Watch the event
Uncorrected transcript: Check against delivery
Arab Republic of Egypt
National Security Correspondent
The Wall Street Journal
Jane Holl Lute
Atlantic Council Board Director
Scowcroft Center Advisory Council Member
President and CEO of SICPA North America
JANE HOLL LUTE: Good morning. My name is Jane Holl Lute. I’m a director here at the Atlantic Council, and a former administration official under the Obama administration, and a former UN official as well. Welcome to AC Front Page.
This is the Atlantic Council’s premier live platform for world leaders tackling today’s problems. AC Front Page provides an essential forum for navigating the dramatic and most important issues of our day.
We’re delighted this morning to welcome His Excellency Sameh Shoukry, foreign minister of Egypt. He’ll talk today about the war in Gaza, and Egypt’s leadership role in the conflict, and broader regional consequences of the fighting. This discussion comes eight weeks into the Israeli-Gaza war and following the breakdown of talks to extend a weeklong pause that saw the release of 105 hostages in return for 240 Palestinians.
His Excellency Sameh Shoukry has been Egypt’s foreign minister since 2014. He has a long and distinguished diplomatic career in both bilateral and multilateral forums, including as Egypt’s representative to the United States. He served in Europe, in Latin America, as well as numerous postings with United Nations agencies. Minister, thank you so much for joining us.
Today’s conversation will be moderated by Vivian Salama, national security correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She too has a distinguished career spanning decades covering US foreign policy and national security issues. She’s reported widely from the region—Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Iraq, and the UAE. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Rutgers University, a master’s degree in Middle East politics from Columbia, and a law degree from my alma mater, Georgetown University Law Center.
This event is hosted by the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative. Please visit our website to learn more about their work on this important and other topics.
For those in the audience here in the studio or watching virtually, please submit any questions to askAC.org. Please select the title of this event to be directed to the submission page. And we will get to those questions later on in the program. Vivian, over to you.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Thanks so much, Jane. It’s always great to be at the Atlantic Council. And Minister Shoukry—Welcome back to —welcome back to Egypt? Just to show you where my mind is. Welcome back to Washington.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Thank you so much.
VIVIAN SALAMA: It’s always great to see you here. I interviewed you last on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. A lot has happened since then, and so we’ll dive right into it.
I just joined Secretary of State Antony Blinken on several of his trips to the region and I actually attended a press conference with you; Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi; and the secretary which—I think the simple way to say it is that you agreed to disagree on very key issues when it came to the conflict in Gaza. Now many of you are in town here today talking about a ceasefire again. We’re two months into this conflict and still no ceasefire. There has been a pause, but we still haven’t yet achieved the ceasefire that so many Arab and Muslim countries have been pushing for in large part because of humanitarian issues. But can you lay out for the audience really why? Beyond just simply saying it’s a humanitarian issue, what are the—what are the long-term ramifications if the bombs don’t stop, if this fighting does not stop sooner than later?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, thank you very much. I’m happy to be with you this morning. And as you mentioned, I am here in conjuncture with the visit of the Arab League and OIC on behalf of the summits that were held in Riyadh to address the developing situation in Gaza.
And I would draw attention to the fact that this is somewhat of a particular situation. Generally, in all conflicts there has always been a determination by the international community to apply the charter of the United Nations and to seek a cessation of hostilities, and that conflicts should be resolved through diplomatic and political means and not through the use of force. In this case, it seems to be different and it seems to be reluctance to undertake a ceasefire, to endorse through the Security Council a call for a cessation of hostilities.
But that also is related to the development of this conflict and its nature. Certainly, there has—the countries of the Arab League and the Arab League itself at the level of ministers of foreign affairs did indicate that it was unacceptable, the attacks that were perpetrated on the seventh of October, but also recognized the need to resolve the conflict and that the conflict, in its broader terms, was also connected to the issue of occupation.
The nature of the conflict has resulted in an unprecedented level of human suffering in terms of the impact on the civilian population of Gaza. Gaza is the most densely populated area in the world. So far the count in the period since the conflict started, over sixteen thousand civilian casualties, among them six thousand or more children. A third of casualties are women and children. The destruction of more than half of the built residences and other infrastructure related to Gaza have been destroyed. And from all of the accounts of the impartial United Nations relief agencies, we are on the cusp of a humanitarian catastrophe.
VIVIAN SALAMA: What are the implications for Egypt on all of this?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, first of all, of course, it’s a matter of security of the region and stability. Any conflict that arises, especially one that is adjacent to our border, will have repercussions—repercussions in terms of our security, in terms of our economy. We have had a decline in our tourist revenues. But it is the situation that also poses the threats of increased radicalization, increased terrorist activity.
