Concil on Foreign Relations, New York City, New York
September 21, 2007
CHRISTOPHER DICKEY: Well, I think the microphone's on, so I'd better talk as if the microphone's on. My name is Christopher Dickey, I'm the Middle East editor for Newsweek Magazine, and the Paris bureau chief as well.
It's my pleasure to welcome to the Council today the foreign minister of Egypt, Ahmed Aboul Gheit. He's held that position since 2004, I believe. But before that, he was actually practically a New Yorker. He spent a total of about 13 years living here in Manhattan as a representative --
FOREIGN MINISTER AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: Not living -- not living, suffering. (Laughter.)
DICKEY: Suffering. (Laughter.)
GHEIT: Suffering. The traffic. The traffic -- you cannot imagine the traffic. (Laughter.)
DICKEY: I know, Cairo -- in Cairo it's so easy. (Laughter.)
DICKEY: So he spent 13 years suffering here in Manhattan and knows the United States well. This is going to be on the record. He's promised that he will say absolutely nothing that is quotable or will make a headline, but we'll see if we can change that a little bit. And I think we'll just talk for a few minutes, and then we'll open up the floor to the audience.
GHEIT: As you wish.
DICKEY: Mr. Minister, I wanted to as you first of all, before we came up here, we were talking a little bit about the upcoming peace conference on the Middle East. Do you actually see that there's likely to be any movement at that conference?
GHEIT: First, when the president -- President Bush invited for that -- or talked about that conference, he said, "I will be inviting people for a meeting." So it is one meeting, or one day of deliberations. That would tell you that within a meeting or two meetings, you cannot expect a breakthrough that would take you from situation A to situation B.
Hence, the need for very thorough preparations from today up to that day. If will not be -- or if there will not be enough preparations on the concepts and the perceptions of each party, where they would agree on a documents -- something on the lines of Camp David during the Carter Administration -- in Camp David I was there, much younger, and we, with the Israelis and the help of the Americans, it was essentially an American paper that was drafted between the two parties. And that kind of stated the end game for Egypt and Israel. That has to be repeated between today, up to the day of holding that --
DICKEY: And that's in November.
GHEIT: Everybody keeps talking about middle of November. Exactly when, where, who would be participating -- The objective is clear, I think, with the Americans, with us, and with the Palestinians. The three of us, and I hope the rest of the Arab world, is that we need to understand where we are heading, and the end game -- the end game for a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
With the Israelis, I see different variations and different emphasis here and there.
DICKEY: Is it your impression that this Israeli government can make peace -- can make that kind of breakthrough?
GHEIT: The statements of the prime minister, the statements of the foreign minister, are very indicative. They say that, "We are committed and we will do whatever is within our means to generate activity," aiming at settling with the Palestinians. However, the discussions between them and the Palestinians, and the discussions among the Israelis themselves, and the indications are letting me -- you see, I have one of two possibilities there. The Israelis are in a position to do something, and they are negotiating with the Palestinians in secret. And that suddenly they will come out with an understanding on the lines of Oslo, or something that goes beyond --
DICKEY: Do you have any indication that anything like that is going on?
GHEIT: There is lots of discussions. They are not talking about niceties or about the beautiful life in our part of the world, because it is -- that part of the world is passing through a most difficult, difficult time. That is one possibility.
The other possibility is that they are talking and talking, and each is trying to convince the other to accept his own parameters for the stage of development that can -- Time will tell, and it will very soon be recognized whether they are making breakthrough, or is it within the realm of discussions, talks.
The window is there. If -- if -- before the conference there would be a document that would convince people that both of them are able to do something, then you will find everybody jumping in and trying to help, and to push, and to convince, and even to prevail on whatever opposition that is there.
If, on the other hand, we would not see that situation, then, by the end of the year it will be a very difficult situation for the Palestinians, mainly -- for the Palestinians. And the extremist elements amongst the Palestinians would win the day.
DICKEY: There's already talk in Israel of giving Gaza to Egypt, in essence -- closing all the borders with Gaza, leaving the borders open with Egypt, and just handing it off. Is that something that Egypt would accept, contemplate, desires?
GHEIT: No, and we would not accept. Why is it so? Because Gaza was entrusted -- or it trusts, and there has been an Egyptian political and military regime in Gaza up to the 5th of June, 1967 -- 40 years ago. And then the Israelis took over through the war of '67, and today we have that situation.
