Interview with Amre M. Moussa: A Nationalist Vision for Egypt
by Robert Satloff and Daniel Pipes
Middle East Quarterly: Do you have a vision for Egypt?
Amre Moussa: I aim to close the file of confrontation and animosity between the countries of this region. This would be a major achievement. It is an especially appropriate goal for we Egyptians, for the peace process started under President Anwar as-Sadat, making the whole initiative an Egyptian one. When it reaches its end and peace prevails, it will be a great achievement for President Husni Mubarak, for Egyptian diplomacy, and for Arab diplomacy.
An era has come to an end; let us move ahead now, and leave all this conflict behind. We have the possibility to achieve peace before the end of the century -- if the Israeli government really cooperates and goes ahead in accordance with the Madrid conference, in accordance with land-for-peace, and in accordance with the agreements that have been achieved. The Israeli government must understand and believe that security cannot be attained without peace, and that peace is really the guarantee for generations to come. In Israel, fortunately, a substantial portion of the body politic does believe in this possibility and can push things to realize that result.
MEQ: What, beyond a comprehensive peace with Israel, would you like your legacy as foreign minister to be?
Moussa: My wider vision is to develop this region to become a productive one and a full participant in international politics and economics. This will come with peace; its full realization will not precede peace because peace will open doors. What [former Israeli prime minister] Shimon Peres says about the need for prosperity is correct; we want to put it into effect by creating the appropriate circumstances, not to leave it as only talk.
MEQ: So you're a believer in the "new Middle East"?
Moussa: Yes, but not preceding peace. It cannot be a carrot to lead people to peace if peace is not there. It must be the reward of peace. The reverse is nonsense; that would mean asking everyone to enter into the new Middle East before peace is achieved. The Palestinians are now living in closure and the Syrians have got nothing; that's not the new Middle East. If you want to advance, you have to advance in a fair way. Israeli negotiations with Syria must resume, Palestinians must feel the benefits of peace in their standard of living, in their security. Israelis must not harass them every day, nor build new settlements. The new Middle East can't just benefit some and not others.
I am still concerned about pressures to reach a peace that benefits one party at the expense of the other. This cannot work. It would never lead to a comprehensive peace acceptable to the people. In other words, we want an Arab-Israeli peace, not an Israeli peace.
MEQ: Can you foresee an end to the peace process other than full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and the establishment of a Palestinian state?
Moussa: No, it cannot but be that way. Whoever believes that Israel can get peace and security along with the land is absolutely mistaken. Nobody will play that game. To give peace but abandon Palestinian rights, the territories, the Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon . . . who would play such a game?
MEQ: What about something in between . . .
Moussa: What we are in now is the in-between. The process can't move any more except if Prime Minister Netanyahu moves; when he does, then the whole thing moves.
MEQ: What is your assessment of the Soviet bloc's collapse? Was that a good thing for Egypt?
Moussa: It has its positive side, definitely. The communism they gave the Third World contributed to the underdevelopment of so many countries, in particular in the Middle East.
MEQ: Including Egypt?
Moussa: In the Middle East in general. It killed the feeling of competitiveness and so stymied personal initiative. The dependence on the state and the economic collapse in this region results from this. Its collapse has freed the economies of the Middle East from the shackles of communism.
MEQ: And the negative side?
Moussa: Its negative aspects center around the lack of international balance. If you are now looking for a balance to help the Arab-Israeli negotiations, sometimes you can't find it.
MEQ: You're telling us that the United States is too strong?
Moussa: You can take it as you like. The United States, for its policy to succeed and be productive, must play the honest broker. Less than that and negotiations won't be fruitful.
MEQ: This is a remarkable comment; America's foremost Arab partner says it misses the balance provided by the Soviet Union!
Moussa: No, I am talking about the international balance. The Soviet Union was not in the peace game. The American role enabled Egypt and Israel to reach a peace agreement. Had it not been for the United States, there would have been no agreement between Egypt and Israel because of the difficulties we encountered in negotiations. As an honest broker, the United States understood exactly what Egypt wanted and exactly what Israel wanted. That's what we need now.
MEQ: You are urgent for Israel sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the NPT, which would place its nuclear program under international inspection. Israel said it is too early to discuss the NPT, citing ongoing threats from rogues states and the uselessness of its inspections in Iraq. Although Israelis view Egypt as a partner and friend, and direct their nuclear potential only against such adversaries as Iraq and Iran, you seem to view it as threatening Egypt. Is there anything the Israelis could do, while keeping a nuclear option, to assuage Egypt's concerns?
