks would have been better served having Michele start to reply to them. I take your point certainly. I did not understand your comments at all in terms of any form of neutrality but a consistent commitment to values. But leading from Mr. Bannerman, these are not exclusively the purview of the United States. Here I think the United States should look inwards. These are becoming universal principles. They are becoming principles of humanity. So one of the difficulties is the projection of those principles as if they are the sole domain of the United States. They are not.
On the other hand, I think I alluded to the fact – and I totally agree with Mr. Bannerman – those specific US interests are to promote an objective. Here the objectives are not convergent. That does not mean that both sides cannot extract their interests from promoting those issues but must understand the basis upon which – because I think a lot of the misunderstandings might have resulted in a lack of transparency and common understanding, and efforts to confuse what constitutes interests and what constitutes objectives.
Michele Dunne: Just a quick comment connecting back to what you said, Graeme, about looking at ourselves and so forth. When we look at the relationships that the United States has with countries in the Middle East and in this case Egypt, I often think that we should take a lesson from twelve-step programs who tell you: you cannot change anyone else. You are quite right, Ambassador Ricciardone, you cannot change anyone else and the United States certainly cannot change Egypt. The only thing we can do is change our own behavior toward Egypt. That has certain effects. It is indirect, it is even marginal. We are an outside player here. We are not going to step in and change another country. That is what I was trying to speak to. I was actually was, Graeme, talking about us and not talking about Egypt. Talking about how we should – how the United States should in my view behave in the relationship toward Egypt.
Graeme Bannerman: First of all, I will put my personal record of promoting American values and democracy up against almost anybody else in this room. I have been an election observer in countries from the Philippines to Haiti, Georgia, Mongolia, Yemen, all three Palestinian elections. I have been chased through the streets of Haiti with guys shooting at me. I have been in a helicopter shot at in the Philippines doing this. I was the person who coordinated the drafting of the South Africa sanctions legislation. I have been involved in this always and I think we as Americans must do that. I think that is important. But what people learn who have done this a long time is one, we cannot be out front of where the people in the country are. Two, it is much better to lead by example than trying to force things down people. I would argue that the elections we just had probably did more to promote American views of democracy in the Middle East than eight years of the Bush administration. That does not mean we do not support with our aid, and that is one question – I cannot believe how many people asked questions here. One of the common themes is, what should we be doing with our aid to promote democracy? Michele addressed that but I think we should take it a step further. Michele and Frank are much closer to that question than I am. Could you give some suggestions to the people who asked that question? What is the best way to do that in Egypt, that is not counterproductive?
Frank Ricciardone: I actually agree with Michele that we really need to have a common understanding with the Egyptians. Certainly I did not succeed in establishing that. A lot of effort, a lot of discussions at all levels of officialdom, many different ministries. The President himself and Secretary Rice led this. We tried to have a strategic dialogue across the board. As Michele pointed out, when it comes to all these regional stability issues – from Sudan to Lebanon, Arab-Israeli – we are pretty much on the same page although there are tactical differences. But when it comes to the bilateral stuff of the relationship we seem to have different premises about what the aid means, why it is there, what we are trying to accomplish with it. I hope my successor will have a better success at that than I did and the next administration will have better success. I should think they will keep trying. It is not just explaining ourselves and talking more loudly to the Egyptians about what we mean. It really is listening and comparing and seeing if we can figure it out. Because if we cannot – even if we can -- it is probably going to diminish and go away under budget pressures; but if we cannot, it is going to go away faster. We have already seen that happening in the current request.
