Five Egyptian diplomats were informed by the Foreign Ministry in early May of a presidential decree to transfer them to agriculture and development government entities outside the ministry.
Two plenipotentiary ministers, two first secretaries and another secretary suddenly found themselves in new surroundings.
The decree’s force is in line with the diplomatic service law, which grants the president the power to reassign diplomats to other positions in national administrative bodies if such a move would fulfill some public interest, according to one of the diplomats affected by decision who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.
However, none of the diplomats were told why they had been transferred or what public interest their marginalization in the diplomatic class might serve. Unable to formally challenge the decree, the only recourse they could have would be to request retirement, an unlikely choice given their age range: 20 to 45.
The five diplomats are not the first to be transferred from their diplomatic positions. Rather, they are part of a larger arc in which 40 diplomats have been reassigned in the last two years under pressure from Egypt’s security apparatuses, another diplomat who has been affected by the practice tells Mada Masr on the condition of anonymity. The reasons for their reassignment vary, the diplomat says: implicit accusations of being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, the April 6 Youth Movement or the January 25 revolution; their rejection of the political changes that followed the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013; as much as their failure to advocate for these changes through their diplomacy work.
These moves toward exclusion bespeak a story of an interplay of power, with one executive arm, namely the Foreign Ministry, falling under the helm of another executive arm, Egypt’s various security apparatuses.
Politics of exclusion
According to one of the two excluded diplomats with whom Mada Masr spoke, there is a fundamental issue with how diplomats’ “loyalty to the regime” is assessed. No objective investigations are conducted, he says, explaining how a closed Facebook group titled “Lotus,” which diplomats in the ministry started in the aftermath of the political opening offered by the January 2011 revolution, was fueling impressions of disobedience.
Impressions of disobedience, however, can be mitigated given the nature of Egypt’s diplomatic corps. Nael Shama, the author of Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi, has noted in his research that, while Egyptian politicians articulate a range of political orientations, most adhere to a liberal centrist ethos.
The assessment of a diplomat’s loyalty, then, tends to depend on factors outside of political ideology, tipping toward social relations, as much as kinship relations with public figures thought to be in the opposition, says one of the diplomats. But, he adds, surveillance plays a role in ensuring compliance, as diplomats’ phone calls and meetings held in the offices of Egyptian delegations abroad are often recorded and used in assessments.
“One day [about a year ago], a former director of the foreign minister’s office summoned a number of undersecretaries and told them to advise their colleagues to be careful in expressing political views which do not represent the state’s position in their offices at the ministry,” says a former ambassador, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. They were told, he says, that a diplomat exists to serve the government, rather than to operate in a political capacity.
“We knew that we had to be careful in our electronic correspondence after the story of Karim Haggag, but we didn’t imagine that our offices were under surveillance,” he adds.
Haggag is one of the prominent diplomats on the list of 40. His name was closely associated with Gamal Mubarak, the younger son of former President Hosni Mubarak and former heir to power in the country. Haggag worked at the Foreign Ministry until he was transferred to Gamal’s office, where, given his former experience in the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, he was in charge of managing Gamal’s communications with the United States.
Like other diplomats working closely with the Mubaraks, Haggag was somewhat sidelined after their ouster from power. He received a post as a visiting professor for two years in the Pentagon-affiliated National Defense University in Washington. He then returned to Cairo a few months after July 3, as a military-appointed government had taken over following Morsi’s ouster, only to suddenly face charges in connection to his contacts with US entities, for which he was investigated. Subsequently, he was kept away from his post, and returned after a few months to work in a low-profile department at the Foreign Ministry.
In a phone call with Mada Masr, Haggag refused to comment on his reassignment and referred questions to the ministry’s spokesperson. Mada Masr was unable to reach the latter.
Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister, has occupied the delicate position throughout this two-year period, balancing between what are seen as controversial security-prompted actions against diplomats and his responsibility toward his team.
A senior official at the ministry, speaking on the condition of anonymity, recounts the details of a meeting between Shoukry and his assistants. There, the minister communicated how he managed to make “compromises” that allowed some of the diplomats who had been sidelined after 2013 to return to posts in the ministry, even if they were of no great influence and do not allow their holders to participate in confidential meetings or to meet with foreign diplomats in Cairo without prior permission from the ministry.
