How Egyptian diplomacy navigated the summer of 2013
 
 

The business day had ended in New York on August 13, 2013, when security forces in Cairo moved to disperse the two sit-ins staged by supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in the Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda squares.

“I spoke with someone from the office of [then acting vice president] Mohamed ElBaradei two days before the dispersal,” said a New York-based Egyptian diplomat in August 2013. “The Cairo-based person I spoke to was not under the impression that the dispersal was fated to happen. He told me that some measures may be taken, and that there was ‘widespread public outrage’ at the fact that the sit-ins were still ongoing. But he didn’t mention that anyone had informed ElBaradei of a date for the dispersal, not even a tentative or a potential one.”

Hours later, a call came from Cairo — “There must be action to prevent a public United Nations Security Council session on the way the Rabea and Nahda sit-ins were dispersed, and regarding the allegations made by the Muslim Brotherhood, their supporters and some rights groups about the dispersal being bloody and law enforcement shooting indiscriminately at demonstrators as they tried to escape,”.

This diplomat told Mada Masr that he was woken up the day after the dispersal by a phone call from a member of the permanent mission to the United Nations inquiring about what was happening in Egypt and how the dispersal could be so violent. According to government figures, 607 protesters and eight security personnel were killed in the dispersal, but other organizations reported a significantly higher civilian death toll.

He did not know how to respond to the inquiries. Calls placed to the office of the foreign minister and that of the deputy vice president for foreign affairs did not prove to be effective or informative.

Hours later, a call came from Cairo — not to offer answers, but to give instructions. “There must be action to prevent a public United Nations Security Council session from being convened regarding the way the Rabea and Nahda sit-ins were dispersed and regarding the allegations made by the Muslim Brotherhood, their supporters and some rights groups about the dispersal being bloody and about law enforcement shooting indiscriminately at demonstrators as they tried to escape
,” the Egyptian diplomat reported the directive as saying. “What we were told by Cairo was that a number of masked demonstrators opened fire on security forces, compelling them to fire back.”

It became the task of the Egyptian diplomatic mission to assert that the dispersal was not violent and bloody, but rather a necessary act to assert state control.

“This is how we initially responded to the endless gush of calls that poured in during just a few hours,” the diplomat said.

“It wouldn’t have been easy to seek to shut down any potential UN Security Council talks on the Rabea dispersal, but at least we succeeded in preventing [the talks] from being televised live, in spite of the great pressure exerted by a number of states to make it a public session,”

But propounding this narrative was not enough to shut down the potential convening of a public session that was proposed in response to the dispersal, or to persuade the majority of UN Security Council member states, especially the permanent members who were in favor of it, not to hold one.

The entire mission had to mobilize and make back-to-back calls — in tandem with the diplomatic efforts by then-Foreign Affairs Minister Nabil Fahmy and his office — to kill the public session.

It wouldn’t have been easy to seek to shut down any potential UN Security Council talks on the Rabea dispersal, but at least we succeeded in preventing [the talks] from being televised live, in spite of the great pressure exerted by a number of states to make it a public session,” the diplomat recalled.

“At the time, some people in Cairo weren’t satisfied with the [diplomatic] mission’s work. Maybe they thought that it would be possible for us to stop UN Security Council member states from holding talks, but that was impossible in reality. They may have also believed that we should tell whoever addresses the issue that the [protesters] were heavily armed and that the dispersal wouldn’t have been possible without weapons,” he explained. “But we acted within available means — we were talking to diplomats [whose countries] have missions in the heart of Cairo; some of the members of these missions regularly visited the sit-ins, and many of them were in touch with Muslim Brotherhood figures. It was another tough day in the tough summer of 2013.”

It was another tough day in the tough summer of 2013.

