A recent diplomatic shake up, announced in early August by presidential decree, indicates the direct role that Egypt’s security bodies, General Intelligence Services in particular, play in foreign policy management.
This interference can be seen in the appointment of diplomats that served previously in security agencies, interruptions to the assignments of some diplomats and the exclusion of others from certain assignments based on their alleged lack of allegiance to the current government.
A case in point is that of Major General Tarek Salam, deputy director of Egypt’s General Intelligence Services (GIS), who was appointed as Egypt’s ambassador to Uganda on reaching retirement age. Salam’s appointment raises several questions about the role of security bodies in determining aspects of the diplomatic movement, particularly the assignment of military men to diplomatic missions abroad, a feature that was prominent under former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, and, to a lesser extent, under Hosni Mubarak. Salam had previously held a position as head of secret services in GIS, before he was sworn in as deputy director in December 2014, when Major General Khaled Fawzy was appointed director.
Uganda, the site of his diplomatic mission, has gained increasing importance as a coordination site for the redistribution of Nile Basin water between upstream and downstream countries. In June, Entebbe, a major town in central Uganda on Lake Victoria, hosted the first summit of the heads of Nile Basin states, attended by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. According to diplomatic sources, Sisi hopes that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni will help resolve the crisis concerning Egypt’s refusal to join the 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement on the Nile Basin Countries, which proposes the redistribution of Nile Basin water, and will play a role in calming tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia, as the latter is pushing forward with the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, despite Egypt’s objections.
A diplomat, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says it is likely that the role of the GIS in the Kampala mission is just the tip of the iceberg, and that intelligence services have demanded a role in all Egyptian missions in Nile Basin countries, in order to secure Egypt’s historical share of the Nile.
The roles of three other ambassadors’ missions abroad were also recently interrupted: Hussein Mubarak in Cyprus, Yasser Atef in Kuwait and Hazem al-Taheri in Thailand.
According to a senior diplomat at Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, who also spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, Egypt’s former Ambassador to Cyprus, Hussein Mubarak, angered the Cypriot government after holding talks with Turkish Cypriots without instructions from Cairo, in the interests of improving relations with Nicosia over possible mutual gas explorations in the Mediterranean. According to the diplomat, the Egyptian government promised to take measures against Mubarak. His position has now been filled by Mai Khalil, who served as Egypt’s ambassador to Uganda for just a year.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s ambassador to Kuwait, Yasser Atef, was recalled at the recommendation of security bodies, according to a third diplomat, despite most of his colleagues’ assertions he has not expressed any political views. The same source says Egypt’s Ambassador to Thailand Hazem al-Tahery will reportedly return to Egypt before the end of his term in Bangkok, based on accusations of his affiliations with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
There are at least five more ambassadors who were expected to take up assignments overseas that haven’t been listed for their posts based on objections from security bodies over their criticisms of Egypt’s domestic policies, either in private conversations or on social media, according to Mada Masr’s diplomatic sources. These ambassadors include: Wael Kamal Aboul Magd, Egypt’s former ambassador to Canada, who is currently deputy assistant secretary of state for environmental affairs, Ayman Zein Eddin, former ambassador to Spain and current director of the foreign media department, Amal Mourad, current assistant foreign minister for political planning and Randa Labib, former deputy assistant minister for eastern Arab affairs.
None of these ambassadors received any explanation as to why they were excluded from their anticipated positions, and none of them have been subjected to any legal investigations. Labib, according to a fourth diplomat, speaking from Cairo on condition of anonymity, received a warning about her Facebook posts on the Tiran and Sanafir agreement which ceded the Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
“There is a large amount of frustration in the Foreign Ministry that strongly undermines the spirit of initiative, and paralyzes embassies and their staff, preventing them from making assessments that differ from the perspectives of sovereign bodies for fear of falling into the trap of anti-regime accusations,” one of the diplomats tells Mada Masr. He has not been sent on missions overseas in three years. “The prevailing situation now is that everything is managed to satisfy security bodies for fear of punitive measures,” the same security agencies that sent a number of the best Egyptian diplomats to other ministries,” adds the diplomat, who was himself transferred to a ministry other than that of foreign affairs.
An ambassador currently serving in Foreign Affairs Ministry agrees, saying that, “there is a general atmosphere of constant fear,” and that such security interventions “harm the ability of the ministry to serve the interests of the country and national security priorities.”
At the same time, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry is, according to diplomats Mada Masr spoke to, in a constant state of self defense. He told those who blame him for ungrounded accusations against some diplomats that he is subject to great pressure from security bodies, and that he seeks, as much as he can, to protect the ministry from full submission to them. Shoukry added, according to one of the diplomats, that security agencies view the ministry with a great deal of skepticism, and monitor the social media pages of diplomats, especially if these pages do not express direct support for the government. This has led many diplomats to close their social media pages, the diplomatic source adds.
Shoukry managed, however, to protect a few of his closest allies in important embassies, some of whom were likely to have their missions terminated in the last shake up, says one of the diplomats Mada Masr spoke to. Prominent among them is Egypt’s ambassador to Berlin, Badr Abdel Aty, who, according to the five diplomats sources, “apologized and asked for forgiveness for violations reported by the Administrative Control Authority from the president” during Sisi’s visit to Berlin in April. The authority raided his residence and the embassy in April. During his visit, Sisi reportedly heard Abdel Aty’s praise sung by a number of senior German officials, the source adds, including Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Egyptian ambassador to Washington, Yasser Reda, who was attacked by pro-government media in Cairo for his inability to defend Egypt in the US, also survived the changes to diplomatic assignments. The GIS contracted two public relations companies in Washington and New York to represent Egyptian interests without informing Reda, or coordinating with him, signaling his fall from favor.
A source at the Foreign Ministry says that another list of diplomats who will be sidelined from direct ministerial work is in the process of being drawn up, also mobilized by Egypt’s GIS.
Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla