BY ANNA GAWEL
The Washington Diplomat
Newbies in Town
With a White House credentialing ceremony on Jan. 18, a brand new fleet of envoys came trucking into town. But they all face a year when the diplomatic corps, and foreign policy in general, won’t be the priority for the U.S. president, who’s more focused on the economy and keeping his job in November.
Still, these new ambassadors represent a vital set of interests, both to the United States and to their home nations. Some are critical allies (Britain) or, depending on the day, adversaries (Pakistan). Others face the lingering scars of war (Iraq), the potential for Arab Spring-fueled instability (Morocco), economic crisis (Italy), or overlooked humanitarian issues (Niger).
So here’s a rundown of the new arrivals, and the baggage they carry:
It’s only fitting to start with the envoy who’s taken up perhaps the most unenviable position in town, representing a nation many view as the most dangerous in the world — which was even recently dubbed “The Ally from Hell” by the Atlantic magazine.
Stepping into this cauldron is Sherry Rehman, 50, a former lawmaker, think tank founder, journalist and the country’s new ambassador — whose predecessor was burned by the Machiavellian drama of Pakistani politics.
Rehman arrives in Washington at a time when bilateral relations have taken a major pounding and the civilian government back home is under siege — squeezed by an all-powerful military and activist Supreme Court, which recently launched a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari and threatened Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani with contempt if he didn’t testify in the case.
This latest challenge to the fragile civilian leadership was sparked by the so-called “memogate” scandal that engulfed Pakistan’s former ambassador, Husain Haqqani, who was accused of engineering an unsigned missive to the Pentagon asking for U.S. help neutering Pakistan’s military and preventing a coup in exchange for a raft of pro-American security policies (also see “Diplomatic Shakeup at Pakistani Embassy” in the December 2011 news column of the Diplomatic Pouch online).
Haqqani, who adamantly denies all charges, resigned and returned to Pakistan to face an official inquiry into the matter and quell the uproar. But in a country where anti-American suspicion runs deep, the memogate affair quickly snowballed into a full-blown crisis.
Upon his arrival, Haqqani was promptly barred from leaving the country during the probe, and the well-known ex-ambassador, who’s long pushed for greater civilian authority over the military, sought refuge at the prime minister’s residence, citing threats to his life. A group of prominent Republican senators condemned the envoy’s treatment.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani-American businessman who delivered the memo and leaked its existence, Mansoor Ijaz, has now said he won’t come to Pakistan to testify against Haqqani because he too fears for his safety. In yet another bizarre twist to the saga, the tycoon became embroiled in his own controversy after it was revealed he appeared in a racy music video that showed naked female wrestlers.
As convoluted as the whole affair has become, the repercussions are very real. Coming on the heels of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden and embarrassed Pakistan’s army and intelligence establishment, memogate ruptured already-shaky relations between the military and civilian government, which seemed on the verge of collapse.
Things though appear to be cooling down this week — no doubt to Washington’s relief. On Monday, Haqqani was permitted to leave Pakistan and is reportedly returning to the United States to join his family, though the courts may still call him back (whether it’s wise to return is another matter).
The showdown between the military and civilian government also seems to be easing for now, with Prime Minister Gilani softening his criticism of the army while also appearing before the Supreme Court in the Zardari corruption investigation. Hearings into that case will resume Feb. 1, however, and Ijaz has one final chance to appear before the memogate judicial commission on Feb. 9, so the storm is far from over.
In the meantime, Rehman inherits the enormous task of representing all of Pakistan’s various competing interests, while also managing a relationship between two countries that reluctantly need each other but scarcely trust one another.
It was a tightrope act that tripped up Haqqani, who had access to Washington insiders but was derided as an American stooge by his critics. As a liberal lawmaker and former journalist, Rehman shares a similar progressive background as Haqqani. She’s also no shrinking violet in the cutthroat world of Islamabad politics.
An outspoken advocate for women’s rights and religious tolerance, Rehman has received death threats from Muslim extremists for supporting a repeal of the country’s hard-line blasphemy laws. She’s also campaigned against honor killings and domestic violence, and she was riding in the same car as her boss, Benazir Bhutto, when the former prime minister was assassinated in late 2007.
A former journalist with 20 years of experience in both broadcast and print media, Rehman resigned as information minister in 2009 after she accused the government of muzzling the press. And although she’s a longtime member of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, Rehman founded the Jinnah Institute, a Pakistani-based think tank that’s viewed as ideologically close to the army.
According to the BBC, her appointment as U.S. ambassador “is a face-saving formula which removes Rehman from the dangers threatening her in Pakistan while at the same time putting in place a representative who is far less threatening to the military.”
But now she’ll need to confront the dangers of a deteriorating U.S. alliance. Rehman recently held her first public engagement since assuming office in mid-January, telling around 200 representatives of the Pakistani-American community that she’ll work to “change the way this important bilateral relationship works.”
“We want to remain friends with the United States but our relationship must be based on mutual interests, respect and shared values,” she said. “Our friends in the United States must know that our sacrifices in the war on terror far outnumber those of any other international or NATO coalition partner in Afghanistan. Yet, I am not here with a grievance narrative,” she added, saying that U.S.-Pakistani relations must become more multifaceted. “We would prefer to be economic and political partners and not just battlefield allies.”
*Update: Just as things appeared to be simmering down in Pakistan, they heated right back up on Feb. 2. The Supreme Court says it will charge Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani with contempt for refusing to reopen the corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari and ordered the prime minister to appear in court on Feb. 13. If convicted, Gilani faces six months in prison and possibly being barred from office.
New British Sir In Town
After four years as British ambassador in Washington, Sir Nigel Sheinwald is headed back to the United Kingdom while Sir Peter Westmacott steps in to take over this critical posting.
Westmacott, who joined the diplomatic service in 1972 and whose first foreign posting was in Tehran, previously served as the British ambassador to France from 2007 to 20011 and before that, as ambassador to Turkey since 2002.
He also worked in Washington before from 1993 to 1997 as the embassy’s counselor for political and public affairs. “Though much has changed since my last posting in Washington, the strength, closeness and primacy of the special relationship between the United States and United Kingdom has endured,” he said in an official statement.
Yet the veteran envoy also carries some Beltway baggage: His brother-in-law, Hassan Nemazee, pled guilty in 2010 to defrauding banks of nearly $300 million. The Iranian-American multimillionaire investor was a big Democratic donor, and some of the stolen money went to President Obama and Hillary Clinton (Nemazee was Clinton’s finance chairman during her presidential campaign).
A Foreign Office spokesman recently told Tim Walker of the Telegraph that, “Sir Peter and his wife, Susie, were not aware of what Mr. Nemazee was doing. Of course, fraudsters, by their very nature, tend not to tell people what they are up to.”
The spokesman added: “Sir Peter was, however, acutely conscious of how this might go down in Washington and raised the matter himself when he became aware that he was being considered for the posting. It went to the highest levels and the feeling was that he was the man for the job. He cannot be blamed for his brother-in-law, any more than his wife can be blamed for her brother.”
Incidentally, Westmacott’s predecessor, Nigel Sheinwald, also briefly became ensnared in some controversy during his posting when his private assessments of then-presidential candidate Obama were made public. Although the letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown was largely positive, Sheinwald did ruffle some feathers by calling Obama “aloof” and “insensitive” at times.
The flap quickly bowled over though and Sheinwald was widely seen as an astute diplomatic troubleshooter (he was profiled in The Washington Diplomat’s April 2009 cover story “Unflappable British Envoy Keeps Cool Amid Crises”), as he navigated perennial speculation over the state of U.S.-U.K. relations and an economic crisis on both sides of the Atlantic that continues to this day.
