Boutros Boutros-Ghali is an exceptional figure in Egypt’s contemporary history. Born in 1922 to a prominent Coptic family he grew up to be professor of International Law and International Relations in 1979 and, later
, a distinguished diplomat. As former UN Secretary-General from 1992 to 1996, he attained one of the highest diplomatic posts in the world. He defended his strongly held principles regardless of the cost. He served honourably in the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1977 to 1991, and headed the international organisation of La Francophonie in 1997 – 2002 and the National Council for Human Rights in 2003 – 2012.
Boutros-Ghali was also head of Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies in 1975, and editor-in-chief of the quarterly al-Siyassa al-Dawliya (International Politics) and Al-Ahram’s economics magazine, the weekly Al-Ahram al-Iqtissadi. He authored two books: Egypt##s road to Jerusalem (1997) about the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty and Unvanquished: A US-U.N. Saga (1999), about his time as Secretary-General at the U.N.
Watani asked the former member of parliament and cabinet minister to share his opinions about recent events in Egypt and the issues they raise.
To start with, how do you regard the new Constitution?
The thing that most distinguishes the new Constitution is that it succeeded in allowing the different parties and sectors in Egypt to reach common ground regardless of disagreement on a few details. There is no rule for writing constitutions; some countries opt for short constitutions that focus only on general principles, whereas others prefer to pay more attention to details. As an expert in international law, not constitutional law, I believe the most important thing is that the different sectors have reached agreement.
The Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a source of deep concern for Egyptians. In light of your international experience, how can this problem be solved?
As a general rule, I believe in settling international disagreements and disputes through negotiation. Any dispute can be resolved through negotiation, but this approach needs time to reach a settlement that would satisfy all. That may take years on end, but is always worth the time and energy spent. As far as the Nile River issue is concerned, I have tried for more than 20 years to get the Egyptian public to focus on the importance of the Nile waters but failed because the public was engrossed in the Palestinian cause. We should have paid equal attention to both Palestine and the Nile.
Now that the problem of the Nile River has caught up with us, I think we need to look at the situations in other countries who had the same problem and learn how they dealt with it. In Asia for instance, an international commission was founded to supervise the Mekong River which runs through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam; in partnership with China and Myanmar. The commission aims to “promote and co-ordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being.” I hope we can establish an international organisation that supervises building dams, transport and its means, irrigation systems and producing and distributing electricity. More than 15 years ago, I suggested connecting the main electrical grids of the Nile basin countries so that the hydroelectric power generated from waterfalls would be exchanged between these countries during peak hours and even exported to Europe as a strategic commodity. It is also possible to develop new projects that would benefit all the countries of the Nile basin such as altering the course of the Congo River by digging a channel to connect the Congo to one of the Nile tributaries.
Is it true that the Egyptian-African relations deteriorated after the attempted assassination of former President Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995?
This is not true. At the time, the State institutions and apparatuses were not interested in building relations with Africa; all the attention was directed towards Europe. There is a general faulty view that looks down on Africa and considers it a place for exile for diplomats or employees. Speaking of foreign relations, I wonder how many Egyptian diplomats are learning the Chinese language. Let me tell you that in France, more than 50,000 persons are now learning Chinese because of the huge development leap that China has taken in many fields and in its fight against poverty. Many countries have made brilliant achievements in development but nobody here cares about learning from them or carrying their expertise into our country.
How do you see the Muslim Brothers (MB) in Egypt?
Some currents of Political Islam strongly bring to my mind Nazism and Fascism. These movements have come to an end after they were defeated in World War II and were publicly rejected. In Egypt, I see the MB as yet strong, especially that they have access to huge financial resources; therefore, it will take quite some time to eradicate them from our society. Egypt’s openness to the outside world can play a significant role to overcome this regressive trend; the influence of globalism is unavoidable.
But the term globalisation is not as widely used as it was before. Do you think this concept still exists, even though it is out of favour with the public?
Globalisation as a phenomenon needs time to be fully assimilated. People must come together to make the best of its advantages and avoid its shortcomings. It is also important to note that the demands of the average citizen are different from the requirements of nations. Our old understanding of the concept of dominion is being phased out and national conflicts will soon be resolved on an international rather than a national level. The public needs time to understand and grasp these changes. The concepts of dominion and sovereignty might be interpreted differently 30 years from now.
Speaking of concepts, democracy is now the most widely used word in politics and has become a slogan for all parties. How do you define democracy?
The concept of democracy differs from one country to another according to the norms and values of the different communities. Each country has its own cultural intricacies, and there is no rigid form of democracy that fits all. In many African countries democracy is applied through the representation of all tribes in parliament. There is no general rule that applies to all.
On the other hand, I have frequently been asked which comes first, democracy or development? I believe that in case of Egypt, development must be given priority to achieve a minimum level of stability. I also have to point out that there is a strong connection between democracy, development and stability. Openness to the outside world is also a very important factor that must be taken into account. What I am talking about here is openness in its broad and comprehensive sense that includes opening up to new ideas and the unending technological innovations from the four corners of the world.
As the honorary president of the National Council of Human Rights, how do you view the criticism of the way the police have dealt with protestors in Egypt?
We are currently in a state of war, a real battle against terrorism. And at times of war it is very difficult to strictly apply democracy.
There are voices in Egypt asking to sever diplomatic ties with the United States. Do you think this is possible or justified?
The US is a power that dominates the world and will continue to do so for another 50 years; therefore, Egypt must know how to strike a balance in its relationship with America. It is not possible to sever relations with a country which is an ongoing source of innovation for the entire world and which attracts scientists and skilled individuals from all over the world. This makes it a culturally diverse society and enables it to keep going forward on the path of progress. It is worth noting that when Egypt began her journey to found a modern State at the beginning of the 19th century, she received all innovators with open arms. At that time, Egypt’s openness to other ethnicities allowed Nubar Pasha, an Egyptian of Armenian descent, to become Prime Minister. The creation of the first Egyptian army was assigned to Suleiman Pasha al-Faransawi, a French commander who converted to Islam and became Egyptian. The statue of this great commander used to adorn one of Cairo’s largest avenues but was replaced by a statue of the Egyptian economist Talaat Harb. I see no reason for such a move.
How do you see the role of the Armed Forces in the current political roadmap?
According to my experience, I can affirm that the military institution plays an important role in many countries. This is very obvious in Latin America, Africa and Asia and is not peculiar to Egypt. The Egyptian Armed Forces is a national power which we applaud and to which we resort at times of trouble.
17 January 2014