For all these purposes, I think it has been clear that we must resolve. This is not the first conflict between Israel and Hamas. This is the sixth conflict. There have been five conflicts in the past, during which Egypt did play a role in facilitating for both sides discussions that led to an understanding related to maintaining tranquility and providing certain understandings between both Israel and Hamas.
This has been an ongoing relationship for the last fifteen years, fraught with escalations from time to time, but never has it been to this extent. We all recognize the developments related to the seventh and the shock that ensued in the Israeli public and the—it was always expected that there would be a proportionate response and one that would not lead to this sort of situation that has many complexities and dynamics.
Among them, of course, is the issue of displacement—internal displacement, which is a violation of international humanitarian law, and displacement outside of Gaza itself. At the start of this conflict, there were official declarations that the intention was to displace the people of Gaza to the Sinai. This is totally unacceptable, because, as I said, it’s a violation of international humanitarian law, but also because it is an effort to liquidate the Palestinian cause, liquidate the aspirations of more than four million Palestinians to have their own state, and thereby it is totally unacceptable that this should be a policy implemented.
Despite the fact that this has receded in terms of declaration, all the measures that are being taken seem to be still leading towards the implementation of such displacement. The movement of almost one million people from the north to the south and now the military activity in the south and the conditions that are quite inhumane that have resulted in the south now do pose a threat of further displacement out of Gaza.
VIVIAN SALAMA: And it’s important just to note on that point that Egypt has already absorbed enormous number of refugees in recent years between conflict in Sudan to its south, conflict in Libya to its west. And so this is really—
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, according to the IOM Egypt now is hosting nine million refugees whether Sudanese, Libyans, Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, a multitude of other African nations. We have done so out of a responsibility—a moral responsibility and, of course, it does cause economic difficulties for us because we provide all facilities of employment, of medical health care, of education, full taking advantage of our subsidy systems, and we do not in any way sequester these people—these refugees in camps. They are allowed to integrate into society and have freedom of movement.
So for all due purposes the issue is not the economic burden. In this case some contend, well, since there are nine million why not one or two million more. But that is absolutely not acceptable for the political ramifications related to this displacement and for the potential if this can be the case in Gaza then why not in the West Bank, and we see the activities of the aggressive, violent attacks of the settler community to intimidate and to, again, move people out of their homes.
The confiscations of lands, the demolition of homes, all of this, again, is an effort to create the conditions that causes displacement of Palestinians from their territory.
VIVIAN SALAMA: If there is time later I would like to circle back on security in Sinai. I’m also going to be giving the audience a chance to ask you questions as well. But I do want to come back really quickly to the issue of the ceasefire because Israel says without the hostages being released we’re not going to do a ceasefire and the US, largely, supports that view.
Egypt and also Qatar have been tirelessly working to secure the release of hostages through their contacts with Hamas. The US has praised Egypt and Qatar for its efforts. But we’ve sort of hit an impasse at this point where Hamas suddenly—after we had a pause and some hostages were released Hamas says no more for now. Can you update us on that situation and where things stand?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, it’s somewhat contradictory. It was during a humanitarian pause that the ability to exchange hostages and detainees was accomplished. So the conditions under which there was a pause did facilitate the discussion and the agreement to release hostages, and we were continuing those discussions and they are difficult. They are complicated. But they are not insurmountable and I believe that if the pause—military pause had continued there would have been further discussions to resolve the differences that arose—differences in interpretation, in categorization, of who would be freed and in what order they would be freed.
But, certainly, there was an ongoing process and we were disappointed that it was not able to extend the military pause so that we could continue to address the issues of hostages.
We called for the release of all hostages. We worked for the release of all hostages. But necessarily there needed to be more time. There are still ongoing discussions of a very sensitive nature so I won’t delve into their details.