Sheinwald, who will be retiring after more 35 years in the British Diplomatic Service, wrote in a farewell blog posting that he’s “enjoyed working with successive administrations, and helping to steer the U.K.-U.S. relationship through political change in both London and Washington.”
He cited being able to observe the 2008 presidential election firsthand, watching oral arguments in the Supreme Court, flying over glaciers in Alaska, meeting expat British rock stars in Los Angeles, and talking with mayors, entrepreneurs, students and other Americans across the country.
“My time as ambassador has coincided with a period of unprecedented turbulence and significant change in the global order, both political and economic,” the envoy admitted, but he added: “In all this uncertainty, one port in the storm has been the solidity and relevance of the U.K.-U.S. relationship. Like the United States, the U.K. has to cut its cloth in international relations according to our economic means. But we remain the United States’ most capable global ally.”
It’s a message Westmacott echoed in his accreditation letter to Obama. “Together we are home to more than 60 of the world’s top 100 universities. We are the first and second most frequent recipients of Nobel Prizes, with more than 400 laureates between us. As the global economy becomes more dependent on science, technology and innovation, the United States and United Kingdom will continue to lead the way. Our mutual prosperity is strengthened by our robust links of trade and investment,” he said, noting that the “trillion dollars we have invested in one another’s economies supports nearly one million jobs on each side of the Atlantic.”
But the new ambassador conceded that this “truly special relationship” is facing some especially difficult times. “I arrive in Washington at a moment when partnerships like ours are of the utmost importance. We remain mired in one of the worst economic crises in generations,” he said. “There is a long way to go, not least in Europe. But while the going is sometimes hard, I have great confidence in our shared future.”
For his part, Sheinwald is leaving the stresses of economic calamity and conflict behind for now, taking a few weeks off to travel the Pacific, starting with Hawaii. “We look forward to seeing one of the few states we have not visited and having some time to reflect on four very happy years here,” he said.
Argentina: From U.N. to D.C.
Argentina’s new man in Washington has a history of tangling with the British over the Falkland Islands, a remote archipelago in the South Atlantic claimed by both Britain and Argentina (the two fought a brief war over the islands in 1982).
Jorge Argüello served as Argentina’s permanent representative to the United Nations since June 2007, during which time he was president of the Parliamentary Observatory of the Malvinas Question (the name Argentina calls the islands) and raised the issue at various international forums over the years. In the early 1990s, he also served in the National Congress, where he organized the first visits by British parliamentarians after the 1982 war.
Like his boss, President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, Argüello has criticized Britain’s “colonial attitude” toward the Falklands and urged U.N.-mediated talks to settle the longstanding impasse, which Britain has refused. The colonial card has in fact been thrown around by both sides.
British Prime Minister David Cameron recently infuriated Argentine officials when he accused Buenos Aires of “colonialism” in pressing its claims over the islands, home to about 3,000 people and more than 1,000 British troops. In response, protesters rioted outside the British Embassy in Buenos Aires on Jan. 20. Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, Argentina’s former ambassador in Washington, shot back that Britain was “synonymous with colonialism.”
“Obviously at a time when there are only remnants of colonialism, Great Britain, in an imperial decline, decides to rewrite history,” Timerman was quoted as saying.
The rhetoric has been ratcheted up as the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War approaches in April, the month Argentine forces invaded the islands and the British retook them after 74 days of fighting that left some 900 people dead.
The British Royal Navy recently deployed the HMS Dauntless, one of its most powerful air defense destroyers, off the Falklands coast, though the government said the move was routine and had nothing to do with the escalation of tensions over the last two months.
Still, the U.K. government argues that the majority of islanders wish to remain under British sovereignty. Argentina wants the dispute to be settled in international negotiations and accuses Britain of trying to plunder oil resources from the waters surrounding the islands.
Argüello’s docket will shift gears in Washington, where he’ll focus more on the bilateral U.S.-Argentina agenda. He’s already met with Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson at the State Department. Politics is also familiar terrain for the envoy, who served two three-year terms as a legislator in Buenos Aires (1997-2000; 2000-03) and has written numerous articles and books on political and citizen participation.
