profile: Nabil Fahmy

March 11th, 2010

As the founding Dean of its new School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (GAPP), AUC was fortunate to acquire veteran diplomat Nabil Fahmy. Dean Fahmy comes from a prominent Egyptian political family, his father having served as Egypt's Foreign Minister during a key period of recent history. He received his Bachelor's Degree from AUC in 1974, and some will be surprised to hear that the future diplomat majored in Physics and Mathematics. He also obtained our Master's Degree from AUC in 1976, this time in Management. The early stages of his career saw him filling a variety of important posts, including work for then-Vice President Hosni Mubarak in the mid-1970's. He was also part of the Egyptian Mission to the United Nations, and served as a senior official on disarmament issues. From 1997 to 1999 he served as Egyptian Ambassador to Japan, in which capacity he assisted in dramatically boosting Egyptian exports to Japan. His performance in that position was rewarded with a crucial post as Egypt's Ambassador to the United States during the period of 1999 to 2008, with many of those years being famously difficult ones in recent world history. In the following interview, Dean Fahmy gives a wonderfully candid survey of his views on geopolitics, the "gory details" of a diplomatic career, the personalities of some of the political celebrities of recent decades, and (of course) the future prospects of his School at AUC.



Q: Let's begin with your diplomatic career, and I will start by asking about an event that everyone remembers well. As the Egyptian Ambassador to the United States, you held a key position during what was surely the most traumatic day in recent American history: September 11, 2001. Tell us about your experience on that day. And what was the mood like in diplomatic circles in Washington?

A: My diplomatic career started 25 years before September 11, 2001 which definitely was a most traumatic day in American history. For almost three days it was difficult if not impossible to get a coherent answer from high-level authorities in Washington. Even my contacts in the White House were in disarray, as was everyone else. I invited the Egyptian student community in the Washington / Virginia / Maryland area to stay at my home until things settled. America had prepared for attacks by nation states, not by non-state parties, and nothing of this level of audacity. The mood in Washington was understandably extremely tense and disturbing. I understand what my American colleagues went through; these attacks were criminal and uncivilized. Years later the Muslim community worldwide, most of all, continues to pay the price for the acts of some criminals.


Q: The policy of the Bush Administration after the attacks was obviously controversial, and often different from what Egypt would probably have preferred. But were there any members of the Bush Administration who you found especially likable or reasonable in your dealings with them?

A: Some advocates in the Bush administration completely wasted the international support that America had in responding to September 11, 2001 by trying to utilize this tragic event for wider political purposes. First of all, in order to sell its campaign in America it described the problem as a war… including one against “Islamic fascism” thus losing a wide portion of international and Muslim public opinion. It then attempted to justify its intervention in Iraq as part of its war against terror, thus losing the rest of the world and more than half of America. This was a truly failed policy that will remain detrimental not only to America but to the world at large.

There are many American professionals with whom I developed a personal and professional relationship. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Assistant Secretary Bill Burns were highly respectable human beings and good listeners. The Deputy National Security Adviser for the Middle East Affairs at the very beginning of the Bush Administration, Bruce Riedel, was an exceptionally knowledgeable member of the White House team who left very early when his views became irreconcilable with those of the Administration. I also had extremely good relations with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, even though we differed politically. As for Congress, I would also like to mention John Dingell, Democratic Congressman from Michigan, and Richard Lugar, Republican Senator from Indiana, both of whom were likable and wise politicians of tremendous integrity.       

Q: Although everyone has some idea of what an Ambassador might do, those of us who have no experience in the profession might not understand what a typical day is like for an Ambassador. What kinds of activities take up most of your time? And would most of your contacts be with the President, the Secretary of State, or someone else entirely?

A: The first challenge for any Ambassador is to digest the tremendous amount of information that is made available each morning, especially in a post like Washington– the capital of a country that is engaged in issues around the world. That starts even before you leave home. Once you get to your office, the priority is management, through your staff, of all these issues; be they economic, political, security-related, or consular. The third tier in a traditional day is engaging your host country on these issues, and that involves contacting government officials, politicians, media and civil society. In essence, this can be anybody from the President, Secretary of State, the Head of the Supreme Court, a Nobel Prize laureate or a young child at school. Finally, there is the never ending series of social events which one attends or hosts in the evenings and these are obligations one must fulfill six days a week for most of the year.


Q: Speaking of social events, we on the outside hear about many Embassy parties. But it's easy to imagine that real diplomatic work is done at these social occasions. Does it ever happen that actual policy grows from informal contacts at supposedly social occasions?

