Ex-FM of Egypt: ISIS will attempt to spread across N Africa to Libya and Egypt

There's a ceasefire in Syria. There are two powerful coalitions waging war on ISIS. And yet, the extremist group is slowly creeping up across the border, with the new victims of it being two Egyptian men. Will one of the strongest nations in the region respond to that? Is Egypt capable of fighting the terrorist threat from across the border - or can't it even handle the problem inside the country? And finally what role can Cairo play in this fight? We ask Egypt's former Foreign Minister. Nabil Fahmy, whom we caught in Moscow, where he came for the Valdai club conference called "The Middle East: from violence to security". 

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's former Foreign Minister, it's really great to have you with us again, Sir. So many things have happened since the last time we saw each other. So, ISIS has reaffirmed its presence in the Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, releasing the video recently of beheading of two Egyptian men - claimed to be military spies. It's now calling on members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to actually join the fight. Do you think this terror group is desperate for supporters, or do you believe that they're confident in their growing strength in Egypt?

Nabil Fahmy: Let me say openly: we clearly, and have publicly, already, said we have a terrorism problem in part of Sinai, more towards the North-Central part of Sinai. But it's not widespread and it is diminishing rather than increasing. So, is there possibility for terrorism? Yes. Whether they're ISIS or others, it's questionable. These kinds of groups tend to want to exaggerate their actual presence. So - where the video was taken? By whom? It is still not clear, at least for me. That being said, we need to deal with terrorism forcefully, irrespective of who the terrorist is and who it isn't. I think ISIS feels the pressure in the MidEast now, because of the different coalitions - there are two, at least, working against the extremists and terrorists - and therefore, they will initially spread rather than focus on a specific area, and then, I really do believe that over a period of time, it will be diminished considerably, first, militarily on the ground and then, after that, intellectually.

SS: I'd like to go through that in detail, but before we do that, you're saying that terror groups tend to exaggerate their presence. Even so, they're still there, they are still going strong - who is behind the Sinai militants? Why are they so resilient? Who's helping them?

NF: It's an open area, first of all. Secondly, we've made mistakes, over the last 50 years, of not really creating a socio-economic model in the Sinai for its people to develop normally. So, it was a fertile ground for the growth of terrorism in that North-Central part. Secondly, because of the border problems that we had in the eastern part of the Sinai, and, frankly, after the opening of the Libyan border, after Gaddafi, in the Western desert - that led to an influx of extremists, violent people, and terrorists from different groups. There was, therefore, a local component, or local foundation, but also a potential for foreign components as well. But - it is diminishing.

SS: Talk to me about it in detail, because "local component" being the bedouin rebels that actually started the whole thing in Sinai, then they pledged allegiance to ISIS and, 4 years later, they are still there. I mean, you were talking about, maybe, using military force, to break this down? Why hasn't Egypt been able to achieve victory so far?

NF: Well, the war against terrorism isn't a short war, and it's two-fold; It can't be short because terrorist, he wants to commit suicide, can create a lot of noise, a lot of damage. You're not fighting a war with military against each other, it's not a symmetrical war, so, the potential for terrorism to work is always there. Secondly, why we will diminish the circle, or the theater, where they can operate - to prevent societies from being complacent, you need to really work on the intellectual orientation of how people think as well. So, I continue to believe, we will use robust military presence to deal with terrorism - and it has diminished - but we will also have to energize the intellectual orientation for the society in that area, so it's not complacent to terrorists, when and where they exist.

SS: Especially after this incident, there was a need to strengthen airport securities, but there's been attacks in Cairo against tourists, ISIS also claimed responsibility for it. There was a stabbing of tourists in Hurghada also by ISIS. Do you think Egypt is doing enough to keep its tourist destinations safe?

NF: Again, you're putting apples and oranges... they're both fruits, but they're not the same thing. My point was, airport security - we brought in a British firm to review all of the airport security and establish international standards and to oversee that. The commitment to take more measures is clearly there. Can we do more to deal with security for tourism? There's no question. We need to do more. But, like, you know, here, in the country like yours, when you have tourists and they want to move around, you need to give them enough freedom to do that, and you need to provide security, enhance security as much as you can. There's a bit of the contradiction between the two. We will make our best effort and hopefully, over time, as we succeed in our dual-track war against terrorism, any potential threat to tourism will also diminish.