VIVIAN SALAMA: The pause literally ended last week when we were in the motorcade in Tel Aviv driving to the airport and we asked US officials what happened. They said the ball is in Hamas’s court. It’s because of them that the ceasefire stopped—this temporary pause stopped. Do you agree with that?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: I don’t think it’s helpful to try to allocate blame on either side. It only complicates sensitive negotiations and doesn’t create the necessary incentives to pursue further understandings.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Yeah. These attacks by Hamas are viewed globally as an enormous intelligence failure on the part of Israel but also its allies. I have sources and other journalists have reported that Egypt did offer a warning of an attack of some kind that Hamas might have been plotting. We’re always—I’m a journalist. I’m always trying to make news here. So can you comment on that? Did Egypt offer a warning?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: I have no specific information as related to this incident or this attack, but I can say that Egypt has been constantly, in its discussions with Israel, highlighting the importance of the resolution of the conflict so as to avoid the frustrations and the utilization of the Palestinian issue and the lack of achievement by violent terrorist extremists who, in view of the frustration, in view of the lack of progress, will have no other recourse but to resort to violence. So I can put it in more general and broad terms that there has always been a threat and a possibility that—I had always said that if we continue—personally—if we continue to be—to be taken by this lull and tranquility, something bad is going to happen eventually that will wake us up to the—to the situation that we have let stagnate for some time. And I think this is one of the consequences.
VIVIAN SALAMA: As someone who has spent half her career in the region—and I was in Gaza in 2005 when Hamas was sort of coming into power—it’s pretty astonishing to see where they are now versus where they were back then. The US says Iran is complicit. Maybe it wasn’t directly involved in planning this attack, but it is complicit because it has aided them with weapons, with financial assistance. Is that Egypt’s view too, or are there other parties that may have also bolstered Hamas?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: In your capacity as a journalist, I’m sure you are—you recognize that there were others closer who had financed Hamas over the last fifteen years who might now be in direct conflict with Hamas. So it’s, I think, common knowledge, and it is policies that I think were misconstrued.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Can I—can I make a guess now just for the sake of our audience? Are we talking about the Muslim Brotherhood?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Not necessarily, but there are others also who have been involved in the financing and maintaining the separation between Gaza and the West Bank by maintaining the ability of Hamas to continue to control Gaza.
VIVIAN SALAMA: I’ll try one more time. Do you want to name names, or?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: I will not name. I’ll leave that to your journalistic prowess.
VIVIAN SALAMA: All right, folks. We’ll talk afterwards, then. I will say that on the trips also that I went on with Secretary Blinken I did accompany him to Ramallah and we saw Abu Mazen, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. It’s clear that the US and its allies believe that the Palestinian Authority needs to play some role in Gaza’s future. And in order for that to happen, allies need to collectively do what they can to strengthen the PA’s authority, its leadership, its institutions, its finances. But then what? You know, what if the people of Gaza reject them after all of that? What is the—what is the view?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, again, the issue of the day after is—as far as we’re concerned is not necessarily the right time to discuss. I think the important is to concentrate on today rather than what will happen in the future. We have no idea what the contours of the situation in Gaza or in the region will be at the end of this conflict. So it’s more important to concentrate on ending the conflict and then moving on to developing a strategy between the various components that provides us the foundations for a better situation.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Respectfully, I will not let you off the hook on this one because the US officials publicly tell us that this is a primary discussion with Arab allies and others, including with Israel. I want to read a quote from Jordan’s foreign minister about this topic. He said, How can we even entertain what will happen in Gaza when we don’t know what kind of Gaza will be left after the war is done? Are we talking about a wasteland? Are we talking about a whole population reduced to refugees? But these are issues that the US is definitely talking about. In fact, to quote Antony Blinken off the top of my head, last week he said, we’re not only talking with them about the day after; we’re talking about the day after the day after. And so it’s hard—can you—can you even share, in your view—in Egypt’s view what that looks like, given where we are two months in where, as you said, millions displaced, tens of thousands dead?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, as you see, both my distinguished Jordanian colleague and I have the same views that it is not appropriate, or else we will be complicit in the continuation of this conflict if we were to address a day after that. We have no idea in what form it will be. We have no idea what sort of conditions will be existent in Gaza. We don’t know the duration and thereby I don’t think it’s really the priority now to deflect the attention that we need to be giving to the end of—the cessation of hostilities and to the presumed day after.
VIVIAN SALAMA: I will ask one more time, though, because, you know, the question has come up in recent days here in Washington about whether or not there should be elections in the future of Gaza or whether that would inevitably bring Hamas or something even more powerful than Hamas and more destructive than Hamas into power.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: But you see, by your presentation you are making a distinction to Gaza. Gaza is not a distinct area in itself. Gaza is part and parcel of Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinian territories under occupation.
VIVIAN SALAMA: So you have given it thought, then.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: No. I’m just describing a situation—
VIVIAN SALAMA: I know.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: —that it leads us also—this potential discussion about the day after seems to be concentrating on isolating Gaza as an independent territory, and it is not. It is a—it is similar—it is not similar—it is a continuation of the Palestinian territory under occupation, and thereby any future must be related to both the West Bank and Gaza as an integral unit, whether in terms of governance, whether in terms of our ability to implement the two-state solution that would incorporate both the West Bank and Gaza, so anything related to the future of Gaza cannot be taken in isolation to the overall legal condition of the occupation.