A: For a diplomat, social events are work, whether you are a guest or a host. While no contractual obligations are made at these events, the exchange of information even by reading body chemistry is always valuable. I vividly remember being at a social event and concluding thereafter that President Clinton was to travel to Europe to meet the late Syrian President Hafiz El Assad in Geneva. While none of my American counterparts openly confirmed or denied my questions or assumptions, their discomfort and evasiveness in response to my questioning, which was short of a denial, encouraged me to ask more questions and ultimately to conclude that I was onto something. When I first reported this to the Foreign Ministry in Cairo they were also skeptical, but went along and developed their policy based on the information I had provided.


Q: What sort of balance is there between following instructions from your own capital and improvising based on events that you witness at first hand?

A: The instructions you receive are sent for a purpose and are meant to achieve a particular goal. As long as you have the experience to create the proper context for what you would say and the credibility with your own government to allow you to use your best judgment, improvising is normally the best way forward, provided you don’t lose sight of the objective, good or bad. Contrary to general perceptions, the Ambassador’s role is not to better relations between two countries, but to safeguard the interests of his own. If you weren’t allowed to improvise then there would be no reason to have embassies abroad. On the other hand, if all you did was improvise, then there would be no logic behind sending instructions.


Q: How much training is given when one enters the diplomatic corps, and especially when one rises to the level of Ambassador for the first time? The average person would be terrified of making gaffes that could have serious international consequences. How cautious does one need to be in conversation with top officials? How forgiving are they about small missteps?

A: When I joined the service, we were rigorously trained in the beginning, then learned on the job from our experiences throughout our career. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry is now changing that system, requiring repeated self-assessments (they seemed to have gotten the virus from AUC) and several levels of training as you are promoted.

Diplomats are human beings and they all make gaffes that are forgotten, because only some are of serious consequence. Before you are Ambassador, you have acquired at least 20 years of professional experience, besides losing some hair and gaining some weight. I remember coming close to embarrassment once when after a long set of trips I arrived back an hour before hosting a huge charity event, mingling comfortably with all of the guests. However, just before my speech I had a “senior moment” and could not remember the name of the organization I was hosting. As I stood up without reprieve, I had to find refuge in small talk and political jokes before their name finally hit me once again and embarrassment was left for another day.  


Q: Turning to more recent news, I'd be curious to hear your opinion about the recent footage from Dubai of the assassination that happened there in January. Do you think the organization responsible for this operation was also taken by surprise that Dubai apparently did such an excellent investigation? And do you think the apparent use of forged foreign passports will lead to a long-running controversy?

A: This case in particular is testimony to how little we know of and respect each other. Anyone who has visited Dubai would have known that everything is covered by video even more than Las Vegas. Using forged passports of civilian nationals is not only illegal and disrespectful of other states, it is also one of the reasons why normal individuals and civil society have so much trouble traveling or working in foreign countries without being accused of representing hidden organizations or agencies. Regrettably this has been a recurrent practice, particularly from the country or agency you are referring to.


Q: Before going to Washington, you were Ambassador to Japan. While it is easy to imagine the sorts of issues you might have dealt with as Ambassador to the United States, what kinds of topics dominate Egyptian-Japanese relations? Is it largely economics?

A: I had an absolutely wonderful time in Japan. They treat Ambassadors gloriously and I have tremendous respect for the Japanese people. Japan was going through its own identity transformation, searching for a new role globally of greater engagement, well beyond the economic file and providing assistance, or bank rolling peace keeping operations. This was, however, derailed for a few years with the burst of the economic bubble. While I was there Japanese interest in Egyptian history and culture was my key to their hearts and minds and it provided me with access to all walks of life at all levels. We were able to increase Egyptian exports 90% the first year and 100% the year after, and their investment in Egypt 27% the first year and 30% my second year there. I intentionally tried to focus on economic relations and build on our common interest in history and culture. Whenever political issues came up we did discuss them particularly nuclear non-proliferation with the Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapon tests, however in my time I did focus on economics which will always be a strong component of the relationship although it will not remain the only one as Japan is more comfortable with its international role.


Q: Over the years you have met with many foreign dignitaries. Are there any who especially stand out for some reason, whether for being unusually interesting or wise?

