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Newsmaker: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher El Sayed

November 28, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak offered condolences.

PRESIDENT HOSNI MUBARAK (Translated): The United States is our friend. Therefore, all I can say now is that terrorism is very dangerous and we condemn it under any circumstances.

MARGARET WARNER: And four weeks later, when the U.S. launched air strikes against Afghanistan, Mubarak was the first Arab leader to express support. Egypt also has provided intelligence and over flight rights to the U.S. effort.

But from the beginning, he coupled his support with warnings against causing civilian casualties, and demands that the U.S. take “strong measures” to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mubarak was even blunter on that subject in an Oct. 14 interview with Israeli Television Channel 1.

“It is you,” he said to the Israeli journalist, “who are responsible for terrorism. You are responsible. The Palestinian question is the cause of terrorism.”

Egypt has been fighting its own war with terrorists for decades, particularly since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, at the hands of Islamic radicals angered by his 1978 peace accord with Israel.

That peace agreement helped make Egypt one of America’s key allies in the Arab world, and the recipient of some $2 billion a year in U.S. aid. But it also infuriated Islamic extremists in Egypt. In the 1990’s, the extremists turned up the heat against Mubarak, who had succeeded Sadat. They accused him and his government of being too autocratic, too secular, and too pro-western.

Mubarak responded with a brutal crackdown against the radicals, with mass arrests, secret trials, torture and executions. His campaign put a lid on terrorism within Egypt.

But it pushed some of the country’s leading militants, members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and other groups, into an alliance with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization overseas.

In fact, U.S. investigators say Egyptians played leading roles in the September 11 attacks. They included Mohammed Atta, considered the ringleader among the hijackers, who flew the first jet into the Twin Towers.

And bin Laden’s two top lieutenants, who U.S. officials believe masterminded the attacks, Al-Qaida’s senior strategist, Dr. Ayman al Zawahari. And al-Qaida’s military chief, Mohammed Atef. He was reportedly killed by a U.S. air strike in Afghanistan two weeks ago. Yesterday, when Attorney General John Ashcroft released profiles of the nearly 600 people being detained on immigration charges in his terror probe, the second largest group, some 74 were Egyptians.

MARGARET WARNER: Earlier today, I spoke with Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Maher El Sayed, who’s in Washington this week. Thanks for being with us, Mr. Minister.

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED, Foreign Minister, Egypt: Thank you for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s start with the war in Afghanistan. How do you assess the military campaign so far? Would you call it a success?

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: Well, I think the important thing was to punish the people responsible for the tragic terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, and I think this is going well.

What is important… What has been important since the beginning is to avoid harming civilians. And I see now that there is a movement to give assistance to the Afghanis, and this is something we welcome and we’re going to contribute to that. Of course until now, Mr. bin Laden has– if we can call him Mr.– Has not been found and arrested. But I do hope that the whole organization will be dismantled, so that to put an end to their nefarious activities.

MARGARET WARNER: Were you surprised that the Taliban seemed to crumble so fast?

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: To tell you the truth, I was surprised. But it seems clear now that they did not enjoy the support of the people, and that most of these Taliban fighters have not been motivated… Maybe they were motivated by other things. But I don’t know. They didn’t seem to give a fight, and that’s a good thing, in fact.

MARGARET WARNER: As you said, when the bombing started, what, six, seven weeks ago, there was a lot of criticism in the Arab world, the Muslim world, about the fact it would kill innocent civilians, that it looked like the U.S. was waging war on Islam. Do those feelings persist?

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: Let me just say two things. The first thing is that there was a general condemnation of terrorism, particularly in Egypt. We had suffered from terrorism for a long time; we had been lonely in our fight against terrorism, being criticized here and there. But… So we could only support any effort to punish those who were responsible for these terrorist attacks.

The idea that this might be a fight against Islam has been quickly dispelled by President Bush, by the administration. They made clear that this is a war against terrorism, not against a religion or an ethnic group.

And this was welcome, despite many unfortunate accidents or incidents that took place right after, and some of them continue until now. And we hope that the latest measures that have been announced by the administration will not appear to be directed to one ethnic group or to Muslims or to Arabs alone. I hope this is going to be the fact

MARGARET WARNER: What kind of measures?

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: I mean all these arrests of some people and the new laws about using military courts. I think this is something we do not interfere in. Of course, this is something that belongs to the internal affairs of the United States.

Our only hope is that this does not only apply to people who belong to one ethnic group or to one village, because this was… would contradict the aim of the whole fight against terrorism. And what the administration– starting by the president himself– said from the beginning, and the efforts he made to indicate by acts, I mean, he visited the mosque; he invited Muslim ambassadors to Eftar.

He was very careful to dispel this attitude. I hope this will remain and this will be the attitude of all the organs of the administration.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there a danger– back to the situation in Afghanistan– that the… Having the U.S. Marines there now, that that will be seen by some in the Muslim world as U.S. forces occupying a Muslim country?

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: Well, we hear that the intention is not to occupy a Muslim country, and we hope this is realized.

