Interview With Al Masree Al-Yom
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
QUESTION: Tell me about your meetings here in Egypt.
A/S FELTMAN: I had a good series of meetings, joining our ambassador, Anne Patterson, for discussions with his Excellency the Foreign Minister, with members of the SCAF. We also saw the Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Arabi. Obviously, with the Egyptian officials, we talked a lot about the bilateral relationship. We also discussed regional issues, given the fact that Egypt has long served as a leader in the Arab world, so we wanted to compare notes on issues such as Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and so forth. With the Arab League Secretary General, we focused largely on the issue of Syria, to try to get some insights into what the Arab League is thinking, in light of its initiative with Syria, and also the Secretary General brought up with me the importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is important for regional stability.
In the bilateral meetings with the Egyptians, we obviously discussed the issue of the NGOs, which has provoked headlines in both of our countries. I think that all of us had a shared sense of wanting to make sure that this issue could be managed in a way that did not distract us from the overall importance of the bilateral relationship between Egypt and the United States. But I also wanted to take the opportunity to talk about some of the basics behind this issue. I wanted to put the NGO issue in the context of what has been really a remarkable transformation over the past year inside Egypt. Almost a year ago, Egyptians started to take to the streets to demand their basic rights, to demand dignity and respect and opportunity to affect how they’re governed. Egyptians started on a path to democracy. This was accomplished by the Egyptian people themselves. It is obviously something that captivated the world. I know that Americans were watching the dramatic events in Cairo on TV with great enthusiasm to see what the Egyptian people themselves were doing. But the goal that the Egyptians have as I understand it is a functioning, healthy democracy where the Egyptian citizens are treated with respect and dignity, where they are shaping how they’re governed. Where there is accountability on the part of the government to the people. And in any healthy democracy that you see anywhere in the world, whether you’re talking about countries far away like Indonesia or countries in Europe or in North America, NGOs play an important role. They play an important role in providing some accountability. They play an important role in things like voter education and training and protecting free media. So I think there’s a basic principle here, which is that in any healthy democracy, the NGO sector is extremely important. And as for the NGOs that were subject to the investigative raids just over a week ago, what they were doing was trying to help provide some skills and accountability to the Egyptian people to help them achieve their goals. I wanted to make sure there was sort of an understanding about what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a really important sector in any healthy democracy.
QUESTION: With whom did you speak about the NGO raids?
A/S FELTMAN: We had a series of meetings here, including with the Foreign Minister and some of his advisors, including with members of the SCAF. We had some other meetings as well. And basically in all of the bilateral meetings with Egyptians we discussed the NGO issue, given the headlines this has created and given the importance that we in the United States place on this sector in a democracy. I didn’t discuss the NGO issue in the Arab League because it’s not an issue with the Arab League. It’s an issue right now that’s bilateral.
QUESTION: Any information about the reopening of the NGOs and the return of the documents?
A/S FELTMAN: I was encouraged by what I heard in terms of trying to manage this issue in a way that doesn’t damage the bilateral relationship, in a way that would allow these organizations to resume their work quickly. We really want these organizations to resume their work quickly because it is important. I got the sense from the bilateral meetings we had that the government officials here want to resolve this in a way that allows these organizations to reopen. We want them to reopen quickly. And I have to say that I did express some concern about the process in which these raids were conducted. The Egyptian officials told us that these raids were done under judicial authority, by the independent judiciary. Of course, all of us support an independent judiciary. That’s another pillar of a healthy democracy, just like the NGO sector is a pillar of a healthy democracy. In some cases, there were no inventories done of what was taken out of the offices. So one never knows for sure if something that was said to be taken from an office really was. It’s just hard to have accountability in how these raids were conducted. But the important thing here I think is to keep the focus on Egypt’s transition to democracy, on the tools that the Egyptian people need to see that their government is accountable to them, as in any democracy, and to recognize that NGOs are really an important sector in any democracy.
QUESTION: A lot of people say there’s been a change in the U.S.-Egypt relationship. Did you see such changes?
A/S FELTMAN: Certainly, we follow the Egyptian media coverage of the NGO issue quite closely. And not only of the NGO issue but of the U.S. –Egypt relationship in general. I know that there is a great sensitivity among Egyptians that Egyptians be responsible for Egypt’s future, that Egyptians be picking Egypt’s leaders. Not through some process of foreign intervention. I want to assure you that we recognize that. That Egypt’s leaders are accountable to the Egyptian people. Egypt’s leaders in democratic Egypt will emerge from Egyptian votes, from all those voters that went out there. When we talked about Egyptian officials, I want to underscore that we recognize that it’s to the Egyptian people that these officials must answer. That’s the same in any democracy. It’s not to us. Now we think the bilateral relationship is mutually beneficial. We certainly see the U.S. has interests in a strong partnership with Egypt, given Egypt’s leadership role in the Arab world, Egyptian skills in many fields. We hope the Egyptian people also see it in their interests in maintaining a strong relationship with the United States going forward. But we also have to recognize that for us we have to be much more sensitive to Egyptian public opinion than we were before because you have an Egyptian government that will be accountable in a far more profound way to Egyptian public opinion, to Egyptian voters, than the previous Egyptian government. And obviously that’s going to have to influence how we manage the bilateral relationship, how we talk to the Egyptian people. But in terms of if the Egyptian partnership with the United States is any more or less important to us than it was before, it’s as important to us as it ever was. It’s just that how we manage it will have to take into account the change in circumstances of this democratic transformation.
QUESTION: Yesterday, Mr. Cramer from Freedom House said he’d been working here for 5 years without registration. How can an American NGO work here for that length of time without registration?
A/S FELTMAN: Well, we’ve been transparent with the GOE about what these organizations are doing. These are American organizations, after all. And as I said, they are supporting the skills that the Egyptian people themselves need to achieve the goals that the Egyptian people set out for themselves. So there’s nothing under the table or nefarious about what these groups are doing. We’ve been transparent from the beginning. There’s been some misinformation here. For example, I’ve heard it reported in the Egyptian media that since NGOs operating in the United States are prohibited under U.S. law to receive foreign funding, therefore it’s perfectly acceptable that Egyptian NGOs should not have relationships with foreign NGOs and receive foreign funding. But the fact is that statement is simply not true. U.S. NGOs are permitted to receive foreign funding, have relations with foreign organizations because we recognize the role that NGOs should play. I wouldn’t want the registration process to distract people from that basic principle that we talked about earlier which is the positive role that NGOs play in any healthy democracy worldwide.
QUESTION: How much funding is the U.S. providing?
A/S FELTMAN: We’ve provided funding information to the GOE at the GOE’s request so we’ve been transparent with the GOE. I won’t talk about specific numbers except to say that some of the numbers that have been reported to the media have been greatly exaggerated.
QUESTION: There have been some reports saying that there has been $200 million to support political parties in Egypt.
A/S FELTMAN: But the thing to note is that U.S. NGOs that are working to provide the skills, the voter education, things like that, are working in a non-partisan way. We do not fund political parties. We support NGOs and civil society. We want to help create the space for civil society to be able to operate freely but we do not fund political parties. That’s something that needs to be understood. In other words, we’re not picking winners or losers in Egypt. The winners and losers in Egypt will be picked by the Egyptian voters, and that’s the way it should be. We may not always agree with the results but that’s fine because it’s the Egyptians who have to pick who’s going to be in parliament, and who’s going to be in the government and so we are NOT funding political parties.
QUESTION: About the elections, Amb. Patterson and Ms. Nuland have said that the U.S. will deal with anyone who is elected, including the Islamists.
A/S FELTMAN: I would caveat that statement a little bit in saying that we will deal with any political party that ascribes to democratic principles, that plays by the democratic rules of the game. In other words, if there’s a party that is threatening violence, threatening to impose its will on the Egyptian people by violence, we’re not going to deal with that party. But as long as a party that has entered the democratic process is honoring the democratic rules of the game, recognizing that in a democracy sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, recognizing the fact that in a democracy you need to protect certain basic freedoms, freedom of religion, you need to protect minorities, you need to be promoting the role of all of society to participate, that’s including the role of women. Yes, we’ll deal with all those parties, but would draw a distinction between parties that are truly playing by the democratic rules of the game and with whom we would truly want to engage and those such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, that also threaten the use of violence if they don’t get their way through democratic means. But here, we’re not concerned with what a party calls itself. We’re concerned about what a party actually does.
QUESTION: Why did the U.S. only contact the Muslim Brotherhood, not the Salafis?
A/S FELTMAN: There’s been a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood for many, many years. So in the one case, we’re building on some existing patterns. But in the other case, let’s see what the Salafis do when they enter parliament, they’ll be taking on an important responsibility, being elected in the numbers they’ve been elected. I don’t rule out anything. But again, we’re going to base our own engagement on verification through acts that a political party is adhering to democratic principles and democratic norms. Obviously, this has to be a two-way street, too. People need to want to talk to us, as well as us wanting to talk to them. But our own engagement is based not on what a party calls itself but on what a party actually does.
QUESTION: Some Muslim Brotherhood members have said that they would hold a referendum and let the public decide whether to accept or refuse the peace treaty. Is that OK with you?
A/S FELTMAN: As you know, we are a strong supporter of regional stability. Regional stability in this part of the Middle East is rooted in that treaty of peace between Israel and Egypt. We also recognize that there are great financial, economic and social needs in Egypt where Egypt needs to be attracting the engagement with the international financial community, creating jobs, bringing in foreign investment that makes jobs and all of these things are linked to regional stability. So we are encouraged by what we’re hearing from Egyptian political leaders that they recognize the need to maintain regional stability, but it’s in Egypt’s best interest in terms of the economic and job growth that Egypt needs to maintain adherence to regional stability and that of course includes the treaty of peace. It is in our mind a very important foundation to the Egyptian – U.S. relationship and to regional stability.
QUESTION: If there were a referendum, what would the U.S. reaction be?
A/S FELTMAN: You know we don’t talk about hypotheticals in interviews. I’m convinced that when the Egyptians look at what’s in their own best interest for Egypt, they’re going to most likely conclude that maintenance of regional stability, including from that treaty of peace is in Egypt’s best interest.
QUESTION: Now that the anniversary of the January 25 revolution is approaching, what are your views of how the SCAF has been performed over the past year?
A/S FELTMAN: I think that what’s been exciting when you look at Egypt today compared to one year ago is the fact that you have now had three rounds of parliamentary elections that have by all accounts gone well. That’s the main story. That’s the big picture, the fact that Egyptians have gone out in great numbers to cast their ballots for their members of parliament. As an American, I’m far away, I could criticize this or that decision taken, this or that decision taken by this minister or that general, but I don’t really think that’s appropriate right now. I think the appropriate thing is to focus on the larger question of transition. You now have a parliament that’s getting ready to be seated. You’ll be having Upper House elections. You’ll be drafting a constitution, the SCAF has made it clear that by June 30, power will be passed over to a civilian government. There’s a lot to be done between now and June 30 in terms of making sure you have a constitution that meets Egyptians’ aspirations. I think this larger picture of the transition has, from my perspective, gone extremely well. There have been bumps on the road and I would characterize the NGO issue as a significant bump on the road, given the role of NGOs in any healthy democracy. We are concerned about what seemed to be old instincts in cracking down on bloggers, for example.
QUESTION: On January 25, the protestors are going to demonstrate at Tahrir Square. Will the U.S. support the demonstration as it did last year, or not?
A/S FELTMAN: We absolutely support the right of peaceful protest. And you’ll continue to see us stand on the side of certain basic democratic freedoms: the freedom of speech, the freedom of media including new media – such as bloggers – freedom of peaceful assembly. We will continue to support that. And when you’ve seen us issue statements of concern it usually has to do with what we see, whether it’s in Egypt or elsewhere, in crackdowns on those basic freedoms. But, as I said, the big picture of the Egyptian transition has been largely positive.
QUESTION: PM Ganzouri said in a press conference that the U.S. promised to give Egypt $2 billion in loans but hasn’t come through with that promise.
A/S FELTMAN: We have a process in the United States. You have bureaucratic processes in Egypt and we have bureaucratic processes in the United States as well. And we had to get legislative authority. We had to go to Congress. We had to convince our Congress that because of the importance of the partnership with Egypt, because of the importance of the successful transition in Egypt that we needed certain authorities. We needed certain funds. And we have only been recently able to get that. I have to say that actions such as the crack-down of NGOs and the media attention that that requires does raise questions in Congress about whether we should be investing in this. Of course we should be investing in Egypt’s future. We absolutely want to. But we had to address a lot of questions. So we’ve recently received the authorization we need to move ahead on President Obama’s commitment to assist Egypt on its financial needs. And we also of course have a large influence within the IMF and the World Bank in order to be able to use our leadership in those institutions to also help Egypt with its financial needs.
QUESTION:Can the U.S. cut the military aid to Egypt?
A/S FELTMAN: In the United States, the Administration proposes a budget to Congress and Congress is also the one that appropriates the budget back to the Administration. So the Administration has to make its case to the Congress every year about our budget requests, whether it’s for operations or whether it’s for foreign assistance. I can’t speak for Congress; I’m not in the House of Representatives or the Senate, but what I can say is that the Administration has continued to make a very strong case for our assistance to Egypt. And we were pleased that the Congress has ultimately given us the authority for our full funding for the military assistance to the Egyptian military. This is a demonstration, in our view, of the partnership we have between the GOE and the United States. But again, the Senate and the House of Representatives play an important role in the budget process, and they have questions that we have to answer. And we always encourage Egyptian visitors to Washington to spend time on Capitol Hill to meet with Congressional representatives and their staffs so that they can help address the concerns that the Congress may have about Egypt’s transition to democracy.
QUESTION: When will Egypt receive the military assistance?
A/S FELTMAN: I’m not sure when exactly. There is now in the legislation a certification requirement. The Administration will have to work with Congress to fulfill this. So while we have the authority for the full funding, in order to release the funding, which we intend to do and we will do, there is a certain certification process that we’ll have to work on with Congress. So this will take some time. I don’t have a prediction of when the military financing will come through. But I repeat the fact that the Administration continues to make the case that full funding of our request for assistance to the Egyptian military is important to our partnership.
QUESTION: Moving from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, is the U.S. planning for any steps against the Syrian regime?
A/S FELTMAN: Well, I should note that part of the discussion I’ll be having in Saudi Arabia will be about Egypt because we think it’s important for all the countries in the region as well as countries outside the region as well as the international financial institutions play a role in helping Egypt address the financial challenges you have. So part of the discussion we’ll be having in Saudi Arabia will be about how we can all work together to help Egypt have a successful transition to democracy. But obviously, just as I did here, I’ll be talking to my Saudi interlocutors about Syria and other regional issues as well. And Yemen will also be a topic of discussion in Saudi Arabia. But I think that all the eyes will be on the Arab League meeting in Cairo on Sunday. The Arab League Syria Committee will be getting an interim report, I understand, from the monitoring mission that the Arab League has deployed in Syria, that the Arab League will be asking the question, “Has Syria complied with the Arab League initiative?” Syria agreed to the Arab League initiative on November 2. It took six weeks for Syria to agree to allow the monitors to come in to Syria, but now the monitors are there. So the monitors, I understand, will be reporting as to whether or not Syria has complied with the basic conditions of the Arab League initiative. So right now, in terms of the international response, we’ll be waiting to see what the Arab League tells us. But all of us share the same goal, the same goal as the Arab League initiative has, which is to stop the violence in Syria, to stop the brutality that Bashar Al-Assad and his colleagues are inflicting upon the Syrian population.
QUESTION: Do you have any advice to the SCAF?
A/S FELTMAN: The SCAF has taken on an incredible responsibility over the past year, overseeing the transition to democracy in Egypt. And I don’t know that it would be appropriate for me to be giving advice to people who are taking on a responsibility that I certainly would never have the opportunity to take on. But I think that a more general comment would be that democracies around the world differ according to a country’s history, a country’s culture, and Egyptian democracy will also develop in accordance with the Egyptian people’s own perspectives of history and culture. But there are certain principles that any functioning, healthy democracy around the world operates under. Those principles are well-known. They include the type of freedom of information, freedom of speech that brings accountability. I’ve been a U.S. official for a long time, and I am certainly not always comfortable or don’t always agree with what the U.S. media writes about my own role in working on U.S. -Middle East policy. I was heavily criticized yesterday, for example, for comments I made at the Foreign Ministry here. So I don’t agree with those criticisms, but I understand the need for the media, for bloggers, for NGOs to make sure that government officials, like me (I’m not elected, I’m appointed) remain true to the democratic principles under which our government operates. So I would encourage Egyptians, as they build a democracy, to of course be true to their own culture and their own history, but also to see what are those best practices that healthy democracies, from Indonesia to Canada, have followed.