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But June 30 came first

“Tough” is also how the diplomat described June 30, 2013. On that day, several weeks before the violent sit-in dispersals, the US woke up to the news that mass demonstrations had been held in several Egyptian governorates — under the protection of the military and the police — to demand the overthrow of Morsi, who had taken office a year earlier. Running as a candidate for the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi had won the first presidential election to be held following the January 2011 revolution.

The Egyptian mission was in a tight spot on that day, too. Diplomats were being grilled by representatives from all over the world about a concerning turn of events, the New-York based diplomat relayed.

“We were receiving an endless spate of questions from every direction, but we didn’t have answers. We’d say, ‘Egypt is stable.’ That’s all we could say. It wasn’t clear to us how things would go, and the gist of what we were told by Cairo was: ‘Egypt [will be] stable in any event.’”

“The minister was failing in his search for quick answers. It was very confusing. He did not know what he was supposed to say. He held it off for a while, then he got the answer: What had happened was a revolution, [an effort to] meet a demand of the Egyptian people, namely to save the January revolution.”

When the then-Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced Morsi’s military-backed ouster on July 3, along with the appointment of an interim government and Egypt’s “new roadmap,” this Egyptian diplomat, along with several others serving abroad, finally had a response.

“I referred those who asked me questions to the defense minister’s roadmap,” the diplomat said. “When someone would say to me, ‘But that was a coup,’ I would answer, ‘But it was following mass demonstrations.’ I had nothing to add except to say that Egypt is stable, strong and going steady.”

The situation was not much easier in Cairo. On July 1, just days before the roadmap and military ouster were announced, on the second floor of the towering Foreign Ministry building, then-Foreign Minister Kamel Amr — who had held that post since the beginning of Morsi’s term, and remained until July 14, 2013, before Fahmy’s takeover — was making back-to-back calls, trying to work out a concrete narrative with which to respond to the influx of inquiries. He was being asked what was happening in Egypt, what would happen to the recently elected and and now-deposed president, about the fate of the large and infuriated political camp belonging to his party, and what would become of democracy in the country whose revolution had garnered the fascination and admiration of many governments just two years earlier.

This is how an employee of the Foreign Ministry relayed it at the time: “The minister was failing in his search for quick answers. It was very confusing. He did not know what he was supposed to say. He held it off for a while, then he got the answer: What had happened was a revolution, [an effort to] meet a demand of the Egyptian people, namely to save the January revolution.” The Muslim Brotherhood, according to the ministry’s narrative, “had turned their backs on the revolution and worked to undermine the Egyptian state,” the employee said.

In addition to promoting the notion that the dispersal was not a violent attack, but a necessary measure to preserve the authority of the state, a more important message was also being propagated that June 30 was a revolution, July 3 was not a coup.

Egypt feared sanctions and exclusion may be imposed as a consequence, but there was also confidence that the world would not turn its back on Egypt, even if it was uncomfortable with what had happened, according to another Egyptian diplomat serving in a prominent delegation in Europe. “We were required to delicately and carefully explain why Egyptians were angry. We were verbally instructed to say, ‘Egyptians were angered by the poor performance of the [Muslim] Brotherhood, which stockpiled problems and let the economic and sectarian crises boil over. Egyptians wanted the revolution put back on track.’ I’d relay this message to everyone I met,” the diplomat said. “I felt like a recorded tape. I’d recite all the main statements that I had to make to the person talking to me, then repeat them, using almost the same vocabulary, in response to any question.”

Over the following month, signs of international anger made their way to Cairo, with many hailing from the UN in New York and then-US President Barack Obama in Washington. According to another Egyptian diplomat who was working in Washington at the time, Obama was very concerned about the developments in Egypt. “He was not at all feeling at ease with what was going on.”

There was also a torrent of inquiries coming from Europe, North America, Latin America and Africa. The African Union decided to suspend Egypt’s membership several days after Morsi’s ouster.

A European diplomat who was working in Cairo in the summer of 2013 described a sentiment also echoed by his counterparts: “We did not see what happened as a revolution, because we weren’t dumb. But what we cared about is not allowing Egypt to fall down a road to chaos, so we had to work toward a resolution to this major political crisis.”