People understand that there was a problem with terrorists taking refuge in Afghanistan, and this had to come to an end. We hope that this thing will come to an end soon, and that the Afghanis will finally decide on a real coalition government that presents all the ethnic groups, and that there would be no need for any foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: And would you say that if there needs to be a peacekeeping force there over some extended period of time, that it should not include any western troops?

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: No. I think it should be a force that has a definite mandate and that operates within the framework of the charter of the United Nations. That is all we ask. As to the composition of this force, this is something not for us to decide.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain to Americans why so many of the top leadership of al-Qaida were and are Egyptian?

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: It has nothing to do with where they come from. It has something to do with the false ideas that they have put in their heads.

And the arguments that are being used that this is because the societies are not democratic, these societies are not ensuring that there is a balance between the rich and poor, the social system. I think this is totally denied by the fact that we have seen terrorism in Europe; we have seen terrorism in the United States, which are democratic countries, which are countries where the standard of living is not low as it is in some other countries.

And we have to remember that most of those people from al-Qaida or the Taliban had been supported by the West and by other countries when they were fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan. And it is after the end of the war in Afghanistan that they did not want to remain idle and then they were…

Ideas were put in their head about the fact that the governments in Islamic countries are not respecting Islamic laws, which is sort of nonsense. So they were led to use the weapons that they were using against the Soviets in Afghanistan against their own countries. So it’s a very complicated matter.

MARGARET WARNER: But as you know, there has been a lot of criticism in this country, in editorial pages and elsewhere, that some of our friends in the Arab world, like Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, do, for whatever reasons, not only allow, but even encourage in the state-owned media a lot of anti- American invective perhaps to deflect criticism from criticism of the regime itself.

Do you think that the government bears any responsibility for this hatred of the United States?

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: I don’t think there’s hatred of the United States. There is criticism, and very sharp criticism sometimes, as there is criticism of other countries in the press in this country.

The problem is that you can’t have a democratic system and then muzzle the press because you don’t like what they say. We, as I said, are trying to build a more democratic society. One of the most important tenets of a democratic society is freedom of expression. So we have people who are criticizing the government, who are criticizing the ministers, the society in Egypt and they are criticizing the United States.

One of the reasons for this criticism is, of course, their attitude towards Israel. The impression that the United States is biased towards Israel, while people see every day on television what the Israeli occupation authorities are inflicting on the Palestinian people. So it is normal to have this criticism.

But some of this criticism is too sharp for me to accept, and I resent some of it. But we really can’t do anything about it. It’s not hatred. It is very sharp criticism. I don’t think people hate the United States. And I believe…

MARGARET WARNER: But you would say… Excuse me, but you would say al-Qaida members certainly do?

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: Yes. Al-Qaida, we have nothing to do with them. I mean, they hate us as much as they hate any other country. I mean, these are outlaws.

MARGARET WARNER: You spoke of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The U.S. now has a new delegation going to try to address this. What are your expectations there?

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: It’s an excellent beginning. I think the speech by Secretary Powell is extremely helpful and extremely positive. And President Mubarak expressed this very early on.

What is interesting in this speech is that it went for the first time to the core of the matter, which is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, of Arab territory, and the fact that the dignity of the Palestinians had not been respected. I think this is the most important point.

The second point is that to affirm the principles on which an agreement or a solution would be based, leading to a viable — and to me, viable means a Palestinian state that is not divided, that enjoys sovereignty.

And the third thing is that he has taken steps to implement these ideas, this vision of his, which is sending the envoys to the area. So we welcome this move by the United States, and we hope that the two emissaries will be more active and more firm in dealing with the problems that we face in Palestine.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, let me ask you about expanding the war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan. President Bush has made no secret of his view that the war won’t end here. And just Monday he said– and let me read this– “If anybody harbors a terrorist, they’re a terrorist; if they fund a terrorist, they’re a terrorist; if they house terrorists, they’re terrorists.” First of all, do you agree with that?

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: Two things. I think it is wrong for any country to harbor or support terrorists. Secondly, I think that military means are not the only way to deal with this problem.

After all, there are diplomatic, there are political, there is the United Nations, there is the idea of President Mubarak… Of convening an international conference to put every country before its responsibility to participate in the fight against terrorism. So military means have been necessary in Afghanistan, but I don’t think they should be used against any other country. And this has been our understanding since the beginning, that the first phase would be the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, but the second phase would use political and other means to solve it. It would be extremely dangerous if the war against terrorism, the military aspect of it, extends to any other country. It would arouse the anger of the people, and put everybody, every government in the area in a very difficult position.

MARGARET WARNER: So how do you read what the President’s saying? Are you saying that your understanding is he doesn’t mean additional military action; he’s talking about other measures?

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: No, I really cannot speak for the President, but I’m expressing our view and the way we see things and the way we understand things. And I hope that we are right.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Mr. Minister.

AHMED MAHER EL SAYED: Thank you, Margaret. Hope to see you again.