Egypt, the most populous and influential country in the Arab world, faces a “perfect storm” of Middle East upheavals sparked by continuing violence across the Israel-Gaza border, Iran’s growing nuclear ambitions and, more recently, widespread food insecurity triggere d by Russia’s ongoing destruction of Ukraine.
Yet Egypt’s 105 million people endure, just as they have since antiquity, says Motaz Zahran, Cairo’s ambassador to the United States for the last two years.
Zahran spoke July 20 at the Washington Diplomat’s Ambassador Insider Series (AIS) before some 100 diplomats, business executives and other invited guests. The event, sponsored by Apache Corp.—the largest foreign investor in Egypt’s energy sector—was the second AIS since post-COVID resumption of our long-running series. The first took place on March 31, when former managing editor Anna Gawel interviewed Japanese Ambassador Koji Tomita.
“Our region is in complete turmoil. This is not news to anyone,” Zahran said. “It’s a very dangerous neighborhood and yet we’ve been able to keep our country together, despite all the challenges, threats and risks of all sorts.”
Indeed, despite the dramatic drop in tourist arrivals—a mainstay of Egypt’s economy—after the pandemic hit in early 2020, the country’s GDP grew 3.6% that year, and by 3.3% in 2021. This year, GDP had been projected to grow by 5.7%, but that was before Russia attacked Ukraine in late February, sparking a global crisis and sending food prices skyrocketing.
The two warring countries have traditionally supplied 80% of Egypt’s wheat imports, not to mention 40% of its tourist traffic. But the fighting has brought both wheat shipments and tourists to a screeching halt.
“We’ve also seen a slowdown in the passage of vessels through the Suez Canal,” Zahran explained. “This is an important part of our budget which has been affected, along with remittances from abroad. Egypt has probably been affected directly by this war in Ukraine more than any country in the region.”
Even so, Zahran pointed out, Egypt joined 140 other nations in condemning Russia for invading Ukraine. The resolution passed the UN General Assembly 141-5, with 35 countries abstaining. “That vote in itself reflects Egypt’s principled positions despite the fact that its impacts on the economy are horrible,” he said. “It’s a matter of principle.”
Egypt has not, however, downgraded its relations with Moscow or prevented Russian vessels from transiting the Suez Canal.
“We consider ourselves in Egypt among the victims because of repercussions on food insecurity. But the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia have had detrimental effects on you as well, when you put gas in your car,” Zahran told his audience. “All this has exacerbated the situation.”
Egypt, US mark 100 years of diplomatic relations
A former ambassador to Canada and India, Zahran is a seasoned diplomat who previously spent four years in Washington as a political counselor, congressional affairs officer and charge d’affaires at the Egyptian Embassy here. He’s also advised the foreign minister on the Mideast peace process, specifically the Israel-Palestine issue.
Zahran’s expertise is nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and security. As such, he belongs to the UN’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters and its Institute for Disarmament Research.
Earlier this year, Egypt and the United States marked the 100th anniversary of bilateral ties. That followed the November 2021 signing of the US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shukry.
On July 16, just four days before our AIS, President Biden met with Egypt’s head of state on the sidelines of the GCC+3 summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Much of that summit focused on US efforts to get the Saudis to export more crude oil in order to bring down the price of gas. But of course, it went far deeper than that.
“Earlier today,” Biden tweeted, “I sat down with President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to reaffirm our shared commitment to the US-Egypt strategic partnership, and to discuss regional and global challenges. There is a great deal of merit in the US and Egypt working closely together.”
Zahran said one of the top items on that agenda was ensuring Egypt’s role in keeping the lid on cross-border violence between Israel and the Hamas militants who rule the nearby Gaza Strip. Last year, tensions between the two sides exploded into an 11-day war that killed 14 Israelis and 256 Palestinians, and left thousands more wounded.
“We’ve been able to use our channels of communication—with both the de facto authority in Gaza embodied in Hamas and our interlocutors in Israel—to tackle the hardest issues that underline calm and tranquility in Gaza itself,” he said.
“By virtue of our pioneering role, there is much confidence and trust in what Egypt has to offer,” he added. “We have always diligently worked for the cause of the Palestinian people, the Israeli people and for peace based on the two‑state solution—a cause that has seemingly lost traction among Israel’s current coalition government.”
Even so, Zahran dismissed the notion of a “cold peace”—the absence of war but also the lack of warm relations between average Egyptians and Israelis—that has defined bilateral ties ever since the two bitter enemies set aside their differences and signed the Camp David accords in 1979.
“We’ve been the trailblazers, the pioneers, the pathfinders from the very beginning,” he said. “This came in the aftermath of a series of wars in which Egypt was at the frontlines against Israel. That created a situation whereby no household in Egypt—or in Israel either—does not have a personal grievance because of the loss of a father, a husband or a son.”