Michele Dunne: Just to speak of the assistance in maybe a little more nuts-and-bolts way, when it comes to the economic assistance to Egypt there are two options here. One is programs working with the Egyptian government, and there are certain kinds of democracy and governance assistance that you can only do working with the government. The United States has been doing that in Egypt. The United States has been working extensively on judicial reform in Egypt and education and so forth. These are very important things. Then there is the category of assistance which is not with the government but giving assistance, grants and so forth, directly to civil society organizations or to US organizations that then work with Egyptian civil society organizations. The big disagreement between the United States and Egypt has been, first of all, how much assistance should be in that category and whether the United States should be giving that assistance directly or only with the approval and coordination of the Egyptian government – which of course gives the Egyptian government a veto over which organizations and which kinds of organizations can receive aid. The United States, with some nudging from the US Congress, has tried to stand its ground on that issue in recent years, to say: we are not giving aid to terrorist organizations or anything like that, but we would like to be able to give aid directly to civil society organizations. Those organizations have their own legal requirements to report the aid to the government of Egypt. It is a transparent process, it is not like the United States is keeping secrets or doing something subversive.
I think that should be maintained. I think the United States should maintain that ability to give some of this aid to Egyptians directly without it necessarily going through a bureaucratic process on the part of the government of Egypt.
Sameh Shoukry: If I may respond briefly to this last point. I think there are two things that seem to be lost by virtue of the history of the relationship, in terms of the assistance program. First of all, on what basis was that program established? In a more and more unilateral fashion, we have departed from the basic structure of the assistance program despite the fact that we have not necessarily seen the same correlation related to the joint component. This was a part of the peace agreement, part of the Egyptian-Israeli agreement, and associated to aid provided to Israel. Here we have evolved. I think this is a positive issue that we would prefer to see our assistance program and our relationship stand on its own two feet in terms of our bilateral relationship.
With all due respect, there is a little bit of an oversimplification of this explanation in terms of what the Egyptian government deems as the appropriate manner in which money that is supposed to be allocated to Egypt should be spent. If the United States, and here I go back to looking in the mirror, if the United States considers that its actions in this regard can be totally devoid of direct influence and promotion of an internal political dynamic, then I would certainly disagree with that. That is and will constitute and continues to constitute a direct involvement in terms of political evolution. I do not think any state would accept such an interference and it is being perpetrated, so to speak, because of the presence of the assistance program. The assistance program can be utilized in all of these issues in terms of capacity-building. This has been appreciated in all that it has provided. But again, it must be always effected through mutual understanding and not in any way implemented unilaterally.
Graeme Bannerman: I would also like to comment on the aid because I probably have been as closely related working with the aid issue for more years than almost anyone. We began the program after Camp David and the economic assistance was basically designed to help give a peace dividend to Egypt. We invested in things such as budget support, major projects – electrical generating capacity of Egypt, sewer systems in Cairo and the like. We had major projects. Then we also gave in addition to the economic aid a couple hundred million dollars in food assistance so Egypt could meet the food demands of its population. That was in the early 1980s.
We peaked the aid level at 815 million ESF and then $200-250 million worth of PL480 assistance through the late 1980s. Then we began to phase down the food assistance so it was eliminated. But what most people do not understand is some of the early programs were all done as loans. So today you have a residue of payments that the Egyptian government makes to the United States on pre-1985 ESF loans and some PL480 loans which totals the annual payment now – it is $350 million on the economic assistance.
We eliminated the food aid in the early 1990s and in 1997 – I use the term negotiated – we created out of whole cloth an agreement that is not really an agreement, to phase down Egyptian assistance – this was negotiated between the government of Egypt and the United States government – by $40 million a year for ten years. This reduced by last year economic assistance to $415 million. We got out of all the heavy development projects. We no longer built sewers, we no longer did that. We got into more of the field projects. Technical assistance, we call it. The Egyptians were in it for a transfer of resources; we were in it for transferring our ideas.
Then last year, to show where the relationship has gone, the government of Egypt came forward with a proposal on how they should phase down the rest of economic assistance over a period of time, where they would address this issue of debt service, a net transfer of resources from Egypt to the United States on economic assistance. The US government did not respond to the Egyptian proposal and reduced it unilaterally to $200 million. That is the type of the action I mean when I say we cannot have partnerships with anybody if we act unilaterally on something that has been a pillar of the relationship.
Michele Dunne: I would just add a brief comment on that. I think the whole process that you just described illustrates what I was saying about the relationship badly needing this renovation. The agreement that we reached thirty years ago is really worn down. In terms of economic assistance, I personally would love to see Egypt getting a lot more economic assistance because I am very interested in Egypt. But Egypt has found itself in this awkward category where it is not that poor a country. It is difficult economically to justify giving this much assistance. There are a lot poorer countries and there are a lot of people who argue we should give the assistance elsewhere. On the other hand it is also not proceeding rapidly enough in terms of economic and political and other kinds of reform to be seen as meriting assistance rewarding it for that. We have to admit, in the US Congress there is this sense of disappointment that we have given tens of billions of dollars of assistance to Egypt and development inside Egypt has not gone as far as at least we think it should have or could have. Unfortunately Egypt finds itself in this trap now as being neither poor enough nor progressive enough to merit increases and even sustaining US economic assistance.
Graeme Bannerman: I agree with you there. The problem I see, as somebody who was part of the provision of the economic assistance for the last thirty years and advocate for it, is that we have invested as a country between $30 and $40 billion in economic aid to create an atmosphere of goodwill. Why would we unilaterally, over $200 million, create more ill will than we invested in our $30-40 billion for goodwill? It is just not wise to do that. Here is a relationship. On both sides they agreed we should phase out the economic assistance. We agreed on it. Why couldn’t we with our friends negotiate something, is all I am saying. We can ask the ambassador at the time. And my former friend.
Frank Ricciardone: We worked hard on it. We did not succeed.
Graeme Bannerman: We are not going to get to all the questions. I am trying to encapsulate certain ideas. Another common theme is the Muslim Brotherhood. Would the Muslim Brotherhood win free and fair elections in Egypt? Should we not have a relationship with them? Are they just not the consensus within Egyptian society?
Sameh Shoukry: I do not think – my assessment is they would not win a majority. I think there is sufficient maturity within the Egyptian population to have now made the distinction between their rise of popularity based on provision of social assistance and support and their political ambitions. They are being more looked upon as a political movement and a great deal of dialogue and consideration evolved when they presented their platform, which was received with a great deal of criticism in many quarters, in intellectual quarters, in many Islamic quarters as well, because of the gaps and inconsistencies that appeared in that platform. Undoubtedly they do have a following. There is to a degree always a protest vote there to be had. But I think in the overall context there is still much more reliability in the mainstream of the government majority and the mainstream political movements, and rather complicating the development in terms of political life. The social complications related to a society with a very large Christian population and how it would undoubtedly not be comfortable to have a more religiously based political governance.
Michele Dunne: Would the Muslim Brotherhood win in free elections? I don’t know and I don’t think it is possible to know at this point. First of all, the number of Egyptians who participate in elections is very low. The parliamentary elections draw the largest number of Egyptian voters and even that is something in the range of 23 percent, something like that, of eligible Egyptians voting in parliamentary elections. So you have a very large number of un-mobilized Egyptians, Egyptians who could be voting in elections who are not voting in elections. So the question is, for whom would they vote if they felt that the elections really counted for something? We cannot know that question, I think. I do not think it is a question of public opinion, what is in the hearts and minds of Egyptians – to me this is much less relevant than which political forces could potentially mobilize Egyptians to show up and vote. In Egypt, as in many places, people do not show up to vote just of their own accord. They show up to vote because someone has mobilized them.
In the past, including in the 2005 elections, the only people who did any serious mobilization were the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. In all three rounds of the parliamentary elections but certainly in the first round of the 2005 elections, which was the freest round, the Brotherhood candidates won at a much higher rate than the National Democratic Party candidates won. They mobilized their supporters more effectively.