We will not take responsibility. It is Palestinian territory. It is Palestinian people that have been -- that conflict inside Gaza. We have to sustain Gaza. We have to maintain the flow of electricity, of water supply, of food, of essential material, as well as the raw materials to allow the government to have their own economy. And at the same time, we have to build up enough economic potential in the West Bank, to give the Palestinians in the West Bank the model.
There will be, I think -- today we are witnessing a race between two Palestinian leaders -- two Palestinian leadership and two Palestinian entities -- (audio break) -- I say so because, on the 14th of June, 2005, the National Palestinian Movement, or the Palestinian National Movement, has been cracked.
So you have this kind of race between two entities, one in Gaza and one -- the legitimate one, the political Palestinian authority. And that race is a race to convince the people whose course is better -- the course of confrontation with the Israelis, of firing missiles, of receiving fire on the other side or the possibility of going through a political process building up a Palestinian economy, allowing Palestinians to emerge and to feel their own identity. If that happens, then lots of what we are witnessing today in the West Bank has to disappear. We have to see the checkpoints disappearing, we have to allow Palestinians to move around the cities, to allow the Palestinian economy to emerge, we have to bring to an end the settlement activities, we have to change the course of the world toward the Green Line. There is -- all of that has to be done in order to be convincing, allowing one to lose the race. And I hope the political legitimate authorities of Palestine will not lose that race. It is in Israel's hands and the United States' hands, and in our hands -- all of us.
DICKEY: There's been talk recently that Egypt and Iran might normalize relations. This comes at a time when Iran supposedly is giving a lot of support to Hamas and helping it to compete in that race you're talking about. It also comes at a moment when there's more and more talk about some kind of maximum pressure -- even military pressure -- being put on Iran because of its nuclear program. Why at this moment is Egypt entertaining the possibility of improving relations with Tehran?
GHEIT: The issue -- and I'm being in all honesty very honest with all of you, so the issue of Iranian-Egyptian relations has been considered -- the diplomatic relations have been considered possibly since 1982, two years after the break of relations between Egypt and Iran. So we are talking about the conditions whereby Egypt and Iran would resume diplomatic relations. But I have to say two points. The first is that Egypt maintains a mission in Iran headed by an ambassador, and it is a large mission with commercial -- with the -- lots of active personnel, and the Iranians are maintaining in Cairo another Iranian mission that is headed also by very, very kind of experienced Iranian ambassador. That is one aspect.
So relations are -- more or less are there. But when we discussed with the Iranians in Cairo or on Geneva or in New York, what we discuss is the following. What are the bilateral issues that are preventing both of us to resume diplomatic -- full diplomatic relations -- full diplomatic relations? And we in Egypt have -- we have opposition. There is a street in Tehran where the name of the street is Islambuli. He is the Egyptian officer who assassinated President Sadat in 1981. So we tell them we cannot accept and there is no way that we accept an Egypt that you celebrate the assassination officer of President Sadat and you put his name on one of your most important streets. There is also a kind of what we call it, a great painting with his face, that fellow on one of the very large buildings in Tehran --
DICKEY: The head of al-Islambuli
GHEIT: The head of al-Islambuli. And we told them, "We cannot accept terrorism, and you say that you might tell me, 'But that is symbolical.' I tell you exactly we cannot resume relations with people who are celebrating and honoring someone who killed an Egyptian president."
DICKEY: And what did they say? What did they say to you, Mr. Minister?
GHEIT: They say, "Well, that is an issue that can be sorted out." However, there is a small flag -- an Iranian flag inside the tomb of the shah of Iran who Is buried in Egypt. And we say no way to remove the flag of an honored king who is buried in this Egyptian land. It is not the Shah who is buried. It is also his father, who died in 1930-something. So Egypt has that kind of ability to host everybody whether alive or in death.
DICKEY: So are these -- these in fact are the issues that keep you from renewing diplomatic relations --
GHEIT: That is bilateral --
DICKEY: I mean , I'm finding this out. I know you said you weren't going to make any headlines, but I'm having a little trouble with this, Mr. Minister.
GHEIT: Yes, yes, yes. But symbolism is very important. That is an aspect -- one of two. The second aspect is that we have some security issues that we have to discuss with the Iranians, security issues related to activities around us. But it is security. Well, I will not engage publicly upon this. The third aspect is now both of us -- Iran and Egypt -- will be conducting ourselves in relation to issues related to the region. We have a region that is inflamed. You have at least called Iraq that has been fully destroyed and we have neighbors around that Iraq, and each of the neighbors is trying to do things thinking that is serves his interest. So there, we are in discussions where the parameters of each of us -- we are a very large country in that region. Egypt is the largest in population. Egypt has 76 million people who -- a very large economy and a very vibrant economy. We are making this quarter 7.2 economic growth. So that is an issue.
