Egypt's Relations With U.S.: 'It's Like A Marriage. It's Not A Fling'

Apr 29, 2014
Originally published on April 29, 2014 8:24 pm

Egypt's leadership has faced a steady stream of criticism since the military ousted an elected government last summer and began cracking down on its opponents. In the latest development, an Egyptian judge on Monday sentenced nearly 700 people to death, many of them members or supporters of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt's foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, is touring the U.S. and defending his government, which he says is committed to restoring democracy. He also insists the country's courts are independent and are not being used as a tool against opposition.

"Our judiciary is independent. We don't comment on their cases until they finish all of the appeal process," Fahmy said Tuesday during a visit to NPR's headquarters in Washington.

The Egyptian foreign minister told All Things Considered host Robert Siegel that Egypt placed great importance on its long-standing relationship with the U.S., despite the recent strains between Cairo and Washington.

"It's like a marriage. It's not a fling," Fahmy said of the ties.

You can read more highlights from the conversation below.


Interview Highlights:

On how long before the banned Muslim Brotherhood might be allowed back in political life

"We need to ensure security, so there is calm and then there is more tolerance for political space — not between the government and the Brotherhood, but among society itself, because that's where we need to go and that's where we will go. But it cannot be based on an ideology that puts your ideology before your nationality or that allows you, if you face a problem, to use force. Those are not elements accepted in any democracy, nor will it be the case in Egypt.

"I don't see the Brotherhood, as an organization — which today is a terrorist organization in Egypt — being back in the system in the next few years. More so, because of their inability to change their own ideology. Then because of the violence, which is also an important component as well. Their ideology, regrettably, is exclusive, rather than inclusive."

On an Egyptian court sentencing 683 people to death in one case

"Because the perception occasionally has to be dealt with as much as the reality, there is due process that the legal system follows very, very carefully. They have committed themselves in practice, not only rhetorically, to reviewing all the cases, to considering all appeals.

"It's going to be a serious consideration, it's going to be a serious verdict. But there will be due process. If there were mistakes, there will be corrections. If there aren't any mistakes, they will be made evident to everyone."

On a New York Times editorial that says Egypt's courts are no longer independent

"I think it's nonsense. They can agree or disagree with the court verdict, as Egyptians can agree or disagree with the court verdict. ... The idea that this is a government-organized charade is, frankly, quite a stretch."

On his former colleague at American University in Cairo, political scientist Emad Shahin, who was recently charged with espionage by Egyptian prosecutors

"I know Dr. Shahin and I know the other colleague as well. I can't give a verdict of guilt or innocence for any individual in a court case. But I have raised the issue and conveyed my concern within our own authorities to ensure that the case is done with meticulous precision; that full freedom and rights to defense be provided to him."

On Al-Jazeera journalists on trial in Egypt and the state of journalism in the country

"The government has issued a statement saying that we guarantee the role of journalists, foreign journalists, correspondents, all this stuff. So we've made that statement. I would add to it, on this particular case, our president sent letters to the families of two, at least, of those accused, telling them that while he can't interfere in a court case, he will ensure that they get all the treatment and all the access that is required until that is reached. What we cannot do is interfere in a court case. That's the essence of any legal system."

"The idea that there is this direction to prohibit journalists from doing their work is simply incorrect. ... Journalists in Egypt are completely open, they do whatever they want — much more than, frankly, they should do, but that's part of the profession ... I'm not belittling the importance of this case, but it has to be left to the courts. They decide."

On the U.S.-Egypt relationship

"It's like a marriage. It's not a fling; it's not a one-night affair. This is something, if you're going to invest in it, it's going to cost you a lot of money, it's going to take time, you're going to have to make a lot of decisions. ... I think it's well-founded, but any marriage has its hiccups."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

When an Egyptian court sentenced nearly 700 people to death yesterday, Egypt's foreign minister was preparing for high-level meetings here in Washington, D.C. Nabil Fahmy arrived in the U.S. this week, just days after the Obama administration said that it would partially lift a suspension of military aid. But today, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont put that aid in question, citing those death sentences.

Foreign Minister Fahmy has been trying to keep U.S.-Egyptian relations on track. He met earlier in the day with Secretary of State John Kerry and joins us in the studio.

Foreign Minister Fahmy, welcome to the program once again.

NABIL FAHMY: Thank you for having me here.

SIEGEL: Senator Leahy says he wants to see and I'm quoting, "convincing evidence the Egyptian government is committed to the rule of law." Or else, Egypt doesn't get $650 million in military aid that the administration has approved. What do you say to that?

FAHMY: Well, let me respond to the first part rather than the or-else part. On the first part, let's correct the facts first: There was no verdict that 700 people will be given death sentence. There was a request from the most senior religious clergy to see whether it was applicable or not. So the verdict has not been issued yet. But more importantly, there is due process that the legal system follows very, very carefully, so there will be an appeal process to look at the whole verdict as a whole. So is there an issue? Of course, there's an issue.

SIEGEL: Secretary of State Kerry stated his concerns about these sentences before your meeting. And I'm wondering are you confident, after your meeting, that the secretary of state will certify that despite all of these issues with mass sentences that Egypt is on a path toward democracy?

FAHMY: Well, one of the fundamentals of a democracy is separations of the different powers within the system, particularly the independence of the judiciary. Our judiciary is independent. And they will review through their own processes the veracity of an indictment or a verdict, and that's what you've seen even on this first case.

SIEGEL: But explain this to Americans who are hearing it. You're speaking of due process. It sounds like due process from through the looking glass. That is: first comes the sentence and then comes the due process.

FAHMY: Not really. First of all, there was the request to the Mufti and then the sentence. But take what the attorney general put it in his appeal seriously. He said: I am questioning this case on procedural grounds, let that follow through and look at the case when it ends and reaches its final verdict.

SIEGEL: Let me ask you something. Between your service as Egyptian ambassador to Washington, who you were for some time, and now foreign minister in the transitional government, you were the founding dean of the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Cairo. You have former colleagues, former faculty colleagues, who face what are widely regarded as very questionable criminal charges.

The political scientist, Ahmad Shahin, who's now in Washington, is charged with espionage. People who know him and have worked with him say this is ridiculous and bogus. First, I mean can you publicly express support for your former colleague, Professor Shahin?

FAHMY: I've actually done more than that. I know Dr. Shahin and I know the other colleague as well. I can't give a verdict of guilt or innocence for any individual in a court case. But I have raised the issue within our own authorities to ensure that the case is done with meticulous precision, that full freedom and the rights to defense be provided him. I'm not...

SIEGEL: Do you feel this a serious espionage case against Professor Shahin? Or is it cracking down on a vocal critic of the government?

FAHMY: Frankly, in the past, I've seen positions taken by Dr. Shahin that were different from those of the government. But I didn't see things that he wrote that were vehemently in opposition of the government. So I wouldn't even describe them as such. But the accusations are more serious than that and they have to be left to court to be decided upon, I cannot. But I am concerned about the case, and I will continue to follow the case to make sure that he gets his full defense.

SIEGEL: Broadly speaking, as Egypt moves towards presidential elections, it's adopted a constitution, how long a period do you foresee before people who supported the Muslim Brotherhood and the ousted President Morsi, are participating once again in Egyptian civic life, without the fear that their support of something might lead them to be prosecuted?

FAHMY: It's a great question but it's also complicated one. Any Egyptian who don't have criminal cases against them, are nonviolent, and are ready to work within the constitution can participate today actually. When they will feel comfortable to participate is a different question. The country has to come together. We need to ensure security so there is calm and then there is more tolerance for political space, not between the government and the Brotherhood, but among society itself.

Because that's where we need to go and that's where we will go, but it cannot be based on an ideology that puts your ideology before your nationality, or that allows you, if you face a problem, to use force.

SIEGEL: But what's your sense? Are we talking about a couple of years? Do you think that there is a decade or two healing that has to go on in Egypt before you would be at some place that you would think of as normal?

FAHMY: On individual basis, not that long. But I don't see the Brotherhood as an organization, which today is a terrorist organization in Egypt, being back in the system in the next few years, more so because of their inability to change their own ideology than because of the violence, which is also an important component, as well.

SIEGEL: We talk about Apache helicopters from the U.S. and $650 million of military aid that's now, well, Senator Leahy's subcommittee will have to approve it, I guess. Why is that so important to Egypt? Why is military aid of such import to your country?

FAHMY: It's important on many counts. Military aid reflects a strategic commitment of friendship, and commitment to your most important national interests. That's the first point. The second point, with regard to the Apaches, per se, they symbolize America's support or the lack of it for our war against terrorists.

SIEGEL: But you (unintelligible) talk about the war against terror, you're talking about what's happening in the Northern Sinai Peninsula, right?

FAHMY: Yeah, and that's where the Apaches are used.

SIEGEL: Yeah. But if I hear you right, the symbolic importance, the political importance of U.S. military aid is at least as important as the tactical advantage that is a particular...

FAHMY: Definitely. Definitely.

SIEGEL: ...our weapons give you. It's that important.

FAHMY: It is that important because it's like a marriage. It's not a one-night affair. This is something, if you're going to invest in it it's going to cost you a lot of money, it's going to take time, you have to take decisions. You can't...

SIEGEL: It's a very unromantic view of marriage that you're giving us.

FAHMY: Well, no. Mine is going very well so I do all of that and I've been married for 39 years. So I mean it's not something you can walk away from easily.

SIEGEL: What's the state of the marriage right now?

FAHMY: Mine or the...

SIEGEL: No, no. The U.S.-Egyptian marriage that you're talking about.

FAHMY: It's well-founded but needs stabilizing, having a couple of hiccups. I think it's well-founded but any marriage has its hiccups.

SIEGEL: Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy of Egypt, thank you very much for talking with us today.

FAHMY: You're most welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.