VIVIAN SALAMA: I imagine that’s something that you and folks here in Washington are on the same page about at least.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: There has been a chorus of revitalization of the two-state solution as the most important manner to end the conflict. But then I fear that having given the two-state solution lip service over the last thirty years that now many are advocating for this as, again, a deflection from having to address the very painful situation that exists on the—in Gaza today.
VIVIAN SALAMA: I actually heard you say that about the two-state solution in an interview yesterday and I was hoping that it would come up today because I wanted to ask you—you know, you say it gives lip service to the two-state solution. I would assume it’s not your view that there should not be a two-state solution but that there’s a time for it. What is that time? I mean, do we not talk about it until bombs stop flying?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: No, of course we are strong supporters of a two-state solution, but I think this issue has—does represent the consensus of the international community, is a part of the legitimacy of resolutions issued by the United Nations, has been negotiated by the two parties over the last thirty years. Everybody recognizes the parameters and the definition of many of the issues pertaining to the implementation of a two-state solution. So what we need now is not to advocate that it is a solution that we should seek through the—what we have been doing for the last thirty years, but that it is the only manner to resolve the conflict and should be implemented. There are the mechanisms that are capable of doing so. There is the United States who has the ability to I won’t say enforce but at least provide the incentives to all sides so as to implement the two-state solution. We can’t continue to address this from a theoretical perspective. As well, it is maybe in terminology not the right thing to address since there is a state existing, which is Israel, which is recognized, which is a member of the United Nations. It is the creation of a Palestinian state that is lacking and we should thereby address that issue and proceed, and hopefully that will end the conflict, will end the cycle of violence and what we see today happening in Gaza.
VIVIAN SALAMA: One of the issues that I’m very interested in is sort of what comes in between the end of hostilities and the future of Gaza, and right now there’s a lot of discussion about security. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week said that the IDF would have to retain open-ended security control of the Gaza Strip long after the war with Hamas ended. What is your response to that?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Again, this—if that is the intention, then it is the maintenance of the occupation. And it is not giving due attention to, as we said, the internationally accepted formula of a two-state solution.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Of course, Egypt already shares a border with Israel. It has diplomatic relations with Israel. But having Israel also on its border in Gaza adds to a unique dynamic that we haven’t seen in a decade and a half at least. And so—two decades almost, actually. So, you know, does that concern Egypt? Is that a potential escalation for Egypt or a concern that your security may be somehow in jeopardy?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, our security is in jeopardy by virtue of the potential for displacement, by virtue of the rise of terrorist activity in the region associated with the suffering that has resulted and the cycle of revenge that has been created. But as far as our bilateral relations with Israel being neighbors, we have a very solid foundation in terms of the peace agreement that has shown its resilience, its ability to overcome challenges. And we are fully committed to maintaining the peace and continuing to have a normal relationship and the channels of communications that are deep and have been productive to both countries.
VIVIAN SALAMA: So what is the alternative, then? Or is there a viable alternative to Israeli forces being in Gaza once hostilities end? US officials have said, you know, their hope is that they would be able to get a multinational force, maybe an Arab multinational force of some kind, to do that. Are you open to that idea? And, if so, is Egypt willing to send forces?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Again, you seem to be going back to the issue of the day after, and—
VIVIAN SALAMA: It’s in between—the day in between.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: At this juncture, all I can say is that Israel has a responsibility, as the occupying power, and should undertake that responsibility, not only in terms of security but in terms of the wellbeing of the people under occupation currently. And as the secretary general has determined in his invocation of Article 99 of the charter of the United Nations, this situation is a threat to international peace and security because of the potential of the collapse of the humanitarian conditions in Gaza.
VIVIAN SALAMA: OK. I will, in about six minutes, seven minutes, offer the opportunity for folks here in the audience and people watching virtually to submit their questions. But I did want to talk to you a little bit about the Rafah crossing to Gaza, between Egypt and Gaza. There was a lot of back and forth in the early days about whether Egypt would open the crossing—OK, it opened it; whether Israel and Hamas would allow aid in or people out. Several days of negotiations happened. Things sort of started moving along. But it’s been challenging, and it remains challenging even now, some days better than others. Can you just update us on the situation?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, let me just say that there seems to be a lot of distortion related to the Rafah crossing, even in your reference to whether the crossing was open. The crossing has been constantly open. The crossing has never been closed. The crossing has facilitated the movement of people from Gaza into Egypt for purposes of education, health care, travel beyond Egypt. And the crossing has never been closed. It’s always been open.