During the same meeting, Shoukry reportedly admitted that security bodies had essentially prepared the list of diplomats marked for reassignment and sent it to him to be implemented.
The same official says that, in a private conversation, Shoukry told him that he was facing major pressure from security bodies regarding “controversial figures” within the ministry.
The way Shoukry has navigated this terrain is different than his predecessor.
Nabil Fahmy took over the Foreign Ministry in June 2013, serving for just over a year until July 2014. According to one of his top aides, he refused to accept that any diplomat be interrogated or their mission terminated on the basis of political charges without an explicit declaration of the nature of the charges and the investigations that led to them. At the time, he informed Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb that such measures weaken the Foreign Ministry, not only within state institutions but also in it role as Egypt’s representative abroad.
In contrast with Fahmy, Shoukry has entrenched himself in the game of compromises, agreeing to implement security dictates by terminating missions of a number of diplomats abroad and returning them to Cairo. However, at the same time, he has sought, to a limited extent, to protect their interests. For example, according to a Foreign Ministry official, Shoukry supported the appointment of Amr Amer last year as the Egyptian ambassador to Vienna. Amer served as one of Morsi’s spokespersons from the time the former president was elected in June 2012 until he was ousted on July 3, 2013. In defending Amer, Shoukry argued that the Foreign Ministry had assigned him to the presidency to perform a specific task.
Over the past year and a half, Shoukry has displayed a similar sense for protection, granting a number of marginalized diplomats unpaid leave, enabling them to hold posts in the United Nations and other regional organizations, most of which work in development, culture or the economy. In other words, they have been placed far from politics.
At the same time, Shoukry introduced a policy whereby newly hired diplomats would be sent to a six-month training program at the Military Academy, in an attempt to ensure political compliance with the current authorities.
The Foreign Ministry official, who disclosed this information, calls Shoukry’s policy an exaggeration of allegiance and a reflection of the minister’s constant “game of compromises” with the authorities.
But Shoukry’s compromises have not spared him from flagrant intervention in the management of his ministry. One need look no further than what happened in Berlin.
Before being appointed Egypt’s ambassador to Germany in Berlin, Badr Abdel Aty served as the Foreign Ministry spokesperson near the end of Morsi’s rule. He was seen to have efficiently and vigorously adopted the post-June 30 political orientation, which enabled him to win a favorable appointment following his spokesperson job. In Berlin, Abdel Aty actively promoted bilateral relations, coordinated with different authorities in Egypt that extended beyond those in his own ministry, according to several sources Mada Masr spoke to. Therefore, he was appreciated.
But the appreciation didn’t last.
In mid-April, an Administrative Control Authority delegation broke into the embassy’s headquarters and the ambassador’s Berlin residence to investigate a purported loss of funds and properties, to the tune of an estimated quarter million euros. The raid, which was confirmed to have happened by the Foreign Ministry official as well as another senior official, took place a few days after a successful visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Egypt. The second senior official specified that the investigation included allegations that Abdel Aty bought a Mercedes for the embassy in Berlin, registering it under his name.
“Shoukry was not informed of the delegation’s visit and only came to know about it after the delegation arrived at the embassy,” the ministry official says. Senior security personnel, however, were not in the dark, the ministry official adds, as they were following the “raid and search of the embassy and ambassador’s residence from Cairo over the phone.”
The ministry official describes the incident as “unbelievable and unprecedented” and as a “diplomatic disaster for all foreign Egyptian embassies.” And the sentiment is not his appraisal alone, as he says that the staff in the Egyptian embassy in Berlin was similarly shaken by the raid. “The way in which the search was conducted was extremely humiliating and inappropriate for people who represent their country abroad.”
The Foreign Ministry official adds that Shoukry made concerted efforts to postpone Abdel Aty’s immediate return to Cairo after the ambassador admitted to the financial and administrative breaches and agreed to return the money subject to the investigation.
Mada Masr tried but was not able to reach Abdel Aty in Berlin.
The raid on the ambassador’s offices and residence, however, opens onto several questions, including why it all happened outside of Shoukry’s purview.
The Foreign Ministry official and the two diplomats who have been relegated to minor positions each asserted in individual conversations that the main target of the Berlin operation was Shoukry himself. They say that Egypt’s security bodies are sending a clear message to the foreign message: Your ministry is ultimately under our control.
Winds of change?