SS: But tourist industry in Egypt and in Russia are incomparable, because for you, for your country, it's a huge asset to Egypt's economy. Would you say, as of now, the tourist industry in Egypt is in jeopardy?

NF: There's no question, it's at low. I don't think it's in the long-term jeopardy, but it is definitely at very low level, there's no question about that.

SS: So, back to ISIS, then. It has supporters all over Africa: in Mali, in Nigeria, Tunisia, also it's strongest on Egyptian border with Libya. If the ISIS is defeated in Syria, do you think it could move elsewhere and have a stronghold elsewhere, maybe in Egypt?

NF: First of all, as I said, in response to your first question. ISIS is moving around, because it's having difficulty operating in its original theater, which was the Syrian-Iraqi area, in light of the two coalitions working against them. That being said, terrorism is not only ISIS. We need to deal with ISIS, we need to deal with all forms of terrorism, and our commitment is to do that. Let's not kid ourselves: it's going to take time. It's going to take time, because governments are responsible to use force responsibly and maturely, and, as I said, again, even if we are to deal with the military aspect of it, the security aspect of it, the intellectual aspect, the mindset of a terrorist, but more so, the mindset of an average constituent, who may look the other way as a terrorist goes by. We need to also deal with that. So, it's going to take time.

SS: I agree with you, and what you're saying is very wise and theoretical, but if we look at the technical side of it, okay, my question was if, technically, ISIS is driven out of Syria, because that's where its stronghold is right now - do you think it could take route elsewhere, for instance in Egypt?

NF: Actually, I was giving you a very practical answer. Before you asked a question, I said that their emergence in Egypt was because they were being dealt severe pressure in Syria and Iraq, so my short answer to you is yes, they will attempt to spread, be it in Libya, be it in North Africa, even attempting Egypt. But, I am simply also adding that: don't always assume they're there just because they make an announcement, but will they try? Of course they will try.

SS: I remember a year ago, Egypt actually conducted air force strike against ISIS in Libya. It was a very short term operation. Do you think Egypt could actually involve itself more forcefully in Libya, to eliminate ISIS there, because, you know, that's your immediate danger, and why hasn't it done so?

NF: What we did in Libya last year, was in response to a clear assassination of, I think there were nine or ten, Egyptians. And that was a surgical strike against the culprits of that particular crime. We have traditionally been very-very careful about using force in our neighboring states, because we don't want to leave a long-term bad taste or a bad feeling towards Egypt. So, when we use force, it's always surgically. We will continue to use surgical force to defend or to respond to crimes against our people, but we will not use force liberally in neighboring states, or, frankly, anywhere else, because we believe in peaceful resolution of conflicts... but we live in an area today, regrettably, which is on fire in many respects and where security is at great risk.

SS: NATO's intervention in Libya has left Libya in chaos, it has strengthened terrorism there, and cause a huge refugee crisis that has affected Europe and Egypt. You have now to deal - I mean, Egypt has to deal with the consequences at its border. You can't really turn to NATO for help, because they're not gonna help with anything. Who can you count on to help clean up this mess?

NF: I don't think we can count on anybody separately. What needs to be done here is: deal with the Libyan issue and also learn from the lessons of Libya. I have my eye on Syria, in particular. In the Libyan case, we're trying to help capacity-building with the new Libyan government. I think the international community should put together something equivalent to Marshal plan, but not in dollar sense, more in the terms of international commitment, to help capacity-building for the Libyan Civil Service, Libyan police, Libyan army. It should mostly be from the neighboring states, be that on the southern side of mediterranean or on the northern side of the mediterranean. That's where, I think, the bulk of the traditional support should come from, as well as some Arab support, because of the heritage issues. Now, learning from the Libyan example - and I was a minister who publicly said "We would not support bombing of Syria" in 2013 - use of force has to be the last resort or has to be against clearly determined criminal elements, and even when you use force, you have to know what you're going to do the day after. So, using forces and not knowing how to pick up the pieces, you end up destroying national structures, but then you end up with chaos after, because you don't know what the weight is on the ground. So, looking at the Syrian example, the use of force... and I really am hopeful that we'd have a ceasefire that sticks, and it has to be coupled with a substantial nation-building program in Syria as well.