When October the seventh happened, there were applications that it should be closed, that the siege of Gaza should be complete, which we refused. And subsequently the crossing was bombed four times.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Right.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: When we tried to repair it, four Egyptian nationals were injured.
VIVIAN SALAMA: But it was closed during the—when it was damaged. Is that correct?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: That is the only time.
VIVIAN SALAMA: OK.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: It was inoperable. It wasn’t closed.
VIVIAN SALAMA: OK.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: We maintained the staff on our side. They were very willing. But it was damaged. There was a crater created by the bombardment. And we were not able to repair it because, if we tried to, as we did we were bombed again. And there were casualties, as I mentioned, and injured. So it was inoperable and not closed, and it was never closed before October the seventh and it was never closed after October the seventh, and it hasn’t been closed since except for those four days where it was inoperable. And the discussions, as facilitated by Ambassador David Satterfield with Israel, was to put in place a mechanism to enable us to—for the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza. And of course, it was not possible except through that agreement, or else we would have been putting the drivers of the trucks entering in harm’s way. They would have been targeted by Israel if they had not provided the approval for the entry and the—hadn’t endorsed the mechanism that was developed between Egypt, Israel, and the United States.
Since then, we have tried as much as possible to allow the highest volume of assistance to enter. This has not been the case because there’s a complicated vetting process that Israel insists on undertaking that has restricted the ability to—for the flow. Before the October 7, the Strip was receiving five hundred trucks daily. Since the conflict has begun, we gradually went up from forty to fifty to seventy to a hundred. During the pause for the negotiations on the hostages, we were able to go up to over 140, 150. But now we are back at the level of seventies to one hundred, and this is insufficient. It’s absolutely a drop in the ocean for the needs of the Palestinians, and it’s a very dire situation that we are facing.
VIVIAN SALAMA: These trucks, the arrangement has been that they be vetted first on the Egypt-Israel border before heading north to Gaza. Is that correct? And do you think that’s impacted the—
SAMEH SHOUKRY: They are being vetted in El-Auga Crossing by Israel and then returning to enter through Rafah. And we, again, conform to the agreement that was—that we reached and assisted by Ambassador Satterfield.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Israel says that Hamas has made it difficult for people to access Rafah, that it tries to prevent people from going. Hamas says that Israel is bombing the crossing to this day, continues to bomb, even though it said it would moderate its operations in the south. Is this a concern for Egypt?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: No, the crossing hasn’t been bombed since the beginning of the conflict. But it is the conditions and the military activity that, of course, restricts the ability of the UN agencies—UNRWA—to receive and to distribute the assistance. And then it’s the volume of assistance that is quite deficient from meeting any of the needs of almost two million people who are now amassed in the south of Gaza.
VIVIAN SALAMA: As always, I have many, many more questions to ask you, but I did want to just squeeze in one more before we turn it to the audience. The US has been concerned in recent weeks that Russia may try to take advantage of instability in the region, whether it’s because of the war between Israel and Hamas or the activity by the Houthis right now firing missiles around. There’s been attacks on US facilities in Syria and in Iraq. Are you concerned that third parties, outside parties, whether state or nonstate, are going to seize on this moment to try to create greater instability in the region?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: It is certainly an issue of concern that conflict might spread regionally or beyond, that other state or nonstate actors might become involved. I think so far it is contained, to a great extent, to Gaza. There have—there have been the skirmishes to the north between Hezbollah and Israel, but for all due purposes it seems to be a —determined by both sides not to escalate, which is, I think, a reasonable development. But then the dangers always exist. Miscalculations or mistakes can happen that might lead to broadening the conflict. And we have been in close touch with many of the potential participants who indicate—and the United States in providing the deterrence. The presence of US military in the region I think has sent a strong message that this conflict should not be—should not escalate.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Not to mention warships from the US and UK in the eastern Mediterranean right now, right.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: True. True.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Well, I want to give an opportunity to allow folks here to ask questions. Just make sure you introduce yourselves, tell us where you are—who you are, where you’re from. Yes, sir?
Q: Hi. Thank you for taking the time to do this, the two of you. And I would like to ask two questions very quickly.
The first one is, is Egypt—thank you so much—is Egypt willing to resettle the Palestinian refugees for a short period of time until Israel is done with its, quote/unquote, “strategic goals”? That’s the first question.