In March, tensions between Shoukry and sovereign authorities in the state came to the surface when General Khaled Fawzy, the head of the General Intelligence Services, contracted a lobbying firm in Washington DC and a PR company in New York, despite an earlier, separate agreement between the Egyptian embassy in Washington DC and another US company.
Shoukry is also about to enter another battle in defense of Yasser Reda, the Egyptian ambassador to Washington DC and one of his close associates, whom state authorities have accused and media channels have suggested is politically inefficient.
The Foreign Ministry official attributes the tension between Shoukry and the security community to a perception that Shoukry isn’t doing enough to promote President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s foreign policy. According to the official, a sovereign authority has leveled some blame at Shoukry for what he sees as the minister’s mismanagement of the Egyptian-Saudi Arabian portfolio in light of the controversial developments in the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands to the Gulf country. Shoukry has also been accused of neglect in improving Egyptian relations with East African countries, which are judged to be key in managing the country’s share of the Nile basin water, a share that is now threatened by the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Meanwhile, speculation has begun to surface regarding Shoukry’s possible successor. The names on the table include Maged Abdel Fattah, a former ambassador, the head of the Presidential Bureau of Information (PBI) during Mubarak’s rule and the permanent Egyptian delegate at the UN, according to the Foreign Ministry official.
There is also Ihab Badawi, Egypt’s ambassador to France and Sisi’s former spokesperson. Badawi is said to have a close relationship with Sisi and has also been nominated to become Egypt’s ambassador to Washington DC. Meanwhile, Alaa Youssef, the current presidential spokesperson, has been nominated to succeed Badawi in Paris.
Who rules the Foreign Ministry has been a persistent question among the ranks of the state throughout the history of modern Egypt. Egypt’s longtime, Mubarak-era spy chief Omar Suleiman was said to have consolidated the GIS’s control over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the leadership of Ahmed Maher, who was appointed foreign minister in 2001.
Maher’s term followed that of Amr Moussa, who became a prominent politician with a degree of popularity that the ruling regime took a less than favorable position toward at the time. Shama says that once Moussa’s term concluded, the security apparatus’s role transcended coordinating information over sensitive national security matters. Instead, the GIS took on wholesale administrative control over several issues in coordination with presidential directions.
According to the marginalized diplomats, the ministry’s power continued to be eroded until Fahmy came into office, when the former minister sought to reclaim diplomatic independence, while coordinating with other authorities on matters directly related to national security.
Shama points to historical precedents that act as pillars of the Egyptian state as we know it today. With the Free Officers movement in 1952, the ministry was militarized via the appointment of military officers to diplomatic posts. Only later did the ministry open its doors to career diplomats.
After the original version of this article was published in Arabic on May 17, the Foreign Ministry issued the following statement on May 19, which Mada Masr has translated.
تعقيبا علي ما نشرته بعض الصحف والمواقع الاخبارية نقلا عن مصادر مجهولة، بشأن تجاوزات بسفارة مصر ببرلين، …
In response to what some papers and news websites have published based on anonymous sources about violations in the Egyptian Embassy in Berlin that emerged during periodical monitoring procedures, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs categorically denies having fielded accusations of embezzlement against Egypt’s ambassador in Berlin or of the registration of an embassy car in the name of the Egyptian ambassador.
The MFA urges patriotic Egyptian newspapers and media outlets to refrain from propagating and sharing false news reports, based on anonymous sources.
Regarding the implementation of the presidential decree to transfer five diplomats to other positions in the state’s administrative body, the MFA clarifies that it has an internal monitoring body that measures adherence to standards and codes of diplomacy, which require the highest level of professional commitment that goes with the highly sensitive nature of diplomacy and the honor of representing the Egyptian state abroad.
The availability of the MFA’s monitoring capabilities, as well as the responsibilities of independent monitoring bodies working in collaboration with the MFA, should be appreciated.
Mada Masr attempted to reach the Foreign Ministry spokesperson for comment several times following the publication of the statement but to no avail.
While the statement denies the charges against Abdel Aty, it confirms the presence of “regular monitoring procedures.” The statement also does not deny the reassignment of the five ministry diplomats, but it clarifies that the ministry has an internal monitoring apparatus that ensures diplomatic standards are upheld in accordance with the highest levels of professional commitment and the sensitive nature of diplomatic work.
Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla