Nabil Fahmy is a former Egyptian foreign minister, who has spent nearly four decades in public service. He worked in the offices of former president Anwar al-Sadat and his vice president at the time, Hosni Mubarak. He also served at Egypt’s permanent mission to the United Nations, and was Egypt’s ambassador to the United States and Japan. After leaving the office, Fahmy established the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. He is the author of Egypt’s Diplomacy in War, Peace, and Transition (Palgrave, 2020). Diwan interviewed Fahmy in April to get his perspective on regional affairs, and to talk about the Arabic translation of his book, due out in June.

Nael Shama: The Middle East is going through rapid transformation. What are the main regional challenges Egypt faces today?

Nabil Fahmy: Take into account that Egypt is on two continents, Africa and Asia, borders two waterways, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, and imports most of its foodstuffs and its national security capacity requirements, tries to attract foreign investment, and up to a decade ago also imported its energy needs. With such realities you have to depend strongly on foreign policy. Therefore it is imperative that Egypt be activist in its foreign policy and try to stay ahead of the curve, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

As the Middle East has changed, Egypt has faced the challenge of how to lead the region and how to be proactive in a regional and global environment that is in flux. The region and Arab world are now being influenced by non-Arab countries in the Middle East. And many of the Arab countries, including Egypt, have gone through domestic transformational periods. So, we need to once again be ahead of the curve and that is a challenge in an unstable period.

Because of rapid population growth we are also more driven now than ever before by asset needs—in contrast to a period in the past when our direction was more visionary and was focused on political objectives. The biggest challenge therefore is to balance needs and aspirations looking forward, all at a time when the future is not clear. However, that is what leadership is all about!

NS: There seems to be a consensus that Egypt’s regional influence has declined in recent years. Do you agree? If so, how can Egypt regain its prominent role?

NF: I would change that a little bit. I think it is more that we don’t continue to have the semi-exclusive leadership role that we had in the past, at least for now. That’s true whether the people like it or not. The region has grown and changed structurally and functionally. To lead it you have to lead it differently. That is the first point. Has our influence decreased? Yes it has, but I still believe that if you want to define leadership it should not be in absolute terms, but relative to others. I believe that Egypt can, more than any other country in the region, have a very strong, even a salient, influence when it comes to defining regional directions on a multitude of issues.

Egypt’s uniqueness or advantage traditionally goes back to its intellectual soft power rather than its hard assets. We have always engaged on a multitude of fronts regionally and globally. We’ve had opinions on North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. We’ve had opinions on the Mashreq (the eastern part of the Arab world), on the Arab-Israeli peace process. We’ve had opinions on the Gulf. And that’s just in terms of politics. We’ve also had opinions on economic issues and on social direction. More than any other country in the Arab region we’ve been ahead of the curve intellectually. I still believe that if we reinvest in creativity and refocus on that, we can regain much of our leadership.

It’s not going to be exclusive leadership, nor do I want it to be so. I am happy to have competition and I am happy to have others striving to lead in certain areas. However, Egypt has the foundation, manpower, and intellectual depth to engage simultaneously on many issues, more than anybody else in our region.

NS: Now that the African Union-led talks between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia in Kinshasa have collapsed over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, what are the options available for Egyptian policymakers to deal with this challenge?

NF: Our leadership role was always about finding where the region was going or where we wanted to take it—setting the agenda looking forward. Frankly, if Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia had looked at the Renaissance Dam issue strategically 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the crisis we are today because this is an issue in which we don’t have conflicting interests. Ethiopia wants more development, which is possible. Sudan wants to regulate the flow of the Nile without floods and droughts, which is also possible while providing Ethiopia with development. And Egypt wants more water because we have a rapid increase in population growth. That is also possible, even with Ethiopia getting the electricity it needs for development and Sudan being able to regulate water flows.

So, the problem isn’t that there is insufficient water to address those issues. The problem is that over the years we have dealt with each other in an adversarial way rather than seeking solutions that benefit all. But today the options are very very limited. We’re at a crossroads. Either we will see, between now and the end of summer, the political will to resolve this problem constructively, which would be surprising since it’s so late in the game; or one country or the other will change its position fundamentally, which would also be surprising. If either of these two alternatives happens, a negotiated settlement is possible. However, if there is no settlement we will be faced with situation in which Ethiopia will be creating facts on the ground and asserting that it and it alone can decide how to manage the water flow. That goes against accepted international practices regarding water flows that cross national boundaries. This will put everyone in front of hard choices. I think a solution is possible, but I don’t expect one over the next two months. A solution will require both wisdom and resolve.

NS: Do you believe military options are on the table?

NF: I never rule anything out. That being said, I always believe in negotiating first, second, and third. Only use force if there are no other options, because it always brings unexpected consequences, tremendous risks, and long-term resentments. My patience with negotiations is almost endless, but there is a point where negotiations become useless. That is why I mentioned wisdom and resolve. You have to have both, but take a decision when one has to be taken.

NS: Let me move to the issue of peace with Israel. In the 1990s, Egypt felt uneasy about the pace of normalization between the Arab states and Israel, feeling it was too quick. Do you think Egypt looks the same way at the recent normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab countries?

NF: No, I don’t actually. Egypt was actually the first to talk about a normalization of relations at the UN General Assembly in 1977, but we projected it as being the result of an end to occupation. Even under those conditions the concept raised eyebrows and discomfort among some circles because it was a novel idea. When we negotiated peace with Israel they insisted on including official normalization between the two countries, which we accepted while pointing out that comprehensive normalization, including with other Arabs, would not be achieved without peace.

In the 1990s, talks about a new Middle East were mostly presented by Israel and as a prelude to peace. We weren’t against a new Middle East, but our problem was that this was supposed to be a consequence of the end of conflict, not take place in lieu of an end of conflict. And that’s really where we felt that we could not forgo Palestinian rights, which are historic and legitimate, in exchange for short-term material gains. My position is consistent with the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Normalization should happen, not only between Israel and bordering states but between Israel and all Arab countries, provided that the occupation is ended and you establish a Palestinian state. The concept of normalization is more acceptable today, but there still are differences about sequencing before or after the end of conflict.

That being said, governments can and will take sovereign decisions. I have told my Palestinian colleagues that I understand their concerns. However, I also told them that they shouldn’t spend their energy criticizing Arab decisions, which are the prerogatives of these countries. They should try to increase the diplomatic momentum and push the peace process forward, while focusing more on Israel.

NS: You mentioned the influence of non-Arab states on the Arab world. What are your views about rising Iranian influence in places such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen? Do you think a rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran is needed?

NF: The Middle East is suffering from an Arab vacuum, one defined by a lack of engagement and creativity, an overdependence on foreigners, and an imbalance between the national security capacities of Arab states and of non-Arab Middle Eastern states—Turkey, Israel and Iran. All this has fuelled these countries’ ambitions in the region.

Second, I am an internationalist and a realist. Turkey, Israel, and Iran are not going anywhere. They will remain in the region and they will continue to have interests and aspirations. So, the issue is not about having them or not having them, but how we deal with each other. I support engaging all three countries. But engagement is not the goal, it is a tool to better manage the relationship. I don’t think we’re going to have stability in the region except through Turkish-Arab and Iranian-Arab rapprochements. By this I mean through the involvement of Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel when it pursues policies not defined by its right-wing parties alone, but includes centrist parties that can move the peace process forward.

However, to do all this seriously you have to proceed gradually. I don’t want to claim that everything has been resolved, but there has been progress of late in Egyptian–Turkish relations, while Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a dialogue. So, I hope these will lead to concrete steps from the Iranian and Turkish sides, and reciprocal steps after that to build confidence for a more serious diplomatic dialogue. I think the first contacts should be through the security services because interference in the affairs of other countries is above all a security issue.

NS: The map of alliances in the Middle East seems to be changing, as is the security architecture. Do you think that institutions such as the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are now obsolete, or can they be revived?

NF: The Arab League and the GCC are different. The GCC is subregional while the Arab League is regional. The issues of the Middle East are no longer a part of a bipolar Cold War era as in the past, when the prominence of the Arab League was at its peak. Today, we are in a period in which issues are more regional and even subregional, which affects the Arab League.

The Arab countries allowed the Arab League’s political approach—not its approach to social and economic issues—to be focused on dealing with threats rather than opportunities. If you’re looking only at threats, then if some members don’t feel threatened by a particular issue there is a breakdown in collective cohesion. And because of that, except for the Palestinian issue, most of the matters preoccupying the Arab world are now subregional. And therefore, the Arab League has not really been as effective as it should be, or was in the past.

I would add another problem. The Arabs have been great at adopting resolutions announcing they are in full agreement with each other, truthful or not, but they have not done well in dealing with their differences and their separate priorities. States need to understand that the regional composition of the Arab League supports all Arab countries in their interregional competition with non-Arab states. The GCC, which is growing very quickly, has done so because it has tended to deal with short-term, tactical subregional issues rather than long-term, strategic ones.

We are now in an evolving global environment, therefore it is important to invigorate the Arab League by focusing more on opportunities for cooperation while addressing existing threat perceptions. If Arabs do not reestablish a balanced national security capacity with non-Arab regional states—involving the military, security, intelligence, political, and other dimensions—and we’re living in a regional environment rather than a global political one, we will end up being on the wrong side of things because global powers today are fighting different battles. They are simply not as focused on the Middle East as they once were. They will not try to defend Arab interests at the expense of other interests.

NS: Finally, let me ask you about your book. I believe an Arabic edition is coming out soon. Does it include information not available in the English edition?

NF: It is due out in June. The English version that came out last year dealt with Egyptian diplomacy in war and peace and was directed at a foreign audience. That is why a number of Arab and Egyptian anecdotes and details were not included in the book. The Arab version has the same backbone as the English version, but deals with particularly sensitive Arab issues not dealt with in the English version, especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example. It also includes Arab and Egyptian accounts that are more relevant to Arab readers. But I’ll let them buy the book and discover what they are.