MIR Interview: Amin Meleika
(Amin Meleika is the deputy assistant foreign minister for North American affairs at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is currently Egypt’s consul-general for Montreal, holding ambassadorial status and serving communities in Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes. He agreed to sit down with me for this interview on September 20, 2013)
How did you enter the diplomatic service? Why?
As I studied political science at the American University in Cairo, a subject that fascinated me, but not necessarily with the aim of joining the Foreign Service. As I finished my last year of university, I contemplated the possibility of joining the Egyptian Foreign Service. I thought it would be an interesting way of putting into practice the things I had learned. Of course, it’s an honor to represent your country, and I enjoy travelling, which seemed like a good combination. I had some colleagues who had recently joined after graduating; their influence played a good part in my decision to join the service. I graduated in February 1984, and joined the service in July 1985.
Your first posting was in Ethiopia in July 1987, correct?
Yes, I spent some time working and training at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo. I was then sent for three months to Bordeaux to do a additional training in a program in African Studies there.. I worked in the department for African affairs, to be later appointed to Addis Ababa in July of ’87.
Ethiopia at the time was ruled by an extremely repressive military dictatorship. What was it like to work as a diplomat in a country like that? How does it compare to working in a democratic country?
You could feel that the system was very repressive. You could tell that people were afraid to talk, to associate with foreigners. It was typical of a Communist repressive regime. People were living in poverty, they could not object to their government. The media was not only muzzled, it was completely state-controlled; one newspaper, one TV station, just propaganda and patriotic songs. You could sense that the atmosphere was not just repressive, but would put you down.
As a diplomat though, you aren’t there to interfere in other people’s business. You endeavor to make relations always more beneficial and creative. Ethiopia is important because while it isn’t too far from home and we enjoy strong historic and cultural connections. As well, Egypt gets something like 85% of its water from the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia. There is also a segment of the multilateral in Ethiopia, as the Organization of African Unity, now the African Union, is based there. We received many high level visits because of that added value.
How do you feel you relate to the people of the country you are in? Do you feel like you are separate, in your own “diplomatic world”, or do you feel you are really a resident of the country you are in?
It’s an interesting question, because you start to realize what it is really like to be a diplomat when you travel abroad. Once you travel as a diplomat, you realize that local government officials, other diplomats, and regular people all view you as a representative of your country. You aren’t just an Egyptian or an American, you are a person who embodies that country. When people have questions, they ask you as an authority, when there is a problem they try to find out what it is. You have to be ready to answer any question at any time. It makes you realize the sensitivity of the job, because while as a representative of a foreign government you are entitled to your opinion, you constantly carry with you the honor and the weight of representing your country. When people hear me speak, it is the voice of Egypt they are listening to, not the voice of Amin Meleika. The more you work abroad, the more you identify yourself in this way.
As well, different countries have different relationships; Egypt generally has good relations with most countries we have ties with, but they differ in their context and history. Egypt’s relationship with Ethiopia is very different than the one we have with Canada, or Holland. As well, getting to know the people depends on the context. In Ethiopia, there were many people I wish I could have gotten to know better who were circumscribed in what they could say. The advantage that a diplomat has is that they can best interpret the host country for his own country. He is there not to just keep relations going but to promote and develop them. You are a go-between for the two countries, not just a messenger from one to the other.
What I’ve realized more and more working in this field is that nothing can really replace the human element. Even in the age of the Internet, where the news travels so fast, the human contact and human assessment are invaluable. They used to send a messenger who would arrive from one capital to another three or four months later. Today it is instant, but this mass of information that is bombarding you means that the human element is needed to identify what is important in that mass of information from the host country for the receiving country, in order to promote your own interests and try to find mutual benefit.
Any interesting stories from your early years? What was the best/ worst experience as a young diplomat?
Ethiopia was my first experience abroad; it was really a baptism of fire. There was a change of government that happened, with the opposition forces who had been fighting the government taking power. I was supposed to leave in July of 1991, but in May the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front managed finally to come down from the north and take the capital and oust President Mengistu. We did not know what was going on, we heard one day that the president had left the country. All of a sudden, there was no police force on the streets and prisoners were escaping, the government seemed to have totally collapsed. We heard artillery fire and could only find out what was going on from the BBC World Service. There was a 24-hour curfew and no phone service. They had evacuated our families -I was married then- and non-essential personnel; I was afraid for my life. My wife and my daughter had left the country. We were sitting in the embassy with bombs shaking the city. The rebels had hit the Melenik Palace, which
acted as a munitions dump with artillery, which rocked the whole city like an earthquake. It was lucky that it was a relatively bloodless transition; it took a few days but the new government restored peace and order.