The second issue is, as you said, Hamas and the Palestinian problem. Who is playing what and who is doing what in relation to a problem that is on our borders? And whatever that affects our borders would eventually affect us, so what is the conduct there? How are we to reach understandings on the issues related to such? The third issue is Lebanon. Lebanon is something that you have to agree on on courses that would not complicate the Lebanese situation, and it is already complicated. You have seen all -- as I was preparing my luggage to come to this beautiful city -- (laughter) -- and it is really a beautiful city; I was joking -- you -- I heard about that assassination of a member of Parliament, and it is not the first -- I hope it will be the last, though I doubt it. So these are issues -- the regional issues. We have to understand what you do and what we do and how we can agree -- both of us -- and there is a desire to agree, and there is a desire to build relations and there is a desire to normalize relations between Egypt and Iran, but on a set of understandings.
And we are in such discussions. We have been starting -- or we started such discussions in '82 -- '82. And they -- we are on the -- often on and off.
DICKEY: Things move slowly in the Middle East -- until they don't, I guess.
I want to open the floor up, but just two -- two more quick questions, maybe with tough but brief answers. The first one --
GHEIT: Tough questions I will answer. Brief answers I cannot guarantee. (Laughter.)
DICKEY: Given that --
GHEIT: You see, we have a game. A diplomat, if he wants to evade questions, he can sort of lengthen his response. And if he lengthens his response, he consumes the time, and he is the master of his whatever-he's-saying. She objects! (Laughter.)
DICKEY: I can see Ragita (sp) heating up there in the front row already.
The -- but let me ask you, if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, is Egypt going to feel obligated to develop its own nuclear program?
GHEIT: That is a very tricky question.
DICKEY: Well, it's yes-no. (Laughter.)
GHEIT: Egypt has been -- let me -- let me -- No, no. That cannot be answered yes or no.
Egypt has been calling for the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, as well as free of nuclear weapons. And we insist, and we have been working on this, and because of our goals, we have been pointing down -- or, pinpointing -- the Israeli nuclear capability, and I call it the Israeli nuclear capability, calling on Israel also to adhere to the NPT regime.
If there would be the spread of nuclear weapons to this region, I do not think that it will be limited to one or two players. There will be the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction to this region; it is a scary thing to allow the Middle East to witness the mushrooming of one, two, or three nuclear-capable states.
DICKEY: Well, maybe it's worth doing something dramatic to stop Iran from --
GHEIT: I do not talk --
DICKEY: -- nuclear weapons.
GHEIT: I do not limit my intervention to Iran. There has to be a zone that every party to this region would oblige and comply with the regime that will be established then. I'm talking also about Israel.
DICKEY: There was an interesting bombing by Israel in Syria recently. Damned if I know what happened there. Do you have any idea?
GHEIT: No. I -- I keep receiving lots of analysis and lots of bits and pieces of information that it has -- that it was such-and-such a place, that it is a Korean group of -- of operators, that it is a Syrian defense missile. I don't know what -- that it is maybe the route towards Iran, that it is a kind of a trial or an attempt to -- to investigate Syrian defense --
DICKEY: You've heard all these things. We've all heard all these things.
GHEIT: All of us. All of us, we have -- but I do not have specific --
When I was asked about that question in Cairo, I said that it is very far-fetched that the Syrians and the Koreans would work together. I do not believe it. Personally, I do not believe it.
DICKEY: One -- just one last question. A lot of -- lot of people in --
GHEIT: I know that The Washington Post and many people talked about it yesterday and today.
DICKEY: Sure. And what -- and what -- part of every story is that the reaction of other Arab countries has been very muted to an Israeli attack deep inside Syria. And that's taken as some indication --
GHEIT: We were -- we were, in Egypt, critical of that -- of that -- I wouldn't say even raids, because I don't know -- that reconnaissance in force. The -- some Syrian elements have been saying that some munitions were thrown, but we objected. In Egypt, we objected, because we stated that this contributes to the increase of tension in the region, and we went public on that.
DICKEY: Well, now that we've cleared everything up -- (scattered laughter) -- I'd like to open the floor to questions.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
DICKEY: Wait -- wait for the microphone, and also, if you could introduce yourself when you speak into the microphone.
