Sir Derek Plumbly, the British ambassador in Cairo, is about to finish his tenure and head back home. Before leaving Cairo Sir Derek granted Watani an interview, which he insisted on conducting in Arabic—unwittingly giving us at Watani International the challenging task of translating his words back into his mother tongue.
You have spent the last four years in Cairo as ambassador, but from 1977 to 1980 you were first secretary at the British Embassy. How much has Egypt changed over this period?
I visited Egypt for the first time in 1973 when I studied Arabic in Alexandria. I spent the summer there, and it was an impressive experience. I later served in the British Embassy and, in 1979 married my wife Nadia, who is Egyptian, at the Church of the Holy Virgin in Marashli Street, Zamalek.
Society has undergone many changes in the past 30 years. First and foremost is the fact that the population has doubled. Infrastructure and services have improved massively. Telecommunications are now much more advanced and a host of new highways has been established.
Before 2004, Egypt suffered economic recession, but is now undergoing a transitional period expected to pave the way for remarkable economic growth. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and his team have introduced a plethora of reforms in terms of accelerating the privatisation process and improving the taxation and customs systems. Most important, however, is that these reforms reach the people via better healthcare, education and suchlike.
When it comes to education, I believe there is dire need to introduce major changes to the system so as to provide graduates with the skills and competence required for the new jobs created by the economic upturn. In fact, there are many jobs that need competent graduates to fill them, while there are at the same time too many incompetent graduates.
What achievements are you proud of in terms of boosting cooperation between Cairo and London during your tenure?
Let me first say that accomplishments in this concern cannot be attributed solely to my efforts, because there are thousands of people who work to enhance the ties binding the two countries.
Britain has become the greatest exporter of investments to Egypt. Total UK investments now surpass twenty billion dollars. Corporations such as British Petroleum and British Gas are increasing their investment in Egypt by one billion dollars annually. Through exchange of experience, we helped the Egyptian government formulate the consumer protection law and the law regulating competition.
As for education, the number of Egyptian students in Britain has risen considerably. A British University has opened in Egypt, and several partnerships are now in force between UK universities and Egyptian educational institutions.
The number of British tourists has doubled to one million a year. This is very beneficial for Egypt, because every million tourists create 200,000 job opportunities. The recent visit by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak to Britain to inaugurate the Tutankhamun exhibition is indicative of the close relationship between the two countries.
On the political front, many senior British figures, including Prince Charles and former prime minister Tony Blair, have visited Egypt. The fact that the British culture minister visited Egypt three times shows how significant cultural relations between the two countries are. And this round of the Cairo International Film Festival has taken Britain as the guest of honour.
Britain is also keen to cooperate with Egypt in the environment field. A British environmental envoy visited Egypt to take part in the celebration of World Environment Day.
Through your long work in the Middle East, do you believe peace is possible between Palestinians and Israelis?
This is a thorny question. There actually exists a clear-cut solution, but the problem is that each time a settlement is foreseeable, obstacles are set by this or that party. At the moment, we focus in Britain on the peace issue since it is pivotal for the region’s stability. I believe the time is exceptionally suitable now to achieve a fair settlement, since the international community is all for it. The current opportunity should be seized.
Egyptians encounter some difficulty in obtaining a visa to Britain. Have you taken any measures to facilitate the procedure?
About 90 per cent of those who ask for UK visa get it, and the process takes about three or four days which is almost one-third the time required to get the visa for other European countries. We welcome visitors; London is the European capital in which Arabs feel most at home.
You have visited so many places in Egypt; which did you like most?
Luxor is my favourite place. We frequently visit the city because my wife Nadia’s family lives there. I also like Siwa because it has magnificent landscapes. As for religious sites, we have visited a host of monasteries including that of Anba Antonious by the Red Sea. We went there several times to follow the restoration process. Incidentally a similar project is now being carried out at the Red Monastery in Sohag which includes one of the oldest sanctuaries in Egypt. Last year we attended the celebration held twice a year at Kom-Maria in Deir Abu-Hennes in Mallawi, Minya, in Upper Egypt to commemorate the Holy Family’s visit to Egypt. It was a memorable experience. There were crowds of cheerful people and I was really happy to be there and join in their rejoicing.
I think it is good to focus on such occasions which could well promote Egyptian heritage and enhance national unity. The same can be said of Ramadan activities; I really enjoy the gathering round the iftar table hosted every Ramadan by Pope Shenouda III and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar. Egyptians should look more at the ‘other’ among them instead of looking inwards, especially in these times when extremism appears to be on the rise.
Speaking of pluralism and national unity, do you support the idea that all Egyptian currents, however extremist, should have an opportunity to compete for political power?
In principle, each country should choose the best way to attain democracy. Personally, I am against forming parties on a religious basis since this could foment sectarian division among Egyptians. I believe that values of citizenship rights should be stressed.
Finally, Sir Derek said Egypt held a special place in his heart. “Egypt is dear to us and is part of our lives, he said. Our family is half-British half-Egyptian. Our children—Sarah, Samuel, and Joseph—have names that reflect this identity. Joseph or Youssef is named after my late father-in-law Youssef Gohar [who was a prominent Egyptian writer and intellectual], and Samuel is named after the late Bishop Samuel who was shot together with President Sadat in October 1981 by Islamist extremists. Bishop Samuel officiated at our wedding and was a personal friend.
“I recently visited Pope Shenouda and wish him the best of health. I wish Egypt peace and prosperity, and a better life for all its people.”