SS: So, talking about Libya and bringing the example of Syria - back when the Libyan thing started, a lot of Western leaders actually backed the invasion saying that it was democratic aspirations of the people that they were supporting, and they do the same thing in Syria, arming the rebels, moderate rebels, because they're "helping the democratic aspirations" - why do you think these democratic aspiration haven't worked out? Is this what you were saying, because it's a use of force without really knowing what comes afterwards?

NF: Yes and no. First of all, I think, democratic aspirations should be supported, but they have to be domestic and national evolution, not foreign evolution. In other words, people have the right to participate in the governing of their own countries, but that has to come from within. So that's clear. I'm supportive of that, but I don't like the idea that it comes from outside, and then we simply stop supporting it, whenever or then we decide who's democratic and who's not. So, yes, but on the issue of  the international presence... I can understand using force against clear criminal or illegitimate elements and the fight ISIS is an example. You have two coalitions fighting against terrorists in the Syrian-Iraqi situation, and I accept that. These are terrorists, they are working outside the international norms, and they won't understand diplomacy, at least, initially. So, there are cases where we do that. To use force against governments or for the governments to use force against their people - ultimately cannot be condoned in the long-term. So, use of force is one element, but the evolution of democracy should be domestic and internal.

SS: Let's talk about Syria now. Your ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, said that it would actually consider sending ground troops to Syria in order to help combat terrorism there, fight ISIS. How would this play amid the ceasefire that has been announced between Assad and the rebels? Do you think the Saudis can join forces with rebels against ISIS, but not Assad?

NF: Now that we have a targeted ceasefire, which will be challenged and will people attempt to make it fail, we should try to ensure that we don't allow it to be broken. Now that we on that track, it's important to move from using force except against terrorists, to intensify negotiations, to move from the battleground and the battlefield to the negotiating table, to create a new process in Syria, that will lead to preserving Syrian sovereignty, preserving its institutions and creating new Syria for Syrian people.

SS: So, another move from the Saudis, and that was said by the Saudi foreign minister: the are also considering to supply AA weapons to the rebels. That's a bad idea too, you know? In the midst of ceasefire...

NF: First of all, all these statements were said before the ceasefire. So, we have a ceasefire today, which is based on the Vienna declarations, initially, and everybody was there. Let's move forward and we need to all act in the spirit of the ceasefire. The only exception to the ceasefire are terrorists.

SS: Let's talk a bit about Egypt's possible involvement in Syria, because you're very closely cooperating with Saudi Arabia, just recently you took part in massive military drill together. I know that there was an announcement of creating of joint Arab military force. That, plus, Egypt is also part of the Saudi-proclaimed Islamic Military Coalition against ISIS. Do you think this means that Egypt could contribute in Syrian war?

NF: Let me address those separately. We put an initiative forward to create an Arab force. It hasn't been accepted yet, but that's still on the table. We have been at the forefront of calling for a comprehensive battle against terrorism. So far, what you see is a battle against specific terrorists in specific areas, without a coalition against all terrorists. So, we will respond to that, consistent with our determination to combat terrorism, but based on the facts of the ground, in particular area. We are a nation with a strong military force, but we use it wisely. We will not use our forces... we'll not shy away from using forces, if our friends and allies are threatened, but we will not use forces irrationally, in every battle that may or may not exist, especially if we don't have control of the decision-making. If we use force, we have to have a substantive, conclusive role in deciding who does when and what happens there.

SS: And also, who are your friends and allies and enemies? President Sisi has said that military defeat of Assad would splinter Syria and make the terrorists in Syria, ISIS, even stronger. Does Egypt need Assad to stay at this point?