The second one is when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas Egypt designates the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization but not Hamas. The US designates Hamas as a terrorist organization but not the Muslim Brotherhood. Do you see any distinction between both and do you feel that this is necessary in assessing the situation—the ongoing situation in Gaza? Thank you.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Thank you very much. As I think I clearly indicated that Egypt does not support the displacement nor does it believe that it should be complicit in allowing for the displacement for the purpose of liquidating the Palestinian cause and we will continue to maintain that position.
And I believe that the Palestinians themselves are against any form of displacement. I think what we should all concentrate on is the end of hostilities so that we can meet the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people and resolve whatever conflicts as we have done five times before.
So, again, no displacement. It is a violation of international humanitarian law and should not be contemplated as a manner of relieving or achieving objectives related to dealing with an occupation situation and grabbing more lands from their owners.
We’ve been always very clear in our perspective related to terrorism and fundamentalism and radical ideologies that there shouldn’t be any distinction between any organizations whether it’s Muslim Brotherhood, whether it’s Shabaab, it’s Boko Haram, it’s any organization that has a foundation that is associated with radical religious ideologies, and our contacts with Hamas were at the request of Israel and it was acceptable so that we could intervene at the appropriate time to relieve the pressures and the conflicts that resulted by five cycles of confrontation between the two.
So, again, we are very clear in our perspective that there should be a unified position of the international community when it deals with organizations. Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, Daesh—any form of radical ideology should be treated and dealt with in the same manner.
So it surprises us when there are partners in Europe that give freedom of access and operation for organizations that do have a radical fundamentalist ideology. I think it’s a question that has to be posed—the consistency of the international community’s dealing, so it’s not just those that confront us directly but we should recognize that all of these organizations have one purpose and that is to perpetrate violence if need be.
They might present themselves at one time or another as a political organization but if they do not—are not able to overcome any opposition to their ideology then they will always revert to violence.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Thank you for that. I want to turn to virtual and just a reminder to folks who are watching us virtually you can submit your questions through askAC.org.
An anonymous person asks: How has the Gaza war impacted the Egyptian economy and negotiations with the IMF?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: It has impacted that, of course, unfortunately, though Egypt is very secure, though we don’t have any direct impact from the conflict generally in the region, we depend—10 percent of our GDP depends on tourism. There has been a decline in some of our tourist revenue because of cancellations by people who, when confronted with the news, considered that the whole region is in a state of turmoil and thereby avoid continuing their planned vacations.
It hasn’t—or maybe it has, to a degree, an effect on our negotiations with the IMF because the IMF is more cognizant of the various challenges that Egypt faces, whether it’s because of the two years of the COVID and the Ukraine war and now the situation in Gaza, taking into account that the humanitarian assistance that has been provided to Gaza, 75 percent of it has been generated by the Egyptian government and Egyptian NGOs and the Egyptian public, who has shown a very high degree of generosity. That in itself is an additional economic burden. So it’s a recognition that we have constantly been facing challenges, that it’s necessary when we apply the program that there is sufficient flexibility and consideration for the impacts of the war in Gaza, the war in Ukraine, the two years of the COVID, and how it has impacted our reform programs.
VIVIAN SALAMA: OK. I’m going to take one. The woman in the back who had a question, can you just wait for the mic to come to you? And don’t forget to introduce yourself. . . .
HULDA FAHMI: Hulda Fahmi with Jubilee Campaign. And my question is regarding the situation for religious minorities in Egypt, because the conflict has caused people—societal pressure on them to take a side in the war.
And then also the question on terrorism. The definition of terrorism in Egypt has been used quite widely, and people have been held in pretrial detention for merely exercising their freedom of speech and freedom of religion. And for example, the case I have represented here and which the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief raised was Abdulbaqi Saeed Abdo, a Christian Yemeni refugee. For sharing his beliefs on Facebook, he is in detention since December two years now. And it’s soon Christmas. He was arrested on the fifteenth of December. So we really want to see him released for Christmas. And what is Egypt going to do for him and for other people who are detained on blasphemy allegations or merely for exercising their freedom of religion and belief? Thank you.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Thank you.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, I think this is one of the accomplishments, and I think you will recognize that. President Sisi has been a very strong advocate of freedom of belief and religion, and has gone—I think the only leader in the Muslim and Arab world that has gone as far as the recognition of nonbelief, that the issue of religion is a matter between individual and his creator, and that there should be no form of involvement by the government or the state as relates this issue. He has continually advocated for freedom of religion and the need to reform the religious narrative in Egypt, and is a strong advocate and has shown by deed not only—and by example his receptivity; and his popularity within Egypt’s Christian community that is supportive and is cognizant of the direction that the country has taken since the president came to office, and there’s a growing sense of pride that it is—it is citizenship that is now the focus of the government’s attention.