Moussa: If Israel is afraid of this or that country, it cannot deal with the problem with nuclear weapons. Once Israel has it, how can you deny any other country from acquiring it? By now, any country can easily acquire the nuclear option. It would help to put the Israelis' nuclear facilities under international inspection. They can keep what they have in terms of a peaceful nuclear capability, but within the framework of the international legal system. We cannot live with Israel hiding it and seeking the approval of certain powers to keep the nuclear option. This undermines our efforts to restrict nuclear proliferation; if this goes for Israel, why not for any other country?
MEQ: Could Egypt recognize that Israel has legitimate security concerns about the rogue states that necessitate its maintaining the nuclear option?
Moussa: I don't believe in the notion of rogue states. There might be rogue governments and rogue ministers, and they could wreak havoc through using wrong policies, but not rogue states.
MEQ: But there is a difference between Israel -- a stable, democratic state -- and Iran, which is not. Similarly, France and England are . . .
Moussa: But France and England put themselves in the framework of the international legal system. Why should a democracy be outside that system? Why does Israel have this exceptional status? Why should we be ignorant about what goes on in Israel? The rules have to apply to democracies; go and place your facilities under international inspection. Then it is fine.
MEQ: Given what we now know about the Iraqi nuclear efforts, do you now think that what the Israelis did in June 1981, when they bombed the Iraqi nuclear installation at Osirak, was the right thing to do?
Moussa: No. Our opposition remains exactly as it was then; we remain committed to what we said in the circumstances of that time. Why revisit now something that happened fifteen years ago?
MEQ: The reason is that Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his address to Congress, spoke almost exactly the same words about Iran in 1996 as his predecessor said about Iraq in early 1981, six months before the attack on Osirak.1 Does this give you reason also to deal urgently with the Iranian nuclear program?
Moussa: The Iranian nuclear program is under the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which can at any time inspect it.
MEQ: But that's a weak and flawed inspection system.
Moussa: This is no reason for Israel to keep a nuclear option outside the IAEA framework.
MEQ: Fair enough. But the IAEA inspection regimen not being effective gives us few assurances about Iran, right?
Moussa: Then go and ask the Iranians for more inspection rights. We do not understand why Israel develops a nuclear option out of fear that Iran will acquire a nuclear option -- when Iran so far does not have one. Israeli policy makes it hard to argue with the Iranians. If we ask them, "What are you doing, why are you building a nuclear option?" they can point to Israel. This prevents us from arguing strongly against the proliferation of nuclear weapons in this region.
MEQ: What does the term fundamentalist Muslim or Islamist mean?
Moussa: It applies only to someone engaged in ideas and discussion; anyone who resorts to violence is automatically not an Islamist.
MEQ: Even if the person who resorts to violence talks in an Islamic vernacular and asserts that "Islam is the solution"?
Moussa: "Islam is the solution" is a belief; he has to convince me of it. And he has to listen to me in turn. Perhaps he'll be convinced. But if he uses a gun, it's a different story.
MEQ: If he uses a gun, that automatically means he's not a sincere Muslim?
Moussa: It means that he has moved from being a sincere Muslim to being a terrorist.
MEQ: And a terrorist cannot be a sincere Muslim?
Moussa: He cannot be. Such a terrorist cannot be a good Muslim, nor can he be defending Islam. How might a sincere Muslim kill somebody just because he has a different point of view? Islam deplores killing of this sort. If you commit a crime, punishment follows; but why punish a person for believing in a different way of applying Islam? Who is to be the judge? Who permits such an act?
MEQ: Do you fear that Islamist movements outside Egypt may have a harmful impact inside Egypt?
Moussa: No, the Middle East is predominately Islamic and we cannot stop religious trends afoot. Nor do we wish to; let people believe as they would. Fundamentalists go back several centuries and engage in a very active discussion of ways to order society, to apply Islamic tenets, and so on. This goes on in all religions and is no concern of ours.
Our concern is terrorism. We must pay attention when a "religious" or political group becomes an armed force that resorts to violence against society. We are concerned with all kinds and sorts of terrorism, whatever the motive, whatever the organization, whatever the country, because it is detrimental to the society's security and interests. This has nothing to do with Islam.
