Ambassador Ashraf Salama is the new Egyptian Ambassador to Nigeria. He previously worked in the United States of America, Denmark, Jordan and Senegal. In this interview with RALIAT AHMED-YUSUF, he speaks on Egypt’s new democracy, his perception of Nigeria and how he intends to improve the Nigeria/Egypt trade relations.
What is your perception of Nigeria?
I would like to start by expressing my great gratitude and respect for the Nigerian Government and people whom I find deeply devoted, honest and loving. Nigeria is truly a land of opportunities. Its cultural and geographic diversity makes it a very inviting place for investors and those who are interested in making a fresh start or a new beginning.
?The Government of Nigeria has been working successfully to facilitate the procedures for foreign investment. The process has been made much easier and Nigeria has become a very promising and encouraging country for investors. Every country has it pros and cons but we must always look at the pros to pave the way for more constructive steps, and to work seriously as partners because the citizens of the two countries deserve a better life. What impresses me here is that there is transparency even when it comes to the challenges, as Nigerians don’t deny what they are passing through. On the contrary, I find sincere willingness to face it and a will to overcome it.
Your country’s president Mohamed Morsi is sinking into more crises with his decree giving him sweeping power; do you think this latest move can bring about the desired peace and unity in the country?
Egypt is a now a democracy and in a democracy you have those who will support certain measures or polices and those who will oppose them. This is a clear indication that democracy is working, but we must accept that democracy is in its infancy in Egypt, and like any infant mistakes have to be made in order to learn. To express one’s opinion is a sign of democracy albeit that sometimes freedom of expression takes unacceptable forms, but what we must do is to ensure that every Egyptian understands that the state will not infringe on their freedom. By the time people will understand that they can voice their opinion safely and without intervention from the state, then they will come to know the sincerity of the Morsi government. Practicing our freedom of expression is a very positive indicator that we are on the right path to solidify a democratic process that will also lead to stability.
The fear of many in Egypt is that the draft constitution is one-sided and that it could easily promote the marginalization of certain groups in the country; what do you think of the constitution?
Like I said, we are moving towards implementing a true democracy. The constitution has been adopted and the Egyptian people have spoken. It is expected that some will still be unhappy about it but there are mechanisms that can be used to change and amend the constitution in a democratic and peaceful manner. There is a parliamentary election in two months and the opposition will have a chance to go back to the voters and ask for a mandate to amend or change the constitution. There is also a national dialogue between the government and the opposition, and efforts are being made to include all opposition parties in it, to figure out ways of including certain articles in the new constitution. So, there is an ongoing democratic process open to the people of Egypt to use and decide what they think will give them a better future.
Do you think the concession by President Morsi to the opposition will soothe their frayed nerves?
The president has met with almost all leaders and representatives of political parties in order to find a solution to the political crisis that has created so much tension in the land. A national dialogue is still going on as I mentioned before. This is a true democracy right from the start. Parties are negotiating and whenever there is a negotiation you look for compromises, or ways to bring the parties together. People are not asking for concessions they are asking their leaders to reach a middle ground. We are going step by step and in the right direction.
The president successfully brokered a cease fire between Hamas and Israel ending an 8-day war; do you think he can use the same magic wand to resolve the crisis in his country?
Egypt is key player in the region and we have a pivotal role to play in maintaining stability in the Middle East. Egypt has always exerted its utmost efforts to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians. Brokering a cease fire between the Palestinian and Israel is part of what Egypt can do to pave the way for peace. As for the political scene in Egypt, all the parties are engaged in one way or the other to reach a solution for the issues that we as a nation are facing. I wouldn’t call it a political crisis, as we have witnessed people participating in a referendum? over the constitution, the government is working to address the challenges facing us and the people continue to express and voice their opinions freely, which to me, is a major positive outcome of the January 25 revolution. President Morsi has taken the initiative to call for a national dialogue to reduce the tension and there is a sincerity to move forward towards achieving a more prosperous life for all Egyptians.
With the UN vote on Palestinian and Israeli retaliation, do you see a future for a peace process?
I am an optimistic person so I always believe that there is a future for the peace process. All we need is the political will for the parties to engage in the process. The UN vote on the Palestinian status was a major achievement as it is one step closer to become a full member state in the United Nations. Egypt, as I have previously mentioned, is always in support of the Palestinian case and Egyptian diplomacy played a role to mobilize support for the Palestinian demand at the United Nations to grant Palestine a non-member observer status. Israel should respect the will of the international community that voted for the resolution and move forward toward achieving peace in the region.
What does the vote mean for the region and how does it affect the relationship with the US?
As I said before, we look at the vote as a step by the Palestinian towards achieving statehood. The United States supports the two-state solution in the Middle East and the vote is just one way of working towards that end, so even if the US was opposed to the vote as it preferred direct negotiations between the parties, at the end of the day the vote doesn’t represent an issue that the US is against. So I don’t think the vote will negatively affect the relationship with the US. There is a problem in the Middle East and the United States wants a solution for it. That is what we all should work for.
What bilateral relations exist between Nigeria and Egypt?