But no one could do anything to resolve this political crisis. The Muslim Brotherhood was primarily demanding that Morsi be allowed to take back the presidential office and voluntarily tender his resignation, calling for an early election. However, those in charge after Morsi’s ouster were not in any way receptive to any of the Brotherhood’s main demands.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders — who were receiving a lot of calls from international diplomats — were not willing to acknowledge the political reality. “They had this false perception that they had the support of the public,” another European diplomat, who was working in Cairo in the summer of 2013, said. “[They believed] that all the photos of demonstrations were fake, and that the people would rise up to back them. This was at odds with the picture that Cairo painted for us: that it was the people who demanded the overthrow of the [Muslim] Brotherhood. It was also at odds with the mass demonstrations that we saw, even if only for two days. This was something that we could not overlook in our decision making, even though we were aware that not everything was happening spontaneously.”

In order to get a clearer view of the situation, European Union Special Representative for the Southern Mediterranean Bernardino León was tasked with finding a way to encourage all the parties involved to take a few steps back from the crisis.

According to an aide of León’s, who spoke to Mada Masr in early July 2013, the European Union was not seeking to pressure the Egyptian authorities to completely retract all the decisions made on July 3. Instead, it was trying to reach a political arrangement that would allow for a political transition that acknowledged the public movement against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, without overlooking the fact that Morsi was an elected president.

“We did not see what happened as a revolution, because we weren’t dumb. But what we cared about is not allowing Egypt to fall down a road to chaos, so we had to work toward a resolution to this major political crisis.”

But León’s aide said that the parties were mostly divided. “The [Muslim] Brotherhood was not able to reach an agreement within itself. Some of its figures were adamantly against doing anything as long as the July 3 announcement was not revoked. They did not accept that this was not really possible because, despite our thoughts on what had influenced the public, it had still mobilized to see the end of the [Muslim] Brotherhood’s rule. It was not about the political leaders or the leaders of the opposition; it was about the public, about veiled women and women with crucifix necklaces around their necks gathering side-by-side to dance in celebration of the removal of the [Muslim] Brotherhood from power.”

León’s aide met mainly with Gehad al-Haddad, the son of Muslim Brotherhood figure Essam al-Haddad, who was Morsi’s adviser on international relations. Haddad Jr. made himself clear to EU representative’s team: “Ours is the legitimate stance, and we will not give it up. We have thousands of supporters who will, within days, grow into millions and stage sit-ins until the legitimate rule is restored. Only then we can talk.”

Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy at the EU, had twice to visit Egypt herself in July 2013. She met with prominent Egyptian politicians to propose compromises, all of which fell on deaf ears.

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A tense situation is aggravated further

This already fraught situation was further complicated after the sit-in dispersals. ElBaradei did not hold his post as acting vice president for foreign affairs for long; he resigned in fury following the violent dispersal of the Rabea and Nahda sit-ins. This came six weeks after he had appeared alongside a group of senior military and police officers, the heads of Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church, and a representative of the Salafi Nour Party, all sitting behind Sisi as the he announced the post-Morsi roadmap.

ElBaradei left and never looked back. He traveled out of the country, leaving the Foreign Ministry to justify the dispersal. “It was not at all an easy mission. It was an extremely tough time, especially given that several prominent international human rights organizations were describing what had happened in their reports as a bloody and violent massacre, not just a dispersal.”

The prominent post-revolution political figure, who had played an instrumental role in the wake of July 3 by meeting with international envoys who came to Egypt and succinctly communicating to them the necessity of military involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster, was gone. ElBaradei’s resignation exacerbated tensions and raised concerns among some in the West — for them, ElBaradei’s involvement among those leading Egypt following July 3 had been something of a guarantee that civil forces would at least remain supportive of the cataclysmic political change.