MEQ: But violence comes out of the fundamentalist discussion.
Moussa: No, not from that discussion. This violence started already in the 1940s, when terrorists killed prime ministers, and later attacked Abdel Nasser and murdered Sadat.2 So it is not a product of today, but something we've lived with for decades. This trend is very deep in Middle Eastern society, and must be faced.
It requires three responses. Number one, make a success of the peace process, so people feel that justice has been done. Number two, improve economic conditions, so that these fundamentalist organizations cannot exploit frustrations. The more jobs you create, the less terrorists you have. Number three, each country must vigilantly maintain security against terrorists.
MEQ: What about engaging in the battle of ideas?
Moussa: There must be a free flow of ideas. In Israel, religious parties are doing whatever they want and making their own demands. We'll have to deal with them.
MEQ: Not long ago, President Mubarak and other Egyptian officials criticized America for being solicitous and maybe even too soft on fundamentalist Muslims, specifically the New Jersey sheikh, 'Umar 'Abd ar-Rahman, but also as a general approach.3
Moussa: No, you have it wrong. He did not discuss fundamentalists but the radicals who themselves or whose organizations have engaged in violence.
MEQ: 'Umar 'Abd ar-Rahman is not a fundamentalist?
Moussa: What do you mean by fundamentalist? He uses Islam and preaches violence -- a contradiction in terms. 'Abd ar-Rahman was calling for violence and leading a certain group into violence. This is what we oppose. If he were just preaching Islam, and offering a point of view without encouraging violence, we would have no problem with him.
MEQ: Do you still criticize the U.S. government for engaging in a dialogue with what we might call Islamically oriented terrorists? Do you think U.S. policy has improved in the past year or so?
Moussa: I believe American officials understand the situation much better in recent months due to developments that have affected American interests.
MEQ: Do you believe that the Islamic nature of the Iranian government is now a permanent feature of that country?
Moussa: I don't know if it's a permanent feature, but it's quite solid.
MEQ: Do you worry about developments in Algeria?
Moussa: No. In fact, they are going in the right direction because Algeria is very much hopeful and determined and confident that the terrorist challenge is declining.
MEQ: What about the Sudan? Hasan at-Turabi, the eminence grise there, is now speaker of the parliament and officially a very powerful figure.
Moussa: The Sudanese will understand that their way of doing things cannot be sustained. They will have to change their attitude or will suffer from isolation.
HANDING OVER TERROSITS
MEQ: Do you support American initiatives at the United Nations to isolate the Sudan?
Moussa: The Security Council finds that Sudan is harboring, protecting, and even unleashing terrorists, among them the three who attacked President Mubarak in Ethiopia last year. These have to be handed over. The sanctions relate to this case is particular and have nothing to do with isolating the country.
MEQ: Do you favor isolating the Sudan?
Moussa: It depends on what you mean by isolation. The Sudanese have to put an end to their present policies. But as a general principle, we do not favor isolation, so why should we favor this policy in the case of the Sudan? If the Sudan implements the Security Council resolution and is honest in its dealing about the terrorists they shelter, they will hand them over to the country that requested them.
MEQ: And if it does not?
Moussa: If not, the Security Council will address that issue.
MEQ: If we apply that same principle to Libya, they have to hand over the terrorists they harbor from the Pan Am 103 explosion in 1988.
Moussa: Absolutely, you are right.
MEQ: The final communiqué you read out following the Arab League summit meeting last month called for a different approach on Libya. It deemed Libya's offer to hand the terrorists to a third country or the United Nations "an appropriate and practical solution that will end the crisis" and demanded the lifting of sanctions against Libya.4 Bluntly put, it declares that if the U.N. Security Council does not accept the Libyan offer, the Arab League will consider circumventing sanctions to assist the Libyan people. Aren't you being inconsistent?
Moussa: This is exactly the same principle. The Libyans have said they are ready to hand over the suspects to a third country; this resolves that matter. Libya has moved from "No, we cannot hand them over" to a different position, "Yes, we are going to hand them over, but not to the U.S., only to a third country." That is a major change in the Libyans' position: they were adamantly against handing the suspects over, now they agree to it.
MEQ: Would you accept the Sudanese's handing the suspects over to the United Nations or a third country?
Moussa: We would certainly seriously consider such an offer.
MEQ: It's said in the United States that you are the last Nasserist.5 Is there any truth to that?
Moussa: No, I don't believe in people being Nasserists or Sadatists. I am an Egyptian, a nationalist. I believe we should do what we have to do and at the same time I am for peace. I participated in all phases of the peace process and firmly believe in peace. My goal is to close the file of animosity and confrontation between Israel and Arabs, but in a way that will benefit both, and that will result in actually putting an end to this conflict.
It does not work to play diplomatically, to hide things about security and explain things falsely. For the Arabs to agree to something and then discover that they were deceived is a recipe for problems. You have to be very firm now, not tomorrow. We should negotiate honestly, in a balanced way, and reach an agreement that future generations will endorse.
MEQ: Is the idea wrong that you have fond memories for the Abdel Nasser period?
Moussa: This is not a question of wrong or right; I don't have to defend myself. Abdel Nasser was one of the leaders of this country, and his era was one of the most active in the region's political development. He made mistakes, definitely, but he also had a leadership and a charisma that should not be forgotten. Abdel Nasser was among the leaders who tried to do things in a way that would enable the Arabs to feel that they are a people and to be respected.
At the same time, his charisma, leadership, and policy worked in the sixties and would not work in the nineties. Politics must change. President Jacques Chirac was a Gaullist but his policies are much different from those of Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle lived in the sixties; Chirac in the nineties pursues a different policy from the one he pursued at the beginning of his career. You cannot follow the same policy.
MEQ: Abdel Nasser was the right leader for Egypt at the time?
Moussa: He definitely was one of the region's major leaders in his time. He was one of the important leaders even before the revolution of 1952. How can we ignore, for example, Sa'd Zaghlul and Mustafa an-Nahhas. They are two major figures in our history, and so is Abdel Nasser. And before him was General Muhammad Neguib.6 We do not ignore any of these leaders under King Faruq or under the revolution.
I don't have to be harsh on Abdel Nasser to please some circles, but if you want to categorize me as Nasserist you are wrong. Nor am I a Sadatist. I am not following this or that tradition. I do say we have to serve Egypt and the Arabs and the region at this juncture, and not follow policies of the sixties.
MEQ: You have a reputation of being one of the most popular politicians in Egypt. Can you tell us why that might be?
Moussa: I don't know. Perhaps because of the frankness, the direct talk about issues of major importance to the people. In particular, the peace process, Middle Eastern relations, and the future of this region.
MEQ: You're saying things the way that people want to hear them?
Moussa: No, that's not the issue. I am saying things as they are.
MEQ: Perhaps one of the characteristics about you that wins the most support is your seeming to act as Egypt's foreign minister to the Arabs and the Arabs' foreign minister to the rest of the world. Is that an accurate description?
Moussa: I don't know whether it is right or not. If it is, I welcome it; in fact, I would be proud.
MEQ: It's common to ask this of American leaders, so we'd like to close by asking it of you: Do you have ambitions to serve your country as president?
Moussa: (Laughter) Well, this question should be addressed to an American, since your elections are coming very soon. No, I don't, if you are asking me, I don't. I already suffer from being minister. My private life is totally gone and the burden on me is so heavy that I don't have time to read, to relax, and the like. It is quite enough to be foreign minister, and it's my intention to stay this way, and that's it.
1 Addressing a joint session of Congress on July 10, 1996, Netanyahu said: "The most dangerous of [the Middle East's] regimes is Iran, that has wed a cruel despotism to a fanatical militancy; if this regime, or its despotic neighbor Iraq, were to acquire nuclear weapons, this could presage catastrophic consequences -- not only for my country and not only for the Middle East, but for all of mankind. I believe the international community must reinvigorate its efforts to isolate these regimes, and prevent them from acquiring atomic power. The U.S. and Israel have been at the forefront of this effort, but we can and we must do much more." Similarly, Menachem Begin indicated that his government was carefully watching Iraq's "intentions to equip itself with nuclear weapons" and was making all possible efforts to prevent its acquisition of such armaments. Ha'aretz, Sep. 10, 1980; quoted in Middle East Contemporary Survey 5 (1980-81): 189. 2 The Muslim Brethren assassinated Prime Minister Nuqrashi in 1948 and were accused by Abdel Nasser of trying to kill him in 1954. A fundamentalist killed Anwar as-Sadat in 1981.
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