Egypt and Nigeria are the biggest two countries in Africa when it comes to population as well as their regional role. Both countries have enjoyed cordial relations for over 50 years and there is a solid base that we hope we can build on to achieve a closer and stronger relationship.
? Many Nigerian scholars have studied in Egyptian schools and universities and many Egyptian doctors served and are still serving in Nigerian hospitals. We also offer several scholarships annually to Nigerian students to study in Egyptian universities, as well as technical training courses for journalists and media technicians. Al-Azhar which is considered the most moderate Islamic institution in the world also sends to Nigerian institutes teachers, religious clerics? and preachers to introduce the moderate principles of Islam.
We also have 17 direct flights weekly by Egypt Air from Cairo to Abuja, Lagos and Kano which facilitate the movement of citizens and goods between the two countries.
?Our best path is to realize what each party needs and to work together to achieve that. What I experience here is that there is a tendency for Nigerian families to send their children to study in Egypt. Moreover, many prefer to travel for medical treatment and healthcare. This is a trend that we know of from the number of visa applications the Embassy in Abuja, and our Consulate in Lagos receive on a daily basis and we are working hard to enhance it.
There are also several Egyptian reputable companies working in Nigeria such as the Arab Contractors, El-Sweidy Company for cables and transformers, Mantrac group and MCV. We do hope that many others will come and invest in Nigeria in the near future.
What other areas of cooperation are you looking at?
We are looking for new and innovative ways to enhance cooperation with Nigeria as we are in the process of preparing for the next Joint Bi-national Commission to discuss all the fields of mutual interest and to explore more areas of cooperation. We are working to introduce more companies to invest in healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors; we are also in contact with authorities in both countries to streamline the process of registration of Egyptian manufactured medicine which have a good reputation among Nigerians. We realize that our biggest challenge is to increase the volume of trade between the two countries, which does not match the level of political relationship that we have with Nigeria. In 2011, Nigerian exports to Egypt was only $2 million, while imports reached almost $92 million. I think that there is a lot to be done in this area and we should work harder to provide more exposure to goods and commodities from both countries through participating in trade fairs and facilitating procedures to enhance the movement of goods between Egypt and Nigeria.
I also think that the first phase of the upcoming cooperation should focus on developing the human aspect such as providing health care services through Egyptian-run hospitals in Nigeria. Hospital staffed with Egyptian doctors, providing these services will go a long way towards enhancing the bonds between the two people. Such bonds can be further enhanced by finding ways to provide reasonably priced and good quality medicine to the Nigerian market. If we can achieve that, we will also be able to pave the way for other exports and services to be exchanged between Egypt and Nigeria. My aim is to have a humanitarian face for trade and investment.
Has the present state of insecurity affected Egypt/Nigeria relationship?
We understand that the issue of insecurity has to be dealt with, but we also know from our own experience that insecurity is always an issue that is blown up by negative media coverage. Nigeria is a country of 160 million people who go about their business everyday and the vast majority of them come home safely every day. The issue of insecurity does not in any way affect our relationship. In fact it is going strengthen it as we are cooperating with Nigeria to see how we can address insecurity. As you know, the proximity of both countries requires sharing main concerns in the African Continent. We offer several training courses to police and immigration officers to be able to tackle these challenges, and we will continue to offer more courses and share our expertise with our Nigerian brothers in this field.
Do you see insecurity affecting Egyptians investors who are willing to come and invest here?
It is the role of ambassadors to strengthen relations by showing the true image of the country they are accredited to, and a better and closer human cooperation between both countries would help a great deal. As far as I am concerned, there is really no cause for alarm. This is what I’m trying to do because I don’t think the threats by different sporadic factions could affect our business relationship negatively. I have met with many Egyptian and Nigerian investors who express keen interest in cooperating and cementing the economic ties between both countries.
Do you see Nigeria overcoming this challenge?
I am very optimistic that it will soon become a thing of the past. I am also enthusiastic about dialogue among religious leaders as one way of reducing tension. Egypt and Nigeria have something in common – both have Christian and Muslim populations and have lived together peacefully for thousands of years. Nigerians can live together without violence irrespective of religion. All that is needed here is tolerance and respect for one’s religious views and beliefs. Both Christians and Muslims should have a good knowledge of their religion. All that Nigeria needs is an open and transparent dialogue between Christians and Muslims. If you have an understanding of a religion, nobody can brainwash you to kill another person in the name of religion. The religious leaders have a very big role to play here.
What is your vision for the two countries in the next four years?
I am barely three months old in Nigeria and one thing I have observed is the weak trade relations between both countries. We only talk of cooperation but we don’t achieve it. My hope is to make the Nigerian-Egyptian relations a model for cooperation between African countries. There are a lot of potential in both countries. For example, Nigeria has a lot to offer in the field of textile industry and can benefit from the Egyptian expertise in this field. Nigerian businessmen have also expressed their interest to cooperate with Egypt in the agricultural sector as well as many other sectors where Egypt can contribute. The next meeting of Bi-national Commission will help in setting the legal and technical framework that will usher us into a new and hopefully prosperous period of cooperation.