The problem in Egypt has been that there are so many restrictions on the ability of political parties to gain licensing and go out and mobilize support that it is very difficult to know to what extent other kinds of opposition forces potentially could mobilize support. It is just not a free environment. It is difficult for us to know at this point what the results would be in a much freer environment.
Graeme Bannerman: In 1994 I was on a delegation from the National Democratic Institute to promote the Palestinian elections. We went to Gaza and met with Mahmud Zaher. At that time Hamas was not on the terrorist list so we were not meeting with those guys. I was pressing him hard on why Hamas should participate in the upcoming Palestinian elections. I made a brilliant argument. He looked me in the eye and said: are you saying to me that if we win the elections, your government will recognize us? Or will this be Algeria?
My question to you, Frank and Michele: if there were free and fair elections and the Muslim Brotherhood participated, would the United States government recognize them as the legitimate government?
Sameh Shoukry: I just want to comment again briefly, on something Michele has just said in terms of restrictions. I am not quite sure how she would qualify that. I think that is something – I don’t have the number but over ten political parties in Egypt.
Michele Dunne: Twenty.
Sameh Shoukry: So is regulation, restriction? I think twenty is quite enough for a country of the size of Egypt.
Michele Dunne: Mr. Ambassador, how many of those parties can you name?
Sameh Shoukry: I can name quite a few. The National Party, the Wafd Party, the –
Frank Ricciardone: The Tegammua
Sameh Shoukry: The Tegammua. Let’s see, what else.
Frank Ricciardone: The Greens.
Sameh Shoukry: The Greens. The Nasserists.
Michele Dunne: But most of them are no-name parties that no one has heard of.
Sameh Shoukry: I would not be expected to know the parties that have been inconsequential, that have been established and not been able to gain any popularity or have the ability to generate the interest in their platforms. Again, are there restrictions or aren’t there restrictions? If we have twenty parties it seems strange to say there are restrictions. All of these parties have their national papers that are on the market to be had every day to display their policies and criticize the ruling party, and strive to gain greater acceptance. Again, I am not sure that is a factual remark in terms of restrictions. It is up to the parties to obtain the necessary support within the population and it is not the other way around. It is not up to the government to provide them with that support and popularity.
Graeme Bannerman: Since we are running out of time, let me do a quick conclusion. I think it would be unjust to all of these questions, Mr. Ambassador, if you did not appreciate that the overwhelming majority ask a simple question. There is great skepticism among the questioners over whether the government of Egypt is actually committed to democracy. It goes from suppression of bloggers to Ayman Nour to a whole series of other questions. I think you should understand that the main thrust of over half the questions here is whether or not Egypt is really committed to democracy with those policies that it has.
Sameh Shoukry: The answer is yes. I think on every occasion the government has tried to indicate its adherence to those principles. As I mentioned, these are universal principles and principles that necessarily are applied and implemented in a gradual manner that corresponds to the development and the stages of development. I think taking the United States as an example, democracy in the United States has evolved over the last 200 years quite considerably. There were times when there was less democracy. There were times when there was more corruption. We can all draw from our history books those examples. It is the same in Egypt. Egypt is an evolving society. It is a society that has had to face great challenges in terms of colonization, in terms of education, in terms of economic growth and development. Thereby all of these issues have played a role in our development and the degree of achievement. But overall the fundamental aspirations of Egyptians are very similar to those of everyone else in the world. So we will continue to strive toward democratization, toward freedom of expression, toward full application of human rights. No one is perfect but at least we keep on trying. I hope that also we recognize and appreciate to a great extent that Egypt motivates such interest but we also hope that Egypt is not considered a guinea pig for experimentation and as a matter of undue focus and attention. We are very willing and very motivated that this relationship still exists on a platform of mutual interest, mutual commitment, common and shared values and a desire to act with a great deal of mutual respect.
Graeme Bannerman: Thank you. I think on that, we will conclude.