QUESTIONER: What is your thinking about what seems to be the complete exclusion of Hamas from negotiations, both current and also in view of the forthcoming conference in Washington?
GHEIT: May I answer?
GHEIT: The Hamas, we believe, I think -- in Egypt and in the Arab world, we believe that Hamas is part of the Palestinian equation, no doubt about it. And when they -- they had elections within the Palestinian territories, they won a large majority. So they have -- we have to deal with Hamas, and we have to take them as part to a Palestinian scene.
But today, as I told you, there has been a kind of a schism in the -- in the national Palestinian movement. So let's focus on offering the Palestinians a good settlement, economically and politically. Then as we make progress, we go back and we give to the Palestinian people -- we offer them this kind of arrangement, the suggested arrangements, let's say, sometime in December, I hope. And then we tell them, "Here it is; this is what we are offering you." But we have to take them into our deliberations and we have to convince them, because they can spoil, if they wish to spoil. They are party to a problem. So you convince them to come on board, or you defeat them politically.
You defeat them politically through elections. You go, you bring the people, you make progress economically and politically, and the people will let them down. That is the course. But they are a party to -- to the national movement, though they are not yet party to the PLO. The PLO, that umbrella organization that covers all Palestinian parties and organizations, the Hamas is not yet party to the PLO.
DICKEY: Here? Wait for the microphone.
QUESTIONER: Yes, I'm Mort Zuckerman. There has been much commentary that is a euphemism for criticism of Egypt's failure to prevent arms supplies going into Gaza. Is there any opportunity there for Egypt to play a constructive role by taking a very different approach to that question?
GHEIT: Very good question. Is there any possibility for Egypt playing a constructive role? As if we are not! Of course we are.
The problem is you have two cities by the name of Rafah, the Egyptian Rafah and the Palestinian Rafah. And the line, the border between both is a kind of a wall erected by the Israelis years ago, and that wall still remains. The Israelis, when they were kind of withdrawing from Gaza, they demolished part of the Rafah city, allowing a space of 4 (hundred) to 500 meters from that fence, or that -- that wall. It is a cleared area.
Palestinians, they dig, from their own buildings and homes on the Palestinian side. They dig, let's say, 30 meters down and they extend a tunnel that comes underneath the wall, and it reaches another house, a Palestinian house, because that area is an area where it is families and tribes on both sides. You are Palestinian, you are Egyptian, but actually you are related to each other by blood.
So that tunnel -- and it is a tunnel that would allow one person to -- have you seen that great film "The Great Escape?" The tunnel is one half of that great escape tunnel. And it goes underneath, and it comes inside a house. And that house, we discovered -- in some of our actions, we discovered that some of the tunnels were coming into a kitchen or in a bedroom, underneath a cupboard. So it is an extremely difficult thing to discover or identify. That is one.
But two, there is lots and lots of vegetation in this area. And many congressmen and women visited. And they went up the roofs of the Egyptian township Rafah. They looked at the outside, and they said well, how can you control that kind of vegetation and a dense vegetation that produces citrines and oranges and lots of things? It is not something that you can just decide to put it to fire. So there is an attempt to control.
Egypt is not a place where you can acquire 200 AK-47s and tomorrow they are delivered. It is a society that has security forces, the ability to see and to detect. The problem we are facing, I think is the number of Egyptian forces on the borders. Since the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the number of Egyptian army forces allowed in that demilitarized zone are limited. We reached an agreement with the Israelis to increase that number by 750 military personnel. Seven hundred and fifty military personnel I do not think working 24 hours a day over a stretch of 14 kilometers which is 11 miles or 10 miles is enough. I think we have to increase the number of Egyptian forces allowed. But that will have to come through understandings and a signed agreement to amend the protocols on the security aspect of how to review the borders. It's a complicated thing, but we are trying to do an effort.
We do not have a stake in allowing things to go to Hamas or anybody else. We in Egypt do not have a stake in providing whatever organization within the land of Palestine or in Gaza any weapons or material that would be used for violence.
DICKEY: Thank you.
QUESTIONER: Mr. Minister, my name is Prenay Gupta (sp). I've been living in your part of the world for the last year or so.
Egypt, as you know, has been traditionally a seat of learning and the export of learning in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. It's also been the source of export of workers in the Middle East. And lately, there's been a perception that many of the Gulf countries which Egyptian workers helped build, particularly the infrastructure, that some of these Gulf countries have been indeed de-exporting Egyptian workers, partly because that perception, again, that some of the learning that these workers brought with them has perhaps undermined those societies or is helping to radicalize those societies. So the question necessarily is, how concerned is Egypt about the possibility that the repatriation of funds from these workers may diminish and whether relations that have been traditionally good with the Gulf countries may also be subsequently be affected? Thank you.
GHEIT: That is a complicated question that has many, many points to answer.
DICKEY: Not too many. (Scattered laughter.)
GHEIT: First, we have in Gulf a large number of Egyptian workers and nationals. And the exact number I don't know, and nobody would manage to tell you. In Saudi Arabia alone, figures vary between 500,000 to 1 million Egyptians. In Kuwait, people are saying the figure is between 400,000 and half a million. In Libya, people are saying you have between half a million and 1 million. So you have lots of Egyptians in this part of the world. And the Egyptian workers are not solely limited to workers working in building projects or working as cooks or waiters in restaurants. The judicial system in many of such Gulf countries is dependent on the Egyptian judge and the Egyptian legal system. Many of the universities and schools are relying on Egyptian teachers. And many of the hospitals are relying on Egyptian doctors and nurses. So you cannot say this is a group of Egyptians. It is across the spectrum of all economic life.
The phenomena of Egyptians going to Gulf and absorbing many of the customs and of the perceptions of Gulf citizenry is there. And you see and we have seen in '74 and '84 and '94, Egyptians going and returning two aspects -- wealth but also perceptions that are not necessarily coping with the centrality of the Egyptian behavior.
DICKEY: You mean, they come back as Wahabi?
GHEIT: They come back in a manner very rigidful (ph). And there, we benefit, such societies benefit. But at the same time, we are eager to ensure that such a return of our people are coming back to a country that is known to be soft-centrist, centrist-Islam, an open society. Egypt has been modernizing since 1800. We have had lots of modernity in the Egyptian society over 200 years' period, and that should not be lost, and it will not be lost.
DICKEY: Ragida (sp).
GHEIT: (Foreign greeting.)
QUESTIONER: (Foreign greeting.) (Inaudible.)
GHEIT: I have known Ragida (ph) when she was 8 years old in 1974. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: Thank you.
GHEIT: Why are you --
QUESTIONER: You will not get it.
GHEIT: Thank is the Egyptian niceties to people.
QUESTIONER: It's not going to be an easy question. Don't try, don't try. (Laughter.)
GHEIT: Ready, Ragida (sp), to receive anything from you.
QUESTIONER: Thank you, Minister. You did express fear or doubt that the assassination of the member of the parliament in Lebanon might not be the last one. And you probably would agree with the Security Council and others that this is -- and (Europe ?) as well -- that this is part of assassinating the process, the constitutional process of choosing a president or electing a president.
Isn't it time, or is it time -- from your point of view -- as Egypt, as Arabs, to do something about it in terms of protection, international presence, Egyptian or Arab League presence at least to extend some sort of protection for these members of the parliament so that the actual killing of the constitutional process does not get completed by you standing by?
GHEIT: The Lebanese situation is an extremely, extremely risky and dangerous situation that has to be tackled from a very wise -- in a very wise approach. Many of Lebanese members of parliament are living today amongst us in Egypt and in France. Many of them are living amongst us and we are hosting them because we understand the dangers.
The Lebanese process, political process, according to the constitution will be launched on the 24th of September. On the 24th of September it will be the official start of designating and then electing by parliament a Lebanese president. It will end on the 24th of November. So we have a window of two months. I do not expect -- though I would hope -- that this issue will be settled on the 24th of September. It will drag over time until we reach that point where there has to be an agreement amongst the Lebanese themselves.
Let alone the outside influence, the Lebanon has a problem of two natures: an internal Lebanese problem where Lebanese factions are quarreling and talking and consulting. They are from Shi'as to Sunnis to Maronites, to Armenians, to lots and lots of trends. And then you have this outside players. And the outside players, they have -- as President Sadat and President Mubarak have been saying all along since 1976, the first war that erupted in Lebanon -- that Lebanon off limits and off your hands. Meaning, everyone has to stay away from Lebanon.
On the efforts of Egypt, we are working with the soldiers, with the French and with the Arab League trying to formulate a position that we would present to the Lebanese different factions. I think tomorrow or the day after when I am to see Prince Saud and the French from the 26th. There will be a meeting between the French, the Saudi, the Egyptian and the secretary-general of the Arab League in New York -- the four of us -- to see if we can agree on a statement on a position, a combined position, that we would address the Lebanese factions, impressing on them the need to reconcile their difference.
There remains the issue of, as you asked rightly, the presence of foreign or Arab forces. Forces -- Arab forces or international forces -- would not help in nipping in the bud whatever designs against one person. You can put forces on a border as UNIFIL is functioning today -- on the borders between Lebanon and Israel. You can even deploy observers on the Lebanese-Syrian borders with the agreement of both. Mind you, the Syrians are not receptive to that idea, but to think that you can put in Beirut thousands of Arab troops to ensure that there will not be a bombing here and there, that is not the course and it will not, I think, be -- it will not help.
The protection will to come through convincing the Lebanese themselves to bring it to an end.
DICKEY: Let me just ask for --
GHEIT: Killing people is not and should not be the order of the day and we object to any kind of killing.
DICKEY: Mr. Minister, if I can just clarify: Were you saying that the process begins on September 24th of selecting a president and it's supposed to end on November -- but you do not think it will end on November 24th?
GHEIT: No, no, no. I say it will -- hopefully it will end prior to that, but for the last leg of that process, because on the 24th of November the Lebanese president will have to relinquish his authority. And if he relinquishes his authority, the Lebanese government -- according to the constitution -- will take responsibility of running the state. But the president, the current president, does not recognize the current legitimate government as legitimate. So he might -- and there has been that kind of statements -- that he might compose a very small government. And if that happens, on the 24th of November you might have two governments. And the majority government is saying "and we will go for the election of a president" then you might have an elected president by the majority opposed by the -- it's, as I said, a very complicated situation and you have to read the constitution and you have to be sort of very knowledgeable on constitutional affairs to see who's right and who's wrong.
DICKEY: Here -- the lady here.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Sarah Leah Whitson.
Mr. Minister, if any of the journalists in this room were to write articles today speculating about the health of George Bush, in fact even wishing him death, they likely wouldn't end up in jail. But unfortunately, Egyptian journalists haven't been that lucky. Just last week four editors were sentenced to jail for writing articles insulting the president and speculating about his health.
President Mubarak has promised to stop putting journalists in jail for what they write, but the promise has been repeatedly broken. When is Egypt going to abolish its penal code provision that allow these kinds of attacks on the freedoms of Egyptians?
GHEIT: Thank you very much.
Now, personally, this person who is addressing you right now objects very much to putting anybody in jail because he wrote an article here and there. However, I personally believe that instead of putting people to jail you have to maximize the penalty for publishing defaming material. If you defame my name, then I have to find a course -- a recourse to legal course. And I think in the United States if you defame someone and you tell you are such and such, then I can take you to court and we have -- if not in the United States -- but I know of European countries dragging some journalists to court to accuse him of defaming my name. You defamed my name. When you defame my name, there has to be a penalty because there has to be the rule of law. If we do not agree, then we cannot continue the discussion. But if we agreed on form of behavior, then now we discuss how we act together. That is one aspect.
I personally believe that. And I have read about so many major having to pay penalty in terms of compensation to someone who has been aggrieved by articles in the media. If that is not so, then I really wonder how am I to protect my name and my children would not say, well, our father has been such and such and it has been a wrong done at him. That is an aspect.
But on that specific issue, what you are referring to -- if I bring down or a threaten to bring down the American Stock Exchange this morning, intentionally doing it -- intentionally doing it to harm American society, then there has to be a price. And what has happened in Cairo -- an accusation is they intentionally wanted to bring down the Egyptian economy by spreading something that they knew it was not true because the president appeared on TV and they said, "No, it is not the president. It is somebody else." And they continued on that course to opine that the Egyptian economy lost within the span of a day-and-a-half a billion-and-a=half Egyptian pounds. If you can afford this, I can assure you Egypt cannot.
There has to be the rule of law. And you change your laws if you agree as Egyptians to change the laws and to say -- which I am a subscriber of -- I call for increasing the penalties for crimes of defamation or wrong information that would harm society. I would put it out of business -- I would make the pay according to a judge -- the rule of a judge, and it is all the judge -- the court. If the judge will decide, then we -- if then the judge will allow him to -- and it is still that process. They did not go to jail. They are not in jail, all right? Now when we -- I'm talking to you, they are not in jail. The judge ruled that they would go to jail, but it is subject to a higher court.