I think people don’t understand that diplomats are like soldiers in civilian clothes. They have to keep their posts. There is this Hollywood version of the diplomat, going from one cocktail party to another. While it is an important part of the job, it isn’t all just parties. In many places, they put their life on the line when they represent their country.
On a lighter note, when I was first secretary in the Netherlands, we had a new ambassador coming. He was supposed to present his credentials in a ceremony to the Queen of the Netherlands. European monarchies do these things with a lot of pomp and circumstance. They sent two horse- drawn carriages to the ambassador’s residence. There were a lot of tourists taking pictures, thinking we were part of the royal family; we waved back just for fun. Coming from a republican government, there is not this type of pomp and circumstance, so I found it very interesting.
The Middle East, including Egypt, has seen a lot of changes over the past three years. This has resulted in much turmoil, which seems bound to continue in the short term. Where do you see the region going over the medium and long term?
When these changes started occurring in 2010, first in Tunisia and then in 2011 in Egypt, then Libya and other places, people were very optimistic calling it the “Arab Spring”. Since, some observers have started calling it an “Arab Winter” when they realized that these countries are going through a lot of difficulties. I am much more optimistic, I don’t think we should judge the whole process based on these difficulties. Still, I think that we shouldn’t simplify things, assuming that just because the uprisings have taken over that everything is going to go smoothly and be perfect.
This process is very important though. The people of the region have been finally able to express themselves, say, “enough is enough” and take their destiny into their own hands. It isn’t just the matter of the right to vote, it is about being able to truly determine their future. In Egypt for example, with the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, there were huge problems with the economy, there was the concentration of power in their hands, a lack of liberty for women and Christians, even for the first time friction between Sunnis and Shi’as. So people when back to the streets; they hadn’t paid the price of the blood of those who sacrificed themselves two years before to have this. It is estimated that at least 20 million people came out to the streets to protest against the Brotherhood and call for new elections and an all-inclusive government. In this way I am realistically optimistic; something really good has happened. While facing all of these challenges at once –poverty, education, healthcare- is difficult; freedom and democracy are not built up in days either. I really think though that we are moving on the right track.
Do you feel that Egyptian foreign policy has changed from government to government, or that Egypt’s “vital interests” have stayed the same?
Mubarak was in power for 30 years, his foreign policy was consistent with Egyptian national interest; it was domestically that he failed and disappointed the Egyptian people. He followed the main tracks that define Egyptian interests: to continue to pursue peace in the Middle East in the Israeli-Arab conflict along the formula of “land for peace”, find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to maintain good relations with most countries, like the United State, Russia, and China. He supported the 2003 Arab League initiative. This really hasn’t changed since the uprising. We still try to promote good bilateral ties with the peace-loving countries in the world. We want to invest in our infrastructure and economy, and promote economic ties. People have asked me many times how I am coping over the last few years, with all of the changes in government. I am coping quite well, because there has not been that much of a change in Egyptian foreign policy at all.
There were of course slight variations. There were closer ties with Hamas under the Morsi government, perhaps to the detriment of our relationship with Fatah and the Palestinian authority. Of course, our broad policies were the same. There are reports that still need to be verified, but apparently some of the attackers that killed Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai were linked to Hamas, which is a branch of the Brotherhood. It sometimes appeared that the Brotherhood favored their traditional ties over the interests of Egypt, although these were mostly slight variations.
What differences have you found between working with international governmental organizations (IGOs) and working directly as a representative to another state?
There is a huge difference. You do not do any work on bilateral relations as a representative to an IGO; you only work as a national representative to the organization or agency. In Geneva for example, where I was deputy chief of mission, there were over 15 agencies and organizations based there. You help formulate and advocate for Egyptian policy and interests. As well, there are different groups of states; for Egypt, there are Arab groups, African groups, the Group of 77 or the Non-Aligned Movement. Within these groups, you can work on the multilateral level.