Additionally, ElBaradei had assured everyone he spoke to that Egypt had found its democratic compass in January 2011 and that it would not lose it again. He represented confirmation that a democratic process was being pursued.

According to one of ElBaradei’s aides, however, he left and never looked back. He traveled out of the country, leaving the Foreign Ministry to justify the dispersal. “It was not at all an easy mission. It was an extremely tough time, especially given that several prominent international human rights organizations were describing what had happened in their reports as a bloody and violent massacre, not just a dispersal.”

The Foreign Ministry — which was headed by Fahmy, who replaced Amr as minister in the first Cabinet following Morsi’s ouster — had one principal mission in July 2013. It needed to establish that Egypt was a significant country in the region and that it would remain one; that maintaining relations with and supporting Egypt served to achieve stability, not just nationally, but also in the region; and that Egypt was capable of moving forward regardless of how the West interpreted what happened in the country between June 30 and August 14.

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A big shift

Only days after the dispersal, a tour by then-Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in the West brought about a quick shift in the narrative, according to an Egyptian diplomat who was serving as an ambassador at the time. Faisal drummed up unlimited support for Cairo through varied means of diplomatic pressure, moving the conversation beyond discussions of whether the events of summer 2013 were “a revolution not a coup” and “a dispersal not a massacre.”

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and even Israel soon revealed their endorsement of the changes underway in Egypt, the former ambassador said. Ambassadors of the three states held separate meetings at foreign ministries in prominent Western capitals urging them not to get too hung up on the details or label the political change that took place in Egypt, and instead focus on securing stability in the country. They called on them not to imply to any political group that it may receive any potential foreign support, as that would stir unrest in Egypt, which would destabilize the region.

Following July 3, according to the former Egyptian ambassador, the diplomatic discourse started to shift away from the “revolution not a coup” narrative, focusing instead on the need to work together for the common good — which only started to happen when the US yielded, though reluctantly, to Saudi-Emirati-Israeli pressure.

The diplomat added that, if Sisi had spoken of his intention to run for president at the time, or if any government employee had mentioned that, it would have certainly been harder for the Egyptian diplomacy to assert to the international community that what had taken place between June 30 and July 3 was a revolution, not a coup.

The same three forces were strongly active following the dispersal. According to the former ambassador, they had far more influence than Qatar and Turkey, who voiced their opposition to the political changes that had taken place in Egypt.

Meanwhile, the introduction of an amended version of the Constitution by January 2014— with Amr Moussa, a former foreign affairs minister and a former Arab League secretary general overseeing the amendment process which began the previous September 2013 — helped reassure the world that things were going in the right direction.

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Sisi bids for president

According to the former Egyptian ambassador, when Sisi, the defense minister who spearheaded the move to oust Morsi announced his own bid for the presidency, it was easy for Egyptian diplomats serving abroad to respond, thanks to his seemingly wild popularity.

“We had no instructions, especially during the first stage,” an Egyptian diplomat said, listing three reasons why this was the case. “First, Sisi had not been public about his intention [to run] at the beginning. No one in the Foreign Ministry knew what he was thinking, at least. And he would not give clear answers. “Second, during the discussions within the committee that drafted the Constitution, it was proposed that the defense minister be safeguarded and granted impunity for eight years (two presidential terms, as per that Constitution). It was obvious that it was meant to protect Sisi against any bother whatsoever in the event that a non-military president took over. Third, it was very difficult to anticipate what Sisi had been planning to do, because he would sometimes talk about the privilege of saving Egypt from the rule of the [Muslim] Brotherhood being the best of privileges.”

The diplomat added that, if Sisi had spoken of his intention to run for president at the time, or if any government employee had mentioned that, it would have certainly been harder for the Egyptian diplomacy to assert to the international community that what had taken place between June 30 and July 3 was a revolution, not a coup.

