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Round Table Interaction of IDSA Scholars with members of the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs

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  • October 15, 2012
    Round Table

    A senior level delegation from the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs visited IDSA for a Round Table Interaction on various issues of mutual interest. The delegation included Amb. Dr. El-Sayed Amin Shalaby, Amb. Gehad Madi, Prof. Mostafa-Elwi Saif, Dr. Mustapha K. El Sayyid and Amb. Khaled El Bakly.

    Dr. Arvind Gupta, DG-IDSA, welcomed the delegation and termed the interaction extremely important on account of the monumental changes taking place in West Asia with Egypt often being the fulcrum of these changes. After giving a brief academic history of the institution, Dr. Gupta dwelled on the enormous significance of the region to India’s own geopolitical interests as evident in the stepping up of economic and political interaction between the two long time allies. He said that the Cairo visit of External Affairs Minister Mr. S. M. Krishna and agreements signed pertaining to India’s assistance in election management and administration was a testimony of the strong ties between the two countries.

    In his opening remarks, the head of Egyptian delegation Amb. Dr. El-Sayed Amin Shalaby hoped that the meeting should mark the beginning of a new cooperation between the two institutions. With the primary focus of both organisations being strategic, security and defence issues, it should be easy to find common themes to debate and discuss.
    While continuing the interaction, Dr. Mustapha K. El Sayyid elaborated on what he perceived to be seven sources of threat to human security in the Arab World:

    • Environmental threat which includes water scarcity, desertification, pollution and a lack of bio-diversity across the region.
    • Foreign military occupation: as felt by Palestinians, UAE (whose three islands are claimed by Iran) and Morocco (whose two cities are claimed by Spain). Egypt still has to face the repercussions of the erstwhile Israeli occupation of Sinai; wherein Islamist militants that had arrived in droves to fight the Israelis continue to be a nuisance to Egyptian security forces even to this date.
    • Internal conflicts which are mostly related to ethnic issues or ideological differences as seen in Iraq, Sudan and Lebanon.
    • State repression as witnessed under Mubarak and in Syria at present.
    • Economic problems with issues like unemployment, slow economic growth and general deterioration of socio economic situation of people. Economic problems were in fact one of the rallying points of the revolution.
    • General health of the people.
    • Personal security.

    Moreover, Dr. Sayyid dwelled on the new Egyptian Government’s ‘vision of the world’. He elaborated on the perceived emergence of a multipolar world which is evident in the economic and cultural rise of different nations on the global stage even though militarily US continues to be omnipresent. The formation of BRICS and the fact that the US has not been able to impose its will in the UN on Syria is an indication of multipolarism in international affairs. Egypt stands for non intervention and non interference in other countries internal affairs, is in favour of promotion of principle of friendly relations with all and respects international treaties, particularly the peace treaty with Israel even though it does not always subscribe to Israeli practises in the territories occupied by it. Nations have a right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and a nuclear free Middle East would be in the interests of all. However, the possibility of a Shia-Sunni conflict, in the backdrop of the Iranian nuclear programme, is highly exaggerated.

    Dr. Sayyid highlighted the security implications of the Arab Spring, which he termed a transitional phase, with there being real threats to national integration in the region. This is evident in Yemen wherein small groups have called for the separation/secession of the country, in Libya where feelings of greater autonomy still persist in areas around Benghazi and in Syria where there are demands of a Kurdish and Alawite states. Therefore, maintaining internal security is of paramount importance.

    There is also increasing tension in inter-Arab relations. Arab world is divided between countries that have succeeded in overthrowing authoritarian regimes and the ones that are some of the most conservative in the world.

    However, the two countries which are not threatened by any kind of disintegration are Tunisia and Egypt on account of theirs populations being highly homogenous.

    Two important developments that can have wider implications in the region include:

    1. Arab League condemning, for the first time, human rights violations in Libya and Syria.
    2. Regional actors, on the invitation of Egypt, have been trying to resolve the Syrian issue but it is an extremely complicated task. Egypt has invited Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to join it in search of a diplomatic solution to the crisis. But it will take a lot of deft and innovative diplomacy for Saudi Arabia and Iran to agree to a middle ground.