Multilateralism is very different. You have all of the countries of the world discussing various topics, whether it’s trade or global health or security. You have all the countries of the world coming together under one roof to find ways to co-operate, as well as protect their interests. Great things can happen, even when it is only technical issues being discussed. There is also great vulnerability and difficulty in working as a group. I think what happens is that it feels as though the sky is the limit, because everyone is there, but more often than not no consensus is reached. There is a lot of talk, but not a whole lot seems to get done. It’s not because people don’t want to, but there are inherent limitations to multilateralism.
I think it is tough to blame the United Nations though. I remember the Egyptian secretary-general of the UN, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said that we cannot always blame the UN, as the actions of the UN depend on the will of its members. It isn’t the organization itself that will make things happen. If the major members want to make things happen, they will happen. People say that the UN is useless; it isn’t to say that it is prefect, that there is no bureaucracy and waste, but it is unfair to say that any international body is useless. Aspirations are so high that sometimes people simply blame the organization when things don’t happen. My conclusion from four years of working in Geneva is that the United Nations does more good than harm. At least there is a forum: imagine what the world would be like if we did not have a place to discuss these issues.
What would you say to someone who wants to enter the diplomatic service of his or her own country today?
Personally, I think that despite all the difficulties of this job, I really love it. If I find someone who is interested in pursuing this path, I tend to encourage them. I was grateful for the encouragement I received from colleagues.
At the same time, I like to explain that not everything is how it appears in movies. Moving around constantly, for example, can be difficult and taxing on families and personal relationships. The job itself has many difficulties; it isn’t all glamour and cocktails. It can be extremely rewarding, but you have to want to do public service. It’s all about serving your country. I’m not trying to sound like a hero, but it comes with a certain responsibility. Being a diplomat comes with a price, which is that you cannot always speak your mind; you are the representative of your country and you have to accept that. At the same time, I think the person should be someone who likes to travel, adapt into different cultures, and live. If you are someone who doesn’t want to leave his or her hometown, or province, or country, it is madness to be a diplomat.
As well, working in the embassy doesn’t mean that you will always be involved in politics or international negotiations. There is a lot of work to do in the office, there is management, there is representation of the country that is not always very thrilling, but you have to be there. For example, when I was working in Holland, the ambassador received an invitation to attend a university graduation. He passed me the invitation; I sat for two and a half hours, and didn’t understand a word; it was all in Dutch. More recently, we had to organize three elections in the past two years for the diaspora. This was all new; we had never organized absentee elections before. We had to distribute ballots. We had representatives of all parties there to observe, and ran transparent elections, but we received no additional support. It was a very rewarding but nonetheless stressful experience.
If you feel that this job is what you want though, do it. I have no regrets in choosing this path, despite all the difficulties.
How would you compare Canadian political culture to Egyptian political culture?
They are different countries. Canada is a very stable country. It is a modern nation. It is impressive that such a young country has such a tradition of democracy, freedom, stability and rule of law. It is something that has attracted a lot of Egyptians to move here, where they feel they can advance on their merits, instead of based on nepotism. It isn’t a perfect place obviously, but it is an impressive country, and we are grateful that Canada has welcomed so many Egyptians. Not to say that this is easy; for Egyptians, coming from a warm country, moving to a cold place like Canada was a disaster.
As for Egypt though, the tradition is different. We are an ancient country going back thousands of years. In our modern history, we have not had many opportunities to advance democratically, which is the cause of many of the problems that Egypt has suffered. The lack of freedom and democracy reflects on everything else; the economy, society, education, poverty. This is why we are so proud of what happened in 2011. Still, because we started late, we have a long way to go, we have many challenges. One of these challenges is to address the path the revolution has taken since 2011. I think this was the root of a lot of the unrest recently. People felt like they were duped: “We went through all this for that?” I think thought that we are moving forward.
How do you, in your role as Consul-General, interact with Egypt’s diaspora community in Canada?
I came just one month before the changes took place in 2011, which has made this very interesting. While a big majority of the diaspora is in favor of the changes that have taken place since 2011 and again on June 30. Still, while I represent the government and the state, as Consul-General I feel that I am here for all Egyptians, regardless of political allegiance. What I tell them, people from different groups, is that what is important is that we are all here for Egypt. Believe differently but do not personalize these differences. Let’s learn how to respect and accept each other, even with our differences, because what we care about more than anything is our nation and its future. I especially feel this abroad, as people are somewhat removed from the daily motion of politics. People get more excited in a different way; you are there, but not really there. We obviously represent the government, but we are here as a consulate for everyone, for all Egyptians.