To follow Argüello’s writings, he has a website and Twitter page in Spanish at www.embajadaabierta.com and @JorArguello.
Relations between Ecuador and the United States may get a modest but much-needed bump with an ambassador finally in place at the Washington embassy after a nine-month absence.
Last April, Ecuadorean Ambassador Luis Gallegos was forced to leave his post in a diplomatic tit-for-tat stemming from the WikiLeaks scandal. Some of those leaked cables revealed accusations leveled by Heather Hodges, then the U.S. ambassador to Ecuador, that President Rafael Correa appointed a corrupt police chief and that corruption was rife within the Ecuadorian police forces.
Hodges was expelled from Quito and in response, Washington sent Gallegos packing as well.
Now, Nathalie Cely Suárez has stepped in to fill the void.
Quito’s new ambassador has a long record of promoting economic development and education. An economist with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Cely headed several organizations that worked to improve the quality of education and employability of vulnerable communities through information technology, as well as the economic inclusion of micro and small businesses. She also served as a member of President Correa’s cabinet in Quito as the minister of production and competitiveness before her Washington appointment.
“I’m honored and excited to build upon the relationship between Ecuador and the United States,” Cely said after presenting her credentials. “I’m hopeful that a partnership based on mutual respect will make each of our countries stronger and more prosperous. I am committed to building a solid bilateral relationship that strengthens the many interests our countries share.”
That relationship has been strained through in light of accusations that the leftist Ecuadorean president has clamped down on the press and attacked business interests. Still, Correa, an economist, remains relatively popular for instituting broad social reforms and maintaining strong economic growth.
But at the credentialing ceremonies, it’s the positives that are emphasized, while the gritty diplomatic legwork is left for later.
“I’m thrilled to represent my country here and eager to connect with the thousands of Ecuadorians who call the United States home,” Cely said. “I will work tirelessly to protect their rights and improve their living conditions.”
In his response letter, President Obama also noted the Ecuadorian Diaspora as one of the many links between the two nations. “Over 2 million Ecuadorians live in the United States, and more than 200,000 Americans visit Ecuador each year,” he wrote. “Our trade relations is another example; the United States is proud to be Ecuador’s largest trading partner. We look forward to building on this partnership and expanding our successes to other areas of mutual interest.”
Cely’s most immediate challenge will be finishing up repairs on the embassy, which experienced some damage after a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Virginia rattled parts of the nation’s capital.
And as a sign of how high-tech the next class of ambassadors has become, Cely has a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/NathalieCelyS) as well as her own website (www.nathaliecely.com).
Iraq’s Next Chapter
The last of the American troops may have pulled out of Iraq last December, but that doesn’t spell the end of America’s evolving relationship with a country where U.S. forces waged an eight-year war that cost more than 4,400 American lives, by some estimates more than 100,000 Iraqi civilian lives, and nearly a trillion dollars.
In fact, Baghdad is now home to the largest U.S. embassy in the world, with nearly 16,000 Americans — mostly diplomats and the thousands of security contractors protecting them — still operating in the country (also see “State Takes Over for Military in Iraq — And Takes on Its Biggest Test” in the December 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Iraq’s former ambassador in Washington, Samir Sumaida’ie, was a soft-spoken but effective envoy who managed U.S. relations for more than five years during the height of the so-called troop surge through the drawdown in 2011.
Now that job falls to Jabir Habeb as Washington and Baghdad figure out their post-war relationship. At his credentialing ceremony, Habeb emphasized Iraq’s commitment to democratic values and its partnership with the United States as both nations enter a new stage of bilateral relations.
Obama also praised bilateral ties and expressed confidence that the country would overcome its internal political disputes. He also noted that for the first time in two decades, Iraq is scheduled to host the next Arab League Summit, a sign the war-ravaged country is assuming its place among the community of nations.