Three months into Sisi’s presidential term, he visited the UN’s General Assembly in New York in the fall of 2014. During his visit, he met with Obama. A Washington-based Egyptian diplomat said, at the time, that the meeting between the two presidents was cold. However, the majority of states that were previously against the new Egyptian regime had come to accept it, if reluctantly. Meanwhile, things were moving forward with other states that were quicker to accept the new reality, including Italy, France, Greece and Cyprus.

Sisi then began to alter the diplomatic landscape, bestowing Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS) with unprecedented powers to coordinate with the Egyptian diplomacy.

A retired Egyptian diplomat said that foreign policy came to be primarily run by the offices of Major General Abbas Kamel, the director of the president’s office, and the director of the GIS, Mohamed Farid al-Tohamy. The latter was suspicious of several Egyptian diplomats and decided to sideline them; they were recalled from their missions and remained unassigned for a long time, before their employment at the Foreign Ministry was ultimately terminated altogether. Tohamy was also suspicious of Fahmy and decided to sideline him, too.

With Fahmy gone, the key issues were almost entirely taken over by the offices of Kamel and Tohamy. These included Egypt’s relations with Ethiopia and the dispute over the Grand Renaissance Dam, relations with Sudan, the situation in Syria, the situation in Yemen, and the management of the spat with Qatar and Turkey, in addition to the management of relations with the US and Russia. Tohamy was later replaced by Khaled Fawzy, and Fawzy’s position was later taken over by Kamel. As such, Kamel was serving as acting director of the entire GIS, in addition to his responsibilities running the office of the president. His position as director of the GIS was recently made permanent.

Successes in reversing any disapproval from foreign governments regarding the political changes in Egypt were made. For a number of Egyptian and foreign diplomats working in Egypt, the greatest achievement was in Egypt’s relations with Europe. Egypt has, in fact, managed to divide the states within the EU: Some states, such as Cyprus, Greece and Hungary, have become vehemently and vocally supportive of Egypt. Others have become cooperative, though quietly, such as France and Italy, despite the fact that the case of Italian student Giulio Regeni — who disappeared before he was found dead days later in early February 2016 on the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road — has yet to be resolved. Others still, such as Germany, are cooperating, though reluctantly. And finally, some states, such as Sweden, are thought of as having silent relations with Egypt.

EU member states to quietly “swallow” the “not insubstantial violations of freedoms and human rights [that they see] in Egypt” as well as “any potential changes to the political structure in Egypt, including potential amendments to the Constitution that would cancel the limit on the number of terms for which a candidate to the highest executive office can run.”

The deep and furcated economic relations between Egypt and Europe are a key element driving these developments. But more essential is the role that Egypt plays in curbing the heavy migrant influx that European governments are no longer able to cope with.

One of the Cairo-based European diplomats said that attempts by Egypt to reach resolutions in Libya and Syria — though faltering — and efforts it has been making to stop migrants from sneaking in from Sub-Saharan Africa are reason enough to maintain smooth relations. These attempts also help EU member states to quietly “swallow” the “not insubstantial violations of freedoms and human rights [that they see] in Egypt” as well as “any potential changes to the political structure in Egypt, including potential amendments to the Constitution that would cancel the limit on the number of terms for which a candidate to the highest executive office can run.”

“We hear that this may happen, but we are not about to start the democracy talk again. We believe that there is a reality in Egypt that we will have to acknowledge and engage, as long as the Egyptian people have accepted it.”

We hear that this may happen, but we are not about to start the democracy talk again. We believe that there is a reality in Egypt that we will have to acknowledge and engage, as long as the Egyptian people have accepted it.” Regarding the leak reports of amendments to extend the presidential term, the diplomat said, “We hope that [the decisions in] these leaked reports are not final, because we believe that a positive political development would help a lot in attaining real and sustainable stability in Egypt. But if things go that way, there will not be anyone in Europe labelling it as a coup or an undoing of democracy, even if concern is expressed.”

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Donya Ezzat 
 
 

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