DICKEY: Mr. Minster, if I could ask you -- how is the --
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
GHEIT: Yes, and they say -- they say the -- a kind of, "You know, guess what? You accused me of the most horrible crime where I will have to commit suicide or my family will suffer eternally, and I take you to court right now! And guess how much you will pay? Fifteen hundred dollars, and I lose my wife and my reputation eternally!" That is not justice.
DICKEY: Mr. Minister, how is the president's health?
GHEIT: The president's health is very, very, very good to the point that you discuss with him for an hour anything, for two hours, for 10 hours and he is engaged in all public life. And he walks and he visits, and he goes touring the country. Last week, he went to a new industrial development area and he spent four hours on foot walking around and meeting people and --
Those guys, the president visits three times over three successive days just to tell investors -- you see, the Egyptian economy is blessed nowadays by receiving foreign investment. Egypt receives 60 percent of all the foreign investments that came to North Africa over the last nine months. We received 11 (billion dollars) to $12 billion in direct foreign investments into our country. Then when those guys spread the rumor -- and the president was there and attending activities -- a billion dollars -- a billion dollars went out.
We cannot afford a billion after a billion. There were people calling from London -- the Stock Exchange -- asking and selling Egyptian stocks that are on the London ground and in Cairo. You can play the fate -- with the fate of societies. You cannot. You have to allow freedoms and you have to allow every Egyptian and every foreign nationalist on the land to prosper. But you have also to have the rule of law. If it is the rule of jungle, then the rule of jungle is both ways. There has to be respect to the law or you change the law. I'm ready to change the law. I am personally ready to change the law and to say, "Sorry, you do not pay $2,000. You pay half a million dollars if you abuse your powers as the right to insult me."
DICKEY: I haven't called on anybody over here.
No, this gentleman here.
QUESTIONER: That was a long answer.
GHEIT: Didn't I tell you?
DICKEY: Aren't you surprised? (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: My name is Brad Cherpak (sp). I'm an investor.
Given that Egypt can be friends with whoever they wish, but also that the U.S. taxpayer sends a significant amount of foreign aid to Egypt, how do you explain to me -- a taxpayer, many of the taxpayers in this room or a taxpayer in Ohio, Florida or Texas -- how the aid money isn't going to be sent on to your friends in Iran if you in fact do normalize relations with Iran?
DICKEY: Are you suggesting that the aid money that the United States gives to Egypt might be going to Iran at some point?
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
DICKEY: I see.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
GHEIT: No, no. That is -- that is -- you see, I do not say "aid." I call it the American support to Egypt. It is -- yes, money. But you are doing it in support of a friend. And I think over the last 30 years Egypt has been the friend and the stabilizer of that part of the world -- the Middle East. It comes through to groups of assistance -- support. You have $1.3 billion in annual assistance, military assistance to the Egyptian military to build up Egyptian military force and you have $415 million in economic assistance, and that goes to projects -- projects that are conducted by American companies. So ultimately, out of the $415 million that are given to Egypt, ultimately $300 million are retuning to the Egyptian economy in direct manner because it is wheat, it is projects, it is sewer, it is water supply, it is bridges -- it is carried out by American companies. But the money does not go anywhere else but between Egypt and the United States.
DICKEY: This gentleman here.
QUESTIONER: Mr. Gheit, Stanley Arkin (sp). My question --
DICKEY: Can you hold the microphone a little closer to your mouth?
QUESTIONER: Excuse me?
GHEIT: Yes, the microphone -- just to hear you.
QUESTIONER: Little -- little closer to my mouth. All right. Sorry, sir. (Laughter.)
The first question and second question asked to you by Editor Dickey had to do with whether Egypt were the next Gaza. How about opening your borders to Gazan citizens and Palestinians who want set up manufacturing facilities on Egyptian territory to facilitate export and doing business?
GHEIT: That is one question.
GHEIT: The question is, how about if we would open Egyptian borders to Palestinians working on Egyptian soil to have factories producing for where?
QUESTIONER: Producing for anywhere. For example, you could export much easier from Egypt than you can from Gaza.
GHEIT: Because we have a problem there. We have a problem there and we do not want to increase our problems. In all honesty, we have accusations that we are responsible for the funneling in of military equipment to an organization that -- we do not agree with its policies. We cannot -- what we should do, I think, is to allow the Israelis and the Palestinians to agree and they have agreements -- agreements that came to an end because of the takeover of Hamas on the Gaza Strip. There has been industrial areas, zones established inside Israel whereby Palestinians are moving in to work inside Israel, in industrial zones.