Egypt to host COP27 climate talks in November
By contrast, other countries that have recently signed on to the Abraham Accords—namely Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates—never fought wars against Israel. So those are normalization agreements as opposed to peace treaties.
Under al Sisi, relations between Israel and Egypt have warmed considerably. Earlier this year, the Egyptian government signed a complex deal in Cairo that’ll allow Israel—for the first time in its history—to export gas from its Karish field in the Mediterranean to the 27‑member EU.
Under this arrangement, offshore gas will be piped to Egypt’s liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal on Mediterranean. It will then be liquefied and transported on tankers to European ports, thereby bypassing Russia and reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy imports.
The East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), as it’s known, has eight members: Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and Palestine.
“We look at this EMGF not only as a dividend of peace but also as an incentive for more peace,” he said. “It’s only natural that the model we provide in the Eastern Mediterranean be emphasized as reliable sources of energy that could benefit Europe and other continents around the world.”
This November, Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm El‑Sheikh will host COP 27—the annual gathering of world leaders—under the slogan, “Uniting the World to Tackle Climate Change.”
Zahran said Egypt was chosen for the landmark event “simply because we have always been at the forefront of countries advocating for a much cleaner and greener economy.” But he said the world must focus on more than promises.
“We need to reach a stage where we implement what we’ve been pledging for years, ever since Paris and onwards,” the ambassador said. “Second, we want to balance the adaptation and mitigation aspects of climate action. Another important aspect is finance. We have a $100 billion target, but that target has never been met despite all the pledges that were out there.”
Zahran said Egypt is hosting COP27 on behalf of Africa—and by extension, on behalf of the developing world.
“Those who should shoulder the biggest part of the burden are those who were part of the problem to start with,” he said. “We need to understand that no public sector alone, no government alone, nor the private sector alone, can tackle the issues at hand.”
Pre-trial detentions and a hugely controversial dam
Perhaps the most contentious issue of the evening had nothing to do with Egypt’s foreign policy, its relationship with Israel or international affairs at all—but rather how it treats its own citizens.
On July 16, the New York Times published a front-page story titled “Egypt’s Revolving Jailhouse Door: One Pretrial Detention After Another.” The article, based on extensive interviews with former inmates and human rights activists as well as handwritten court logs, concludes that Egypt holds tens of thousands of political prisoners, “transforming the routine administrative procedure of pretrial detention into Egypt’s chief engine of mass repression.”
Asked to comment, Zahran did not exactly dispute the newspaper’s findings, but instead admitted that Egypt’s legal system “has flaws and imperfections”—and that his government is doing whatever it can to address them.
“The system in Egypt has unfortunately allowed for these pretrial detentions whenever people are under investigation, to a longevity that is no longer accepted. That meant people could be detained for up to two years because they’re under investigation,” Zahran said. “Part of our new strategy calls for reforming that part. The pretrial detention practice has been already reviewed in terms of its legal foundation and framework, and in terms of the practice itself.”
Since September 2021, he said, many cases have been reviewed, “leading to waves of releases of cases of pretrial detention.”
During the Q&A that followed, Zahran was asked why Egypt continues to oppose the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)—an enormous $5 billion project on the Blue Nile that will, when completed, rank as Africa’s largest hydroelectric facility.
Ethiopia views the GERD as an existential threat to its water share from the Nile, its only source of fresh water. That’s why both Egypt and Sudan—both downstream from Ethiopia—want a legally binding agreement on the dam’s filling and operation, which Ethiopia has resisted over more than a decade.
In fact, Zahran said “we were never opposed” to the dam itself, and even offered to help Ethiopia build it—but that the Ethiopians have been unresponsive.
“As such, it is only legitimate for both Egypt and Sudan to ask for the adoption of an agreement which resolves issues that might pop up during periods of extreme drought. The amount of water that flows from one end to another is what’s at stake. We call on Ethiopia to negotiate in good faith to reach an agreement.”
In a related question, one Israeli in the audience recalled how arid Egypt had appeared from the window of an airplane during the 1973 Yom Kippur War—and to what extent the two neighbors are cooperating today on critical water issues.
Zahran pointed out Egypt’s participation in this year’s Negev Summit, held March 27-28 at Sde Boker, a kibbutz in Israel’s Negev Desert. Hosted by then-Foreign Minister (and now Prime Minister) Yair Lapid, that conference brought together the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“We know that Israel has advanced technology when it comes to water irrigation and agriculture. Other countries are interested in using the expertise Israel has in this domain,” he said. “But this will not actually transpire as long as the Palestinians do not have their statehood—and as long as we are pulled back by continuing upheavals in the occupied territories.”