As for specific cases, I’m sorry, I don’t have any information related to the particular case that the young lady has addressed. But I can say that there have been—all of these cases—similar cases that have come to my attention were all provided the due process of a full investigation, of defense, of trial. And if convicted, it is for having undertaken actions that are not in conformity with the laws. So it’s, again, a legal framework that we must look into, and it’s unfortunate that at times there have been associations with more radical and outlawed organizations on the perception of unity of purpose which has implicated individuals. And again, I’m not referring to any particular case. So sometimes it’s not that the case in question is a fundamental member of a terrorist organization, but has associated with an organization; has been utilized/manipulated by an organization. And again, I think we have to have confidence in an independent judiciary and the rule of law.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Thank you for the question. I want to turn back to some of the online answers, and I’m going to summarize them. A lot of questions, obviously, about the situation in Gaza, so going back to that.
There’s a lot of questions about the security of Egypt’s border, people flooding—potential of Palestinians, desperate Palestinians, flooding the Rafah Crossing or infiltration of the border by any kind of extremist elements. I mentioned earlier that if we have time I wanted to talk to you about security in the Sinai, which has been a concern of the Egyptian government certainly in the last decade but over the past decades, and there’s a very sensitive history in Sinai. So if you could talk a little bit about, you know, that, element of it, how you distinguish and try to help Palestinians, allow the crossing to function, but also ensuring Sinai’s security.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, let me say that it hasn’t been only one way in the crossing by providing assistance, but Egypt has been receiving also a large number of Palestinians who have been injured during this conflict and providing them health care in Arish or in the facilities in the canal area, and if the case necessitates in hospitals in Cairo. So it’s two-way traffic. There have been Palestinians—dual nationals who we have facilitated coming out of Gaza, hundreds who have come out, again, through arrangements and agreements with Israel facilitated also by the United States. So the crossing does serve both purposes.
Of course, the amassing or the displacement of Palestinians I think we’ve adequately addressed, is not something that we would support. And it’s from all what we see. The Palestinians themselves are cognizant of the—of the dangers of displacement to their relinquishing their rights for statehood, their rights of ownership of their lands, and are reluctant to leave despite the very dire circumstances, the humanitarian conditions. They are where they are because they recognize the dangers.
The situation on the Sinai, yes, we have had the turbulence of 2011 and subsequently the period of rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, which facilitated the entry into the Sinai of terrorist organizations. That we have addressed over the last ten years, and have demolished their infrastructure and to a great extent freed Sinai and its people of the dangers of the expansion of terrorism. We did lose almost 3,500 of our security personnel and almost 25,000 injured. And in the same time during that period, only one hundred unfortunate civilian casualties were sustained. This was an operation that took into account the need to protect our people and our security services did suffer. Currently, we have—
VIVIAN SALAMA: The Sinai 2018 operation.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Exactly. Currently I think this is now behind us and we look forward to Sinai prospering with the national infrastructure projects, with the development of tourism, which, of course, as we mentioned, is impacted, unfortunately, by the violence that’s adjacent to the Sinai.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Absolutely. There are questions also that have come in that relate to a story that some of my colleagues are working on, as well, about globally, and especially the global south, as we call it, you know, the view that the US has stood sort of wholeheartedly with Israel in this conflict and concern that it is losing the global south. President Biden came into office very much vowing to restore America’s standing in the world with its allies, show that it’s there. This issue has been very divisive here in the United States but also has created some turbulence abroad. And so, you travel everywhere; what are you hearing from your allies, from countries around the world about the US position here?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, I believe that the—as you mentioned, the global south is looking very carefully at the progression of this conflict and is making comparisons. And I believe that it is losing confidence in the viability of the values that have been projected, if you want to say, by the global north.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Talk about those values.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: And there is a feeling that there is a double standard in application of values as relates different issues and conflicts in the world. This is a dangerous situation because it will cause the unraveling of what we consider an important aspect of international relations, which is the rule-based world order. If we cannot apply values in a consistent and clear manner, then it will all become a turbulent—and apply policy in relations to individual perspectives what constitutes the best interests of nations rather than what is in conformity with international law, with the charter of the United Nations, with the rule base that we all have to be accountable to.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Do they—does the US give you, the Arab allies but also beyond—do you hear that they’re giving reassurances that they still have your back despite these differences in values?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, these are two different issues. The bilateral relations with the United States—I can speak on behalf of Egypt. We have a deep relationship, a strategic relationship that has been parallel, that has not intersected, that has been providing benefit to both sides equally, and we continue to promote the relationship and advance and explore new areas of cooperation. So we have every intention to maintain a healthy and robust relationship with the United States and define both our interests and how we might achieve it. So I think this is different from what we were discussing in more general terms as it relates to the perspectives of the global south to the global north, and how there’s an erosion of credibility in terms of the application of certain values that have always been supported and promoted by the global north. And this is, again, a very dangerous situation because it can cause the unraveling of the world order.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Another topic of interest here, and certainly something I’ve looked at very closely over the years, is the Abraham Accords. Some have speculated at least that it inflamed Hamas basically to carry out these attacks, that it was furious about Saudi Arabia in particular looking to potentially establish diplomatic ties with Israel. At this point, do you believe that the Gulf can be viewed as potential partners on this issue to try to support the Palestinian people? Egypt has long had diplomatic ties with Israel, as has Jordan. The Palestinians largely and increasingly feel that their Arab brothers and sisters have forsaken them. So what is your response to that?
