[INTERVIEW] Egypt's former foreign minister highlights importance of not taking sides

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[INTERVIEW] Egypt's former foreign minister highlights importance of not taking sides

Nabil Fahmy, former foreign minister of Egypt, speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Plaza Hotel Seoul on Oct. 5. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Nabil Fahmy, former foreign minister of Egypt, speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Plaza Hotel Seoul on Oct. 5. [PARK SANG-MOON]

The key to navigating one’s place in superpower politics for countries like Egypt or Korea is not about picking sides, said Nabil Fahmy, former foreign minister of Egypt, during his recent visit in Seoul.
 
“Small and medium sized countries need to have the international law as the foundation around which they work,” said Fahmy, speaking with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Plaza Hotel in central Seoul on Oct. 5.  
 
“They're not going to argue their cases with larger, richer countries or more powerful countries only by the archaic post-World War II orders, concepts of power politics, or theatrics of influence,” he said. “These go back 70 years now and need to change.”
 
Fahmy, who witnessed the major events that shaped Egypt’s foreign policy orientation over the decades such as the 1967 Arab–Israeli War and the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, not only as son of former Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy but also as a career diplomat before assuming his role as foreign minister from 2013 to 2014, was in Seoul last week to speak at the Korea-EU International Conference on Middle Eastern and North African Affairs.  
 
It was the sixth installment in a series hosted by Korea’s Foreign Ministry since 2015.
 
Having also spoken at the inaugural conference, Fahmy said that a lot has changed in the region which he described as “facing a perfect storm” today.
 
“The Middle East, with the rest of the world, is facing the consequences of this global disorder,” he said, alluding to the crisis in Ukraine and escalating provocations by North Korea. “But [the region] has its own problems, replete with conflicts and huge economic challenges.”
 
Against such backdrop, Korea and Egypt launched several multi-billion-dollar projects this year, including a 3 trillion won ($2.09 billion) contract to build nuclear power plants in Daab, Hyundai Rotem’s metro project in Cairo and Egypt’s purchase of K9 howitzers from Korea.
 
To hear more about Egypt's experiences navigating the region’s power dynamics and how they may have influenced its decision to expand ties with Asia, the Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Fahmy during his recent visit.  
 
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.  
 
Q. How do you explain the recent boom in cooperation across energy, military and transportation infrastructure between Egypt and Korea?


A. Let me summarize it for you this way. Egypt is a country that imports the majority of our foodstuffs, the majority of our national security capacity requirements such as armaments, as well as water. With those kinds of genes, with that kind of paradigm, you cannot not have an active foreign policy.  
 
One of the things I said after I was appointed as foreign minister was that I was going to ensure that Egypt has multiple choices on any decision, be it on national security, economics, you name it. And I didn’t mean to place Russia in the place of the United States or China in the place of the United States or Russia. I wanted Egypt to have the opportunity to make the best choice it could in terms of technology, equipment and price on decisions political, economic or military.
 
Should the rest of the world then understand the Egyptian outlook on foreign policy as one centered on neutrality?  


No. I’d say “not aligned,” rather than neutral. We don’t have the luxury of staying out of things. Maybe it's because we're 7,000 years old; you may have heard this but Egyptians like to say we're the mother of the world. Mothers don't stay out.
 
But seriously speaking, we can't afford to stay out of things. But it’s not about playing one major power against another. It’s about having relations with all parties and encouraging them to respect international law. I'll give you an example. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, we did not only condemn it, we actually joined the international coalition militarily to liberate Kuwait, because occupying the territory of others is unacceptable for us. For the same reason, we voted [at the UN] to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  
 
Korea will be joining the nuclear power plant project between Russia and Egypt. Is Egypt considering business ties with Russia and the international law violations of Russia separately?


Generally speaking, we don't allow every project to stop because there's a conflict, especially when it's a conflict that we're not engaged with [...] We have argued with the best of friends as much as we've argued with enemies. As long as we have formal relations with the countries [concerned], we allow the different tracks to go on in parallel as far as they can.
 
Where does this nuclear energy project fit in with Egypt's bigger scale of plans on nuclear energy development?


We're quite happy to have more than one partner in this process. Because it's not easy to close a [nuclear] power plant. Therefore, it's important for us to have more than one stakeholder in the process. The main supplier are the Russians and the South Koreans will be joining with their good reputation in the technology, for which they have a track record in the U.A.E.
 

Egypt normalized ties with Israel earlier than most Arab states. Talks of trilateral cooperation between Korea, Israel and an Arab state on technology, energy and climate change are growing. What are your thoughts?


Seeking normalized ties with Israel earlier than others in the region was not an easy decision to take. But just the mere fact that there is a degree of normalization [in the region] with Israel makes normalization not a novel thing anymore. So, some of the Gulf States decided to normalize ties with Israel to create a better environment and take advantage of what value each side brings. I think there can definitely be more economic opportunities to cooperate on such trilateral manner with Korea.  
 
Drawing from Egypt’s decades of mediation experience in the Middle East, what kind of advice can you give for a non-regional state looking to cooperate with the region?


Talk to all the parties in the region. Make your assets and opportunities available to the parties in the region. I will not tell you to boycott anybody in the region. But I will tell you to just make sure that in doing what you're doing, you do so in a fashion that is respectful of international law.
 
Egypt is one of few states that maintain ties with both Koreas. What is your reaction to suggestions that Egypt could play a mediating role between the two Koreas?


Egypt has not tried to go between the Koreas. We just don’t have that capacity and it’s something that should be fulfilled by those in the region who know how to do it.  
 
We've had a long history of relations with North Korea, before we had relations with South Korea, and it was a history of relations that was founded on a strategic nature of cooperation. Now it is completely the opposite. [In our communications with the North] we have consistently communicated to them the same concepts on dialogue, international law and non-violence.  
 
Egypt became the ninth country to buy K9 howitzers from Korea. What are its reasons?


It was a strategic decision to diversify our military assets, which will still be significantly Western oriented. If you recall, decades before, we had made the mistake of over-depending on the Soviet Union for the supply of military assets. Superpowers have different priorities than individual nations, we have to keep that in mind.  
 
 

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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