    Amb. Shalaby highlighted the thinking behind Egypt’s Syrian initiative. The present government in Cairo is interested in making the Egyptian foreign policy more proactive and this coincides with its stated policy of a regional solution and opposing foreign military intervention. The close influence of Iran in Syria cannot be underestimated and Egypt would like Iran to be a part of the solution even though Saudi Arabia is not too keen to participate in this enterprise. However the Egyptian initiative has not received due international support.

    Amb. Gehad Madi described the ‘uncertainty’ in the present day Syria as one of the key elements of the political scenario in the region. The prevalent situation in Syria is extremely complicated and has assumed an international dimension. The fact that the world’s superpowers have divergent and often contrasting views has further accentuated the problem with prospects of any solution to the issue appearing bleak at the moment. There is a civil war raging there and the possibility of a sectarian war, with the potential to divide the country, cannot be ruled out. The gridlock persists despite involvement of the Arab League and the UN. This has brought to light some key elements of the current crisis:

    1. Even though many people feel that Bashar al-Assad must go, the question is how and what comes after that? The opposition is no longer only in form of rebels carrying arms who also lack effective leadership.
    2. Humanitarian factor cannot be ignored for too long with an influx of refugees (majority of them being unaccompanied children) to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon rising by the day. However, international community is not yet ready to deal with the human catastrophe.
    3. There is a possibility of military confrontation between Syria and Turkey and flaring up of sectarian conflict within Syria. In this worst case scenario, one has to factor in the role of Iran and Gulf countries when it comes to the Shia-Sunni equation.

    On the issue of developments in Egypt, Amb. Madi highlighted some of the positive changes in the country after the revolution. The country has a civilian regime and the army did not intervene in any way during the elections that were generally free and fair. However, it will be crucial to analyze emerging issues like the affiliation of the new regime and provisions of the new constitution.

    On the issue of India-Egypt relations, Amb. Madi observed that the overall image of India in Egypt is extremely positive. India is looked upon as a model country with its scientific, technological and economic growth much appreciated.

    Prof. Mostafa-Elwi Saif dwelled on factors that separate Syria from Libya. Geographically Syria is 1/5th of the size of Libya while its population is five times bigger. These factors will ensure that the proposed no-fly zone will be ineffective right from the word go. The only military solution to the crisis is by sending ground troops. Moreover, the Syrian issue is an important element in the Israeli-Arab conflict and in the Iranian-Arab and Turkey-Arab relations. It has also managed to maintain very good relations with both Russia and China. Therefore, the issue is very complex and any conflict is expected to continue for years and not just a few months.

    Prof Saif elaborated on the possible scenarios in Syria:

    1. Division of Syria into a number of countries. This will serve the interests and policies of both US and Israel in dealing with the Arab Israeli conflict.
    2. End of Assad’s regime and emergence of Muslim Brotherhood to fill the political vacuum. In such a scenario, Tunisia, Egypt Syria and to an extent Libya will be governed by the same political force. This will represent a major change in the security posture and structure of the whole region.

    Amb. Ranjit Gupta (retd), highlighted the strength of India-Egypt relations during the era of Nasser and Nehru and welcomed the return of Egypt to the mainstream of the Arab world. He observed that India’s interaction with the Gulf and Arab world started at the dawn of history and dwelled on the importance of India’s relationship with the region, especially the GCC countries, by terming it existential to India’s interests. The GCC countries constitute India’s largest socio-economic partner anywhere in the world, is its largest trade partner, two thirds of the country’s oil requirements come from Gulf, approx 6.3 million Indians reside there and Indians are the largest nationality of outside workforce in each GCC country. He hoped that the coming years will see the dawn of a new era in Indo-Egyptian relations.

    In his concluding remarks, Dr. Arvind Gupta re-emphasised India’s economic, societal and security interests being deeply linked to the Arab world and said that India cannot remain a bystander to the developments in the region. India had to evacuate close to 20,000 Indian nationals in Libya and its ships are at the forefront fighting piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Therefore, there is a need to re-strategise India’s policy towards the region. The positive image of India in the Arab world can be leveraged to build up contacts there. Attention should be on critical issues of security with establishment of a security dialogue being a good opportunity to understand the regional perception of India’s participation in the region. International seminars and joint academic and research work on all key areas should be taken up. After all, a changing global order affects both India and Egypt.

    Report prepared by Rajorshi Roy, Research Assistant, IDSA.