Our position is very clear. You need inclusion. You cannot just say, ’Hamas doesn’t exist.
Since he was appointed to lead a mainly technocratic government in 2004, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has been immersed in some of the Middle East’s most complex political problems—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the widening war in Iraq, not to mention Egypt’s own on-again off-again steps toward democracy. He also spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Lally Weymouth in Davos last week. Excerpts:
Weymouth: There’s a rumor in Washington that the United States is going to bomb Iran. What do you think of the idea?
Nazif: We’ve said clearly that this would not be a good idea. If it is to deter Iran, it probably will have the exact opposite effect. So I don’t see the logic.
How do you assess the strength of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
Iran, like any other country, has many factions with many different opinions. We have seen changes in the Iranian way of thinking over the last couple of decades. We’ve seen Iran coming closer to the communities in the Middle East and then seen them getting a little bit farther. What we need to do is just take them at face value. This is the Iranian government. This is what we are dealing with.
When do you think the peace with Israel will become a warmer peace?
Well the answer is in the question. When Israel has made peace with the Palestinians, with the Syrians, with the Lebanese, I think things will become much warmer.
But in business, couldn’t there be warmer relations?
There is a warm relationship in business right now, but at the end of the day it’s the whole relationship between the people of the countries [that counts].
Your government has been helpful in trying to form a national unity government between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas.
We’re still facing some problems there because the Palestinians themselves are divided. We were partially successful in 2005 when ... the withdrawal from Gaza took place. If at the time, we had followed up with reassuring measures, especially on the developmental side with the Palestinians in Gaza, we would not be where we are today.
Then came the elections that brought a Hamas government to power a year ago.
We were of the opinion that those Palestinian elections should not be held. We opposed them.
But so did the Israelis, right?
It’s the Americans that insisted on the elections. President [Hosni] Mubarak voiced our concern.
Because he thought radicals would win?
Exactly. But I think insistence on getting a democratic "solution" among the Palestinians at the time had sort of
taken over [U.S. administration policy]. And, unfortunately, then we lost Israeli Prime Minister Sharon a few months later, and this [combination of events] has created a situation today that is, I do think, worse than where we were a year and a half ago.
So, to be clear, are you saying that the Bush administration, by pushing democracy so hard in the region, failed to see the risk that radical Islamists might be elected?
I think that’s true, yeah. When you talk about how to promote democracy, you need to do it within the constraints of the countries you’re working with. Palestinians did not elect Hamas because they believe in its principles. They elected Hamas because they were not satisfied with the status quo.
President Abbas recently went to Damascus against the wishes of the United States to meet with the Hamas leadership. Where does Egypt stand on this effort?
Our position is very clear. You need to get inclusion. And inclusion means you cannot ignore somebody. You cannot just say, "Hamas doesn’t exist," or "Hizbullah doesn’t exist," or "whatever faction in Iraq doesn’t exist."
You’re saying that Hamas should be included in a future Palestinian government with President Abbas.
Of course. They have to be. They have a majority in Parliament. They’ve been elected. They need to be there. Now to what extent, that’s the negotiable part.
The U.S. appears to be reengaging in the area. You recently met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Her visit to the region has shown that the United States is interested in moving along. For a change we are starting to look at the issues.
On her last visit, Rice seemed to put much less emphasis on the need for democracy in Egypt.
Egypt is going through a reform process. President Mubarak came up with changes in the Constitution that would take Egypt further along in democratization. I think the administration is more understanding of what’s taking place.
Do you worry about the U.S. withdrawing from Iraq?
Under the current circumstances? Of course! There is no alternative in place. You’ll just give those militias a free hand. And I think it would be seen as the U.S. opting out of the region. The U.S. started this, and they need to give closure to it in a proper way. Now, I think that what President Bush came up with is not an opting out, it’s a commitment to peace and order. We support this, provided the Iraqi government deals even-handedly with both the Sunnis and the Shias.