To that end, Habeb, along with the embassy’s commercial attaché, participated in an “Iraq Economic Day” forum hosted by the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce. The Feb. 1 event brought together more than 100 government and private sector representatives to build up U.S. economic links with Iraq.
“I wish in this context to quote my prime minister, who stated during his last visit to the U.S. that our future partnership with the U.S. will no longer involve military operations and military generals, but businessmen and companies,” said Habeb.
“I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that the volume of business in Iraq is enormous — especially in the fields of agriculture, industry and reconstruction,” he added. “We are in need of committed partners who are prepared to support us in standing against challenges of terrorism and reconstruction of a country that suffered the heavy toll of dictatorships and wars.”
Morocco’s New Man
Morocco has brought on board a seasoned diplomat to fill its Washington posting after the departure of longtime Ambassador Aziz Mekouar last summer.
Rachad Bouhlal served as Morocco’s ambassador to Germany since 2004, before which time he was secretary-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation (1999-2004); ambassador to the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg (1996-99); advisor to the prime minister for economic and financial affairs (1994-96); and secretary-general of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investments (1991-94).
Interestingly, Bouhlal also has expertise in wildlife — as a former director of fisheries at the Ministry of Fisheries and Merchant Marines and as founding member of the International Wildlife Film and Environment Festival (FIFALE).
Morocco is an important U.S. ally that’s felt the reverberations of the Arab Spring, but so far King Mohammed VI has managed to stave off the kind of unrest that pummeled neighbors such as Libya by instituting constitutional reforms, although the changes haven’t satisfied everyone (also see “Morocco Tries to Reform, While Preserving Stability” in the June 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
The country also assumes a key role this month at the United Nations, where it authored the draft text of a resolution, based on a proposal by Arab League, that would press Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand power over to a unity government to stanch fighting that has killed an estimated 5,400 Syrians.
That resolution is supported by the United States and other Western powers, but opposed by Moscow, which fears another Libya-style military intervention.
From Brussels to Beltway
Claudio Bisogniero takes over as Italy’s ambassador in Washington after his predecessor, Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, went on to become Rome’s foreign minister last November.
Bisogniero returns to Washington after having been first counselor for economic and commercial affairs at the embassy in the early 1990s.
He also has extensive experience in NATO, recently serving as the military bloc’s deputy secretary-general since 2007, as well as counselor at the Italian Permanent Mission to NATO in Brussels. In addition, he was the deputy political director general for multilateral affairs at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he dealt with NATO, the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the G8, disarmament, human rights and anti-terrorism related issues. Other postings include first secretary for economic and commercial affairs at the Italian Embassy in Beijing.
Both his military and economic background will come in handy in Washington. Italy currently has about 4,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force mission.
Things on the economic front are even more critical: The United States is anxiously watching Italy’s new technocratic government to see if it can usher in the kind of reforms needed to jumpstart the country’s stagnating economy, whose recent weaknesses have threatened to bring down the entire euro.
Development Expert from Niger
Drought, poor harvests and rising food prices have left Niger and its neighbors in Africa’s Sahel region grappling with food shortages, as the United Nations tries to sound the alarm on the problem before the shortages become dire.
“We must not wait until people are starving in order to act,” warned Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, on Jan. 24. “The world must respond immediately to avert a full-scale food and nutrition crisis,” he added, noting that most of the local governments affected have responded by declaring a state of emergency and requesting international assistance.
Malnutrition is not uncommon in Niger, a nation of 16 million that is one of the world’s poorest. The country has also struggled to handle an influx of refugees who fled Libya during the battle to overthrow Qaddafi, as well as attacks and kidnappings by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has a foothold in the region.
Niger’s new ambassador in Washington, Maman S. Sidikou, has a deep understanding of the humanitarian issues that plague his part of the world, having worked for years with development partners such as USAID, Save the Children UK and UNICEF in hotspots ranging from Rwanda to Afghanistan.