And Palestinian money and the Israeli money is working to produce for the Israeli, for the Palestinians and maybe for the Europeans. That has been there. It is there, you have industrial areas such as Karni. But it is not working because of the situation. Why would we allow such possibility for tension building up on our side of the borders? That is one.
Two, the Israeli, the Palestinian, Egyptian borders are organized by a regime that has been agreed between Palestinians, Europeans and Israel. And Egypt was not party to that. That regime continued until the 15th of June, 2007 when Hamas took over. When Hamas took over, we decided that we were not part of that regime and we will keep the borders closed until we generate enough understanding between these three parties to open up.
Why is it so? Because we do not want to complicate issues whereby the Israelis would say, "Well, you are allowing Hamas people to come through." We are not allowing anybody. We are allowing Palestinians to cross from Egyptian borders, but in that triangle -- Egyptian, Israeli, Palestinian points where they cross, they meet the Israelis and they go into Palestinians.
Why is it so? Because it is a transitional situation. We do not have yet a Palestinian state. When we have a Palestinian state that is -- that is in control of its own territory, then that situation will change. But up until this moment, it is extremely difficult to follow that proposition.
DICKEY: Mr. Minister, we need to wrap things up now, so I won't ask you to tell me exactly how you would solve the Darfur problem. But, if you have any insight into it you'd like to share as we wrap up.
GHEIT: The Darfur problem is a very sad story that has to be confronted, and seriously confronted. We have three aspects of the confrontation. We have humanitarian: the international community, Egypt included -- and mind you, we keep sending tons and tons and tons and tons of Egyptian material for free to those poor people in Darfur, in the context of the humanitarian. So that is an aspect, humanitarian.
Egypt is the country that would suffer if there would be an explosion of refugees. We have on Egyptian soil right now, while we are talking with each other, between two to three million Sudanese nationals that are enjoying all kinds of hospitality, meaning you have a child who wants to go to hospital or school, he goes on the account of the Egyptian state. So that is the humanitarian.
You have to stabilize the internal situation by the sending of U.N. forces. I see that the U.N. is moving slow in this area. There has been a decision by the Security Council to send a force composed of 26,000. But up until now, I do not see -- up until now -- the real energy to put the forces as soon as possible to control the conflict.
Egypt is proposing to send two mechanized infantry battalions, and up to one infantry mechanized brigade. We are ready to put troops on the ground. We are putting one communications company of 150 people -- or we are suggesting. We are proposing to send one transportation company of 150 trucks. We are ready to put a hospital composed of 100 beds and 60 doctors.
We are suggesting a large Egyptian force composed between (thousand) to 3,500 people -- in the context of the U.N. It will not be on our own. But we are not -- we do not feel that the U.N. is really and truly hurrying things. They are taking their time. It is the U.N., and they take their time. They do try, but we have to hurry things.
Then comes the final leg of that -- of that triad, which is a political settlement. A political settlement -- there will be meetings in Libya for the rebels with the government, with the participation of four countries -- Egypt, Eritrea, Libya and Chad, the four of us. And they are meeting -- the foreign ministers of these three, added to Egypt, this evening to prepare for such a meeting to take -- for such activities on the 28th of October.
I hope that the international community would step in to press the rebels. The French -- they have Abdul Wahid Nur, one of their top rebel leaders -- to invite him to encourage him. Each will have to do his part in order to reach a political settlement that would ensure a political process between government and rebellion. A military process through the stabilization underground with the forces, a humanitarian process allowing people -- and then, hopefully, in two, three, five years people would return to villages that have been destroyed.
You see, the sad thing is no one -- no one, even me, as an Egyptian, we didn't understand what was happening in 2004. There has been an increase of population -- an increase of natural population, an increase of cattle herds and less rain. So people and tribes have been moving from desert areas that is not receiving enough water fall, into a cultivated areas where other tribes, and the clashes started.
Nobody understood what was happening. If we would have understood that what was needed is digging bore holes in the hundreds -- and tribes would have been settling in the areas where water has been found underneath the huge reservoir, it wouldn't have been as intense as we witnessed it over the last three years.
DICKEY: I've committed the cardinal sin of running over time here, but I didn't want to interrupt such a fascinating and, in fact, passionate presentation.
I want to thank you all for coming. (Applause.)
GHEIT: And, mind you, I will be enjoying the New York restaurants. (Laughter.)
Thank you very much.
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