One of Egypt’s most distinguished former diplomats warned Thursday against further Western military interventions in the Middle East, saying that would only raise questions in the Arab world “about your intentions.”
Nabil Fahmy, a former ambassador at large and now dean of public affairs at the American University of Cairo, noted that many people in the Arab world are prone to accept conspiracy theories and would see hidden motivations in any intervention beyond the current one in Libya.
In a speech to the Royal Institute of International Relations in London, he called the Libyan situation “a tragedy on both sides.” Libya’s use of military force against its own people is “disgraceful,” he said, and the Arab League support for Western intervention did not envisage a full-scale NATO military operation.
“I wouldn’t recommend further military intervention elsewhere in the Middle East,” he said.
A former Egyptian ambassador to the United States and to Japan, the New York-born diplomat expressed confidence that Egypt, following the revolution that brought down President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, would meet its goal of achieving a new democratic government within six to 12 months.
Timetables are still under discussion but he said it is clear that the country will proceed first to parliamentary elections, then to writing a new Constitution, then to a presidential election. Whether the country continues to use the presidential system, a parliamentary system or a combination of the two remains to be decided.
Thirty-two political parties already have been formed, and there are 15 candidates for president.
“Our value added is that we have been the trend setters intellectually (in the Arab world),” he said. “People look to us to move the region forward. We will stumble but we will not fail. This is a process by trial and error.”
He suggested failure was only a theoretical possibility, but “if we fail, there will be repercussions throughout the Arab Middle East.”
Ambassador Fahmy praised the role of the Egyptian military during the revolution and in the transition period and said he was confident it would not attempt to hold onto the reins of power.
He said a new government would pursue a more activist foreign policy and take on a more global role than in the past.
As for the economy, he said Egypt has two needs: a huge amount of immediate cash, then investments to help create jobs. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and some other Arab states have been generous in providing cash, he said, but much more is needed.
The economic climate for investors, he added, will be more favorable than in the past, due in part to an absence of corruption and greater transparency.
Ambassador Fahmy said there was no question of going back to socialism in Egypt. The new system will involve a market economy, but with an element of social justice.
The course of reforms will not be decided by the first election, he said, but will depend on “whether we can put together the checks and balances that will be representative of the widespread aspiration of our people.”
One of the domestic issues to be decided, he said, is the role of religion. The new Egypt will not be a secular state like those in Europe or the United States and religion will continue to have an important role in society, whether through religious parties or otherwise.
He said no one could predict how votes will be divided in an election. Past participation in elections and referendums has been in the single digits, but a referendum recently produced a 44 percent turnout. From 2 to 3 million voters previously, the country can expect more than 20 million.
If there is not a high turnout, he said “traditional ideologues” may prevail.
Ambassador Fahmy said he went around the Cairo streets during the revolution and talked to a great many people, concluding that the country’s deep-rooted poverty and lack of economic opportunity were not the prime factors motivating people to demand change. The people’s main concerns, he said, were good government, human freedom and democracy.
(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune and has worked extensively in the Middle East. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)