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Not necessarily. I think you drew an example of Egypt and Jordan. Despite the fact that we have normalized and have normal relations with Israel, that has not deprived us of our ability to continue to support the Palestinian cause and to support the two-state solution and to work taking advantage of our relationships and our contacts with Israel to try to incentivize and attract and convince Israel of the benefits for itself in terms of applying the two-state solution.
So I don’t see any contradiction in that and I don’t think it is useful to deflect from the status of occupation, that this conflict erupted because of potential normalization between other Arab states and Israel. These are issues that even—I think there was an acceptance of the Abraham Accords on the part of the Palestinian Authority.
There shouldn’t be a distortion that the basic—this basic conflict is a conflict related to occupation, that there are lands that are occupied now for the last almost fifty years and that it is the only state of occupation that exists in the world of a people with a very distinct national identity who are living on a specific area of land who are deprived of their ability to govern themselves and to have the same rights as everyone else.
VIVIAN SALAMA: We only have a few minutes left but, you know, someone has asked here—and it’s an interesting question—about whether there’s a potential diplomatic resolution in all of this, particularly since the need to sort of spare greater civilian atrocity is so huge that—if there’s anything that Egypt or other countries can do to broker at least a temporary diplomatic solution until the future—the day after, as we keep saying—is figured out.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, certainly, I don’t think the—anyone can support further deterioration of the humanitarian conditions. Further loss of life of innocents, whether civilians, men, women, and children, is unacceptable at this rate. So the cessation of hostilities is fundamental, is very necessary.
And whatever the conflict, there are always opportunities. As I said, there have been five previous conflicts between Hamas and Israel which we interceded to resolve and to regain the tranquility. I recognize the complexity of the current conflict, but we shouldn’t in any way continue to the perpetration of military activity and violence and the consequences for civilians, but rather end hostilities and see how we can resolve the situation in political terms.
And again, it is—overall, the broader issue is the two-state solution. There’s a consensus that that is the manner in which we would end the conflict; that if the Palestinian state was created, there would be no justification for any violent terrorist activity perpetrated towards Israel. It relieves the whole region of the tensions that are associated with the continuation of the occupation and the lack of fulfillment of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. So—and opens the doors for integrations. We see the benefits of Egypt and Jordan having made peace. We see the benefits of the Abraham Accords. And we can certainly look to a future that is free of any animosity or hatred or revenge, and that opens the doors for regional integration and cooperation with all of the resources—both human resources and material resources – that can change the contours of this region.
VIVIAN SALAMA: Obviously, we could talk for hours about this, but I know you have a very busy schedule. Thank you so much, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, for joining us, and to the Atlantic Council for hosting us. Ladies and gentlemen, we appreciate your time. Have a great day.
SAMEH SHOUKRY: Thank you.
Watch the event
Fri, Nov 3, 2023
MENASource By Shahira Amin
As Israel expands its ground raids in the Gaza Strip, Egypt is witnessing the ripple effects of the war and faces growing pressure to act in regard to Palestinian refugees.
Thu, Dec 7, 2023
MENASource By Shahira Amin
While it is certain that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will win a third term, it is uncertain what will happen after the vote and when the Gaza war is over.
Fri, Dec 1, 2023
New Atlanticist By Alex Plitsas
After a pause in fighting ended Friday, Israel will press ahead with a southern Gaza campaign that will face new challenges.