NF: Egypt is insisting on serious take and preserving of institutions. That's our position.

SS: So that means that right now, Egypt supports Assad to stay, right now? For the purposes of what you've said.

NF: Preserving Syria and institutions. Who governs Syria, when and where the transformation occurs - that's something for Syrian people to decide. But yes, our priorities are - we can't destroy Syria as a state, we can't destroy institutions to make it unmanageable, a failed state, but... in the same spirit that we don't agree that anybody can decide who governs Egypt, except the Egyptians. We don't claim the right to decide who governs Syria except the Syrian. But let's be honest here: there's been a war there for five years now, over 200,000 killed on both sides. Tremendous loss... Syrian assets have been diminished considerably. I can't imagine going back to where we were at the beginning of this. There's going to be some serious compromise, but it cannot be at the expense of the Syrian state or integrity of its territories.

SS: There have been reports recently that members of Hezbollah visited Egypt and also the Chief of Syria's intelligence was guest of President Sisi. Is Egypt keeping quiet contact with Assad through back channels?

NF:  Careful here, because, again, I like to comment specifically on what I have information for. So my clear answer to that is that I don't have the data to tell you whether that happened or not. That being said, we have a publicly announced position that we want to preserve sanctity of Syria and its institutions, but we don't believe we can back to where they were before this happened five years ago, given the damage and the losses. Any positive role we can play - we shall play.

SS: But, you know, when you say: "Egypt supports institutions in Syria". Right now, as of now, because Assad is the legitimate president, as of today, that translates into "Egypt wants to have good relations with Damascus", and you are also very close to the Saudis. Can you be friends with Saudis and with Syrians? Can you do both?

NF: We have to. But again, there's a big difference between the two. We have to be positive, constructive players. You're taking things a little bit out of context. The Geneva Declaration says that there's going to be a transition phase, with the transitional government in Syria, which has full executive authority. So, that itself says that the Syrians are going to move on from where they are today to a new phase, but it says we do that while preserving the institutions of the Syrian government and Syrian state. Our position that we need to preserve the ability of Syria to be governed. It's not for Egypt to decide who governs it, but if you were to come and tell us today "let's break down Syria first and then they decide who governs later" - we would not support that. But we do support transition, a formal, structured transition that enables Syrians - of both opinions, by the way, not of one opinion - to decide who comes next. So, there supposed to be transition here, and we support that, and that preserves the institutions.

SS: Another important player in the region is, obviously, Turkey. Now, President Erdogan is very hostile to the current Egyptian establishment, he even calls it "illegitimate" sometimes. He was very friendly towards the Muslim Brotherhood that was in power before this government. Why? Why is it beneficial for Ankara to quarrel with Egypt at this point?

NF: Erdogan is hostile to many people. All of his neighbors. He pursued a policy first that was "no problems with my neighbors" and now he has a policy all the problems with all of his neighbors. I mean, we are in good company, if you want, in terms of how many arguments Erdogan has in the region. That being said, let me answer the question directly: President of Turkey feels that we wants to lead the Middle East through the angle of "political Islam". So for him, the fact that Egyptians did not accept the continuation of the Muslim Brotherhood in government in light of their perception of Egypt was, if you want, the pin that burst his balloon. That's why he's so angry with what has happened in Egypt. We don't engage in domestic Turkish politics, and if we wanted to do it, we'd have a field day. We don't engage in that, and I highly recommend: let's try to cooperate together to deal with regional issues without interfering our politics, because we won't accept that.

SS: You know, Turkey is now openly considering an invasion of Northern Syria. If that happens, how would Egypt react? It's not domestic politics...

NF:  I know, I get it. My first point was that they have a policy nwo of "enemies with all their neighbors", rather than "friends with all their neighbors", so again, I'm being very consistent here. Let me answer the question openly: we are working now on a ceasefire process and towards reconciliation. We should use the ceasefire to start a proper process. Using force during a ceasefire is inconsistent.

SS: Nabil Fahmy, thank you very much for this interview.