Sidikou most recently served as country director for Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo working with Save the Children. He was also chief of education for UNICEF in Nigeria (2007-10); U.N. cluster coordinator for education and culture with the UNICEF program Irak in Amman, Jordan (2005-07); senior education specialist with the World Bank in Washington, D.C. (2002-05); team leader for the UNICEF Back-To-School Campaign in Kabul, Afghanistan (2001-02); and human development manager with USAID in Niamey, Niger (1994-95).
So it’s little surprise that Sidikou says he’ll work to deepen cooperation between Niger and the United States to help tackle poverty, inequality, hunger and disease back home.
The ambassador told the Diplomatic Pouch that his other priorities will be to support his country's efforts at: building strong institutions, good governance and sustainable political stability; combating intolerance and terrorism; strengthening trade; and bringing the people of the two nations together through the collaboration and exchange of knowledge and research, as has been done by USAID and American universities.
“Security is a dire concern in our region of the Sahel where the foes of liberty are hard at work. Niger will face squarely the challenge but needs the support of friends such as the U.S.A. and strategic allies in the region — to do it as effectively as possible,” Sidikou told us. “At the same time, the lack of human development may itself be a major factor in creating insecurity. Addressing the conditions that make people more vulnerable and easy prey to extremism is also one of our priorities.”
To that end, the envoy says he’ll work toward improving partnerships that bolster key indicators such as good governance and economic freedom to earn a compact with the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC), explore food security partnerships with groups such as USAID, and reach out to centers of learning to reinforce the government’s drive to improve schools and career training.
Sidikou’s own government experience includes serving as minister of foreign affairs and director of the Cabinet of the Presidency in Niger and minister-advisor to the president in the 1990s. In addition, he is a former journalist who worked at the Ministry of Information’s Office de Radiodiffusion et Télévision du Niger (ORTN) early in his career.
He is also familiar with the United States, having earned his master’s degree in communication from the University of Texas at Austin, as well a doctorate in adult and nonformal education from Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he was also a research associate with the university’s Learning Systems Institute’s Center for International Studies in the early 1990s.
U.S. Second Home to Azerbaijani
Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s new envoy, has also gotten a taste of American life as the nation’s first consul general to Los Angeles and the western U.S. states, leading the team that established an Azerbaijani diplomatic presence on the West Coast for the last five years.
A graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts, Ambassador Suleymanov also holds graduate degrees from the Political Geography Department of Moscow State University in Russia and the University of Toledo in Ohio.
Washington, D.C., also represents a homecoming of sorts for Suleymanov, who was a press officer at the Azerbaijani Embassy in D.C. before heading out West.
He already dove into the Beltway think tank circuit, hosting a discussion for the Johns Hopkins University’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and its Silk Road Studies Program on Feb. 1.
On the flip side, Suleymanov has no U.S. counterpart in Azerbaijan at the moment after the Senate blocked Obama’s choice for the post, Matthew Bryza, from continuing as ambassador to Baku.
Obama had given Bryza, who’d been deputy assistant secretary of state for Eurasian affairs under the Bush administration, a one-year recess appointment to bypass lawmakers who’d opposed Bryza’s confirmation on the grounds that he had a pro-Azerbaijani tilt.
Those charges largely stemmed from a campaign against Bryza initiated by Armenian-American lobbying groups, which worried that the career diplomat was too close to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to be objective about his dismal human rights record and in the longstanding dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
As an oil-rich nation and major energy transit point, Azerbaijan is a strategic regional ally for the United States.
Egypt’s Revolution: Some Celebrate, Others Protest
Special to the Diplomatic Pouch by Larry Luxner
On Jan. 25, the Egyptian Embassy in Washington threw a big celebration to mark one year since the overthrow of Egypt’s longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak.
Not all Egyptians, however, were in the mood to party.
Some 30 to 40 enraged protesters chanted “Tantawi is a murderer,” referring to Egyptian Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and “What is there to celebrate?” as police officers kept them away from the embassy’s entrance on International Drive. Inside, more than 200 members of Washington’s Egyptian expat community spent the evening hobnobbing with each other, nibbling on “revolution cake” and sipping sparkling water, apple juice and Coca-Cola.
In a bit of irony, the banquet hall was decorated with color images of joyful protestors setting off fireworks in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shoukry, in his Arabic-language address, made a passing reference to the protesters outside his door — indicating that “those people outside are no less Egyptian and no less loyal than those inside.”
But his words largely fell on deaf ears as the protesters rallied against what they say are “brutal and inhumane crimes against our brothers and sisters in Egypt” committed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has been ruling the Arab world’s largest country since Mubarak’s ouster a year ago.
“It’s unacceptable and inappropriate that SCAF and the Egyptian authorities organize a celebration of the revolution, acting as its heroes and saviors, while killing, detaining, insulting and lying to the Egyptian people, and continuously violating their human and civil rights,” read a flyer handed out during the protest. “Moreover, a ‘celebration’ not only sends a false message that the revolution is over, but also that it had ended successfully, and that all the demands were met.”
Demonstrators said they refused to attend the embassy celebration while “peaceful protesters are still being shot, beaten, tortured and detained in military prisons, women are being beaten and stripped on the streets” and state TV “spreads lies and rumors to defame the protesters” rather than investigate their claims.
Shoukry later told the Diplomatic Pouch that despite the anger rising from the small band of protesters outside, he did speak to some of them.
“A few came in toward the end of the party to use the bathroom,” he said. “We had a cordial discussion, and we recognize that all segments of society have a right to demonstrate.”
Asked why the Egyptian Embassy saw fit to organize a celebration while violent protests are still taking place on a daily basis in Cairo and other cities, Shoukry said “this was an important junction in Egypt’s history, and its importance warrants that we commemorate it” — though he conceded that “there have been mistakes made that led to loss of life, and apologies have been issued on the part of the government.”
Even so, Shoukry insisted — contrary to the protesters’ angry claims — that “there is no systematic policy of violations of human rights. In any society, there are always individual excesses, but the current situation in Egypt indicates there’s a high degree of respect and a concerted effort by the government to apply the law equally, and to refrain from any forms of violence.”
The ongoing protests coincide with the December raid by Egyptian authorities on 13 pro-democracy groups that receive foreign funding. These groups include two Washington-based NGOs — the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute — that were in Egypt to monitor the country’s recent parliamentary elections. Six Americans are among the 10 foreigners who’ve banned from leaving Egypt; they include Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The raid is widely considered to be an attack on free speech and an attempt by the military to rein in critics of its heavy-handed tactics against anti-government demonstrators. But Shoukry claims this isn’t the case at all.
“There is no detention,” he said. “There’s an embargo on their leaving the country, pending a judicial proceeding and investigation. These [foreigners] are free to remain in Cairo or travel within the country. They are not under any form of supervision. But they can be called upon at any moment to testify in the ongoing judicial investigation, in conformity with normal legal practice.”
Shoukry acknowledged that the standoff has inflamed tensions between Egypt and the United States.
“There’s certainly a great deal of apprehension,” he told the Pouch. “We are carefully monitoring the remarks and statements made by the administration and members of Congress, and we recognize that the U.S. must be concerned with the best interests of its citizens. But this investigation has been ongoing since last July, and it has nothing to do with the political developments in Egypt, which are being set by the dialogue between various components of the political landscape. This is a totally distinct issue.”
We asked Shoukry about the Pentagon’s threats to suspend U.S. military aid to Egypt, currently worth about $1.3 billion a year, unless the Americans are freed.
“I wouldn’t like to speculate on this,” he replied. “We recognize the value of this relationship to both parties, but it is not a one-way street. The U.S. has extracted considerable benefits from this relationship that far exceeds the value of this assistance.”
