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Egypt envoy: Lebanon’s neutrality paramount

Egyptian ambassador to Lebanon Ashraf Hamdy speaks during an interview with The Daily Star in Beirut, Tuesday, June 25, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Egypt’s envoy to Lebanon said Tuesday that Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria was a mistake, and that Lebanon should maintain its disassociation policy from the conflict next door. He said that Egypt rejected military solutions to the Syrian crisis, including arming the rebels and a possible no-fly zone, urging instead a political solution to resolve the conflict raging for more than two years between rebels and the regime of President Bashar Assad.

He strongly condemned an attack on Egyptian Shiites in Cairo, and urged a comprehensive solution to the problem of religious extremism sweeping the region.

“We know that Lebanon is often where scores are settled, whether Arab, regional or international scores,” said Ashraf Hamdy, Egypt’s ambassador to Lebanon, in an interview with The Daily Star.

“Unfortunately, the slogan raised by government institutions is disassociation, but not all parties adhered to disassociation,” he said, referring to the official Lebanese stance of staying out of regional conflict.

Hezbollah defied official policy when it fought a fierce battle alongside the Syrian regime for control of the border town of Qusair, a key supply hub held by rebels opposed to Assad.

Hamdy said Lebanon’s complex demographic makeup and the challenge of dealing with the influx of Syrian refugees made its overt neutrality paramount in the crisis.

“Involvement in Syria was initially limited through funding or arming rebels, then it was boots on the ground. That was a mistake,” he said. “The Syrian crisis is too big for some Lebanese factions to manipulate or set policies for,” he said.

Speaking from his office in Bir Hassan, Hamdy said that Egypt opposed arming the Syrian rebels, despite President Mohammad Mursi’s recent call in a rally in Cairo for a no-fly zone in Syria and moves by Western countries toward arming the opposition.

“Our position from the start is that the solution in Syria is not military,” he said. “Egypt is not with the view that the solution is arming the rebels.”

He said that Egypt supported a resolution that involves all sides in the Syrian crisis without preconditions, but added that it would be difficult for Assad to remain in power.

“Imagining that it is possible for a regime to continue that has treated its people like this, and thinking it would be business as usual, I think it’s very difficult,” he said.

Hamdy said Egyptian diplomats maintained contacts with all Lebanese factions, including Hezbollah, as part of a policy of engagement and “opening a new page with all sides.”

“We have no red lines,” he said. These contacts, which are beneficial for Egypt as it seeks to reprise an influential mediation role in the region, have not been harmed by the recent severing of diplomatic relations with Syria.

But Hamdy said the move limited the ability of Egyptian diplomats to maneuver and mediate in the crisis.

“What is the raison d’etre for Egypt to ask for a seat at the table if you don’t have the luxury of speaking with all sides?” he asked.

Still, he said that Egypt rejected outright any proposals that would split Syria along sectarian or ethnic lines.

“From day one, we insisted on the unity of Syria and keeping the borders untouched, and any sectarian redistribution is out of question for us,” he said. “Syria must remain the Syria that we know”

He said Egypt and Syria were considering some form of consular representation to deal with the interests of their communities in each country.

Hamdy said Lebanon faced major repercussions as a result of the Syrian crisis, not least of which is the influx of over half a million refugees and what that means for Lebanon in the long term. While Egypt has absorbed Syrian refugees fleeing the violence, their numbers are a smaller percentage of the population than in Lebanon.

“The consequences of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon will not end with the war. It will continue regardless of who wins in Syria,” he said. “For the losers, will it be acceptable to re-assimilate them into the new order?”

Hamdy said Egypt supported a swift Lebanese Cabinet formation and parliamentary elections.

The presence of a “functioning Cabinet” is important for Lebanese stability, he said.

“We encourage, support and push for the creation of a new Lebanese Cabinet as soon as possible,” he said, adding that such a Cabinet should not be subject to a constant, political tug of war.

Hamdy warned against the rising sectarian tide in the region, condemning “in the strongest possible terms” the lynching of four Shiites by a Cairo mob earlier this week, describing such sectarian incitement as “playing with fire.”

“This is behavior that is alien to Egyptian culture and society,” the envoy said. “If we open Pandora’s Box of sectarian conflict, it will consume everything.”

Asked to comment on rising religious fundamentalism in the region, with reference to the recent crisis in the southern city of Sidon over the radical preacher Ahmad Assir, Hamdy said the underlying causes of extremism should also be addressed, including economic hardship, poor education and marginalization.

There are “political and economic seeds” to radicalism, he said, which shouldn’t be addressed only “through a rifle.”

On upcoming protests on June 30 against Mursi’s rule, Hamdy said the government in Egypt ought to be more inclusive.

“The president was not elected in a landslide victory,” he said. “The new regime in Egypt should have extended its hand and brought together everyone, to win some ground.”

Mursi faces broadening discontent over what many Egyptians in a fragmented opposition feel is an inefficient, uncompromising government dominated by Islamists.

He urged dialogue to resolve a “confidence crisis” between the ruling party and the opposition, both of whom have committed mistakes in Egypt’s transition.

“Egypt is too big to be governed by one movement,” he said.

On the recent rapprochement between Egypt and Iran, Hamdy said that Egypt sought to influence Iranian policies for the region’s benefit, but that it continued to oppose any attempt at Iranian hegemony on neighboring Gulf states and beyond, such as imposing Iranian policies on Lebanese or Palestinian factions.

“Iran is a regional power that cannot be marginalized or diminished,” he said, adding that influencing Iranian policies would also benefit Gulf states suspicious of Iran’s designs on the region.

He said the rapprochement would not be at the expense of the security of the Gulf states.

“Historically, the Gulf’s security is Egypt’s security,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 26, 2013, on page 3.

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