19 May 2008 - PARLIAMENTARIANS’ VISIT TO EGYPT HIGHLIGHTS SECURITY AND ECONOMIC PROBLEMS OF THE MEDITERRANEAN REGION
Members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Mediterranean Special Group visited Egypt from 14 -16 May, holding meetings with members of the People’s Assembly, government and military officials, independent analysts and EU officials. The group, led by Vahit Erdem of Turkey, and Ramon Aleu of Spain, included nine members of parliament from seven NATO member countries.
Egyptian parliamentarians and officials alike stressed the difficult position of their country, located in a highly volatile region and struggling with a difficult economic and political juncture. Foreign Minister Ahmed Ali Aboul Gheit highlighted the “pressure” put on Egypt as a “beacon of stability in the region” by conflicts in the Middle East, notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the crisis in Lebanon and instability in Sudan and the Horn of Africa -- an assessment shared by the Deputy Director of the Military Intelligence Services, General Fouad Arfa. This situation, according to Mr Aboul Gheit, is also fuelling the “anger” of many of his country’s 80 million people and driving some of them to support Islamist movements, such as the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which is nonetheless represented in the People’s Assembly by 88 “independent” legislators.
Assembly Speaker Ahmed Fathy Sorour reminded NATO PA members that Egypt’s constitution prohibited religion-based political parties. While Mahmoud Hamdy Zakzouk, Minister of Religious Endowments (Awkaf), insisted that religious extremists existed in many societies, but that in Egypt, as in most of these societies, they were “a minority”. He added that his ministry, which oversees all Muslim religious affairs, contributes to limiting the spread of radical ideas by avoiding any of Egypt’s some 100,000 mosques to be controlled privately and utilised for the spread of extremist propaganda.
Speaking about Egypt’s economic problems, Mr Sorour blamed them on the “economic policies of the West” and the “failure of globalisation”. While candidly admitting that European countries were “right” to criticise Egypt and other countries in transition “about democracy and human rights”, Mr Sorour stigmatised the “lies of the West” about international free trade and liberalisation. “The West” he said, “is selling democracy and human rights, while developing countries are economically strangled”. Similar criticisms were voiced by a group of former senior diplomats and academics met by NATO legislators at the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. Following a frank and open discussion on the situation in the Middle East and the Gulf, the experts put forward the general recommendation that the West should stop fuelling the problems of the region by waging war in the name of democracy, as the region needs political and diplomatic solutions rather than military ones.
The pressing need for more dialogue and co-operation between Western and North African and Middle Eastern countries to avoid misunderstandings and misperceptions was stressed repeatedly in all meetings. Reiterated, too, was the need to work towards a Middle East free of WMDs and, in this vein, “double standards” were denounced by most Egyptian interlocutors. With regard to Egypt’s co-operation with NATO, Mr Aboul Gheit said that the Egyptian government understood the new role of the Alliance, but acknowledged that people in his country regarded it with “great care”, because they were still influenced by the Cold War image of the Alliance. The Foreign Minister also commented on Operation Active Endeavour, indicating that Egypt was ready to engage, “but on our own terms”. “We cannot accept”, he said, “a standing agreement by which NATO can stop ships in our territorial waters: our navy can do it following warnings by Alliance forces”.
On the last day, the group visited Alexandria and held meetings with representatives of the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation and the Swedish Institute, discussing cultural dialogue and co-operation in the Mediterranean region.