Pressed further, Shoukry said, “This is a matter for the administration and Congress to determine.”
Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shoukry, top photo, hosted a celebration at the embassy to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Egypt’s revolution, but outside, some three dozen protesters asked, “What is there to celebrate?”
Photos: Larry Luxner
Diplomats Watch N.H. Primary
The foreign diplomatic corps is generally sidelined during a U.S. presidential election. After all, diplomats can’t vote and foreign policy — in particular this year — usually takes a backseat to domestic issues such as the economy.
But that doesn’t mean diplomats don’t have work to do in 2012. One of their most vital jobs during an election year is reporting on the U.S. political climate for their governments back home, scrutinizing the campaigns and all their twists and turns.
Getting a firsthand look at the nuanced U.S. electoral system always helps, so diplomats routinely travel to the party conventions (usually as part of State Department-organized trips) and visit individual primaries thanks to various local efforts.
George Bruno, a former U.S. ambassador who served in Belize, just completed his third Diplomatic Observer Program hosting a foreign delegation to observe New Hampshire’s primary from Jan. 6 to 8.
This year’s Granite State primary generated less interest than the 2008 contest, which featured both Republican and Democratic candidates, as opposed to only GOP hopefuls this time around.
Still, the program attracted a small group of diplomats from the embassies of Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand in Washington who attended rallies and debates and toured the different campaign headquarters over the weekend. They also stopped by a spaghetti dinner event featuring Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney in school gymnasium in Tilton, N.H., as well as a taco feast with his main challenger Newt Gingrich at the Don Quixote Restaurant in Manchester.
In addition, the envoys got access to “spin rooms” to meet the candidates and their reps following the debates, plus a special debriefing after the cameras were turned off by “Meet the Press” producer Mark Lukasiewicz, for an insider perspective on the negotiations leading up to the debates and the logistics involved in producing the show. Other speakers included Ken Rudin, National Public Radio’s “Political Junky,” Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Report, Raymond Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, and former John McCain advisor Steve Duprey.
Kevin Conmy, deputy chief of mission at the Irish Embassy in D.C., said the Diplomatic Observer Program “was excellent, providing me with a real opportunity to learn a great deal about the N.H. primary, the current political temperature in a key swing state and most importantly this year to see the Republican contenders up close.
“The access to the debates, to candidate events and HQs, and the briefings by leading political academics and commentators were fantastic —we couldn’t have asked for more,” he added, noting that he also enjoyed staying with local host families, something all the participants did.
“I feel like I got to see a lot of interesting events and meet a lot of very insightful people. I’ve told the embassy to look out for this again in 2016,” said Anthony Smith, political counselor at the New Zealand Embassy. “I would like to … get back to New Hampshire at some point in the future. From the small area I saw, the New England region looks like a beautiful corner of the world — remains me just a little of New Zealand.”
The diplomats also expressed interest in witnessing other state primaries, especially as the race between Romney and Gingrich heats up. Romney won nearly 40 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, while Gingrich took only 9 percent. Jon Huntsman, who’d staked his campaign largely on New Hampshire, picked up nearly 17 percent and later dropped out of the running.
Although he faltered in South Carolina, Romney has since gone onto a decisive victory in Florida, but Gingrich has vowed to press on in his insurrectionist bid — so there will be plenty more opportunities for diplomats to watch U.S. democracy in action.
The bipartisan Diplomatic Observer Program was created with help from the University of New Hampshire, the World Affairs Council of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, and the New England College Center for Civic Engagement.
From left, Kevin Conmy, deputy chief of mission at the Irish Embassy; Mika Iga, vice consul at the Japanese Embassy; David Gregory, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press”; Anthony Smith, counselor at the New Zealand Embassy; George Bruno, head of the Diplomatic Observer Program; and Frabrizio Bucci, congressional counselor at the Italian Embassy, attend a briefing during the New Hampshire primary as part of the Diplomatic Observer Program.
Photos: Diplomatic Observer Program