Egypt’s new politicians must shift focus from winning votes at home to securing support abroad if they are to solve pressing problems of an economy in tailspin, a looming water shortage and population explosion, a former U.N. chief said on Sunday.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian who was the United Nations secretary general from 1992 to 1996, said his nation’s problems were being ignored by the new political class, including Islamist parties which have taken an early lead in parliamentary elections.
“The problems of Egypt cannot be solved in Egypt. They need the cooperation of other countries,” he told Reuters, adding that Cairo’s position at the heart the Middle East would force its new leaders to look outwards.
Following the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak in February, Egypt is inching towards a new era of democratic rule, with the Islamists emerging from decades of repression as a powerful force in mainstream politics.
“My opposition to the fundamentalist (Islamist) movement is not to the movement in itself. It is the fact that they will close the doors and isolate themselves,” the 89-year-old said.
“There are problems that no one is talking about, and these are the urgent ones,” he said, speaking from the offices of the Egyptian National Council of Human Rights, a body he heads.
One headache is the fading economy, with tourists and investors staying away because of the unrest. Another is the difficulty of having to support an extra 1 or 2 million people a year, in a country already 80 million strong.
A water crisis also looms, with African states further south looking to make greater use of the Nile at Egypt’s expense.
“Public opinion is paying more attention to what is going on in the West Bank and Gaza … rather than paying attention to what is going on in the African countries where you have the source of the Nile,” Boutros-Ghali said.
“If you read all the slogans used by the revolution since January 25 there has not been a word about foreign affairs,” he added, criticising groups across the political spectrum which have sprung up since the protest movement began early this year.
UPS AND DOWNS
Before Mubarak resigned, Ethiopia and five other Nile Basin states agreed a new treaty which would reduce Egypt’s share of the waters. Egypt gets almost 90 percent of its needs from the river and its demands will grow as the population surges.
“For Egyptians the Nile is an Egyptian river,” said Boutros-Ghali, who regretted that Mubarak had also failed to address such issues through deeper international dialogue.
Boutros-Ghali comes from Egypt’s minority Coptic Christian community, but he dismissed fears from some quarters that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Salafis might lead to inter-religious violence or rights violations.
“For 2,000 years there have been ups and downs,” he said. “They have lived together, co-existed together … there are no ghettos,” he added.
“That is not the case of the Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda,” he said, alluding to the 1994 genocide in the central African state.
Boutros-Ghali said everyone should accept an Islamist victory, regardless of political allegiance.
“You have to if you believe in democracy. You must hope they will act with moderation,” he said, adding that he looked forward to a “peaceful coexistence” with more liberal forces.
Muslim Brotherhood leaders have suggested they might put Egypt’s landmark 1979 peace deal with Israel to a referendum and other politicians have talked about renegotiating the accord.
Boutros-Ghali served as minister of state for foreign affairs in the late 1970s and helped negotiate the pact. He did not expect any new Egyptian leader to undermine the deal, hinting that the powerful army would prevent such a move.
“The army knows very well where its interests are. They have enough problems, not to add a new one,” he said, laughing.Reuters