A: Being a Foreign Minister’s son and then representing your country for over 30 years at the UN and in major capitals like Washington and Tokyo, I had the honor and luxury of meeting highly successful foreign dignitaries, a large number of whom stood out for different reasons. Among the American Secretaries of State, Cyrus Vance had the greatest integrity, Henry Kissinger was the best conceptualizer and Jim Baker was the best closer of deals.  In the Arab world King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was a man of principle and conviction, and Yassir Arafat was Machiavellian but a true nationalist. In Europe, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher were men of vision and pragmatism in looking towards the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev was a visionary who was ahead of his time, but ultimately self-destructive because he lost touch with his country’s political reality.


Q: Let's now turn toward your new position as the founding Dean of AUC's School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Did you ever imagine yourself in an academic post? And what drew you to this one?

A: When I first studied Physics and Mathematics in AUC in the late sixties, my late father inquired whether I was interested in becoming an Academic, and I resolutely denied that. For years my personal curiosity made me stray from one discipline (Physics/Mathematics) to another, doing a postgraduate degree in Management and then becoming a diplomat, which required a completely new set of learning skills. I am also personally committed to public service, and have made that not only my career but my vocation. Consequently, therefore, moving into Academia seems natural, although I cannot claim it was premeditated. This particular post was interesting because it involved global affairs (which covers my intellectual interests) and public policy (which covers my professional career). I am also committed to seeing more proactively engaged public policy advocates and therefore am enthusiastic about both the opportunities and challenges before me.


Q: You are working with a number of existing Departments while also trying to link them under a new unified vision. How do you view the mission of GAPP at AUC?

A: Public Policy and Public Administration, Journalism and Media, Law as well as MESC, IMRC, IGWST, American Studies center and the Adham Television center will provide their students the best possible education in their particular disciplines. They all, however, fit naturally in the development of advocacy-oriented opinion and policy makers which is the mission of GAPP at AUC— because you cannot develop policy without communication skills, without an understanding of the law or without administration skills, and it’s quite natural to have these themes in particular associated with this school given who we are and where we are allocated.


Q: You received a B.S. in Mathematics and Physics from AUC before shifting to Management, also at AUC, for your M.A. Were these deliberate building blocks for a diplomatic career, or did you only decide later to take that path?

A: As a mathematician by education and a management trained postgraduate alumnus I would love to say that there is an analytical logic and that there was a strategic plan for my career. Bound by the values we emphasize at GAPP, particularly integrity, I cannot claim that any of this had a definite logic to it. At the same time, I would do it all over again. I was simply curious, undecided but also unencumbered by fears of challenges or change. That being said, while I could have saved some time I believe I got a wonderful education academically and in life, and the lesson I would draw is that your education and experience are building blocks irrespective of whether they were deliberate or not.


Q: Presumably you are hoping that more AUC students go on to become diplomats, along with entering other careers. How can AUC help provide better training for Egyptian government service than has been available in the past?

A: Actually no. My father, a career diplomat and Foreign Minister was against my joining the foreign service and acquiesced only when he felt that I was embarking on this path because of my own considerations, not his successes. I would like to help educate and train policy and opinion makers who want to serve their communities and effect the best possible policies domestically, regionally, and globally, irrespective of their career line. I say this having had the pleasure and felt proud that as Ambassador of Egypt in the United States for 9 years, 40% of my staff were AUC graduates from diverse disciplines within the university. I commend AUC for that achievement, one that I believe would be further enhanced by providing the students with more practical experience and Arabic and foreign language skills. We will attempt to work with other schools and departments to compliment their efforts and further develop our graduates.


Q: We seem to live at one of those moments in history where all the old rules are in flux. How do you think Egypt's geopolitical position might change in coming decades? One sometimes hears that Egypt's interests will turn south as water becomes a bigger issue. Do you see it differently?

A: Geography and history are assumed to be static and paramount in defining a country’s geopolitical position. I generally agree. Although interpretations of history may differ, geographical boundaries can be marginally changed. More importantly, while neither can be ignored, their significance over time has, I believe, shifted. Momentous historical events change international paradigms: the industrial revolution and world wars in the last century, and (if I may say so) the communications revolution we are now living through have all changed how we think and what we believe in. Egypt has always had a water issue and this will remain of great importance. It must further enhance its relation with Eastern Mediterranean countries, at the same time a fundamental effort must be made for a more efficient domestic utilization of its present resources.


Q: You've also written in the past about arms control and disarmament issues. How big a danger is nuclear proliferation in this part of the world? And will Egypt necessarily be drawn into an arms buildup if others in the region take that path?

A: Given the volatility in the Middle East and the rather pathetic international acquiescence to the Israeli nuclear program that remains outside the nuclear non-proliferation regime, Egypt and the Arab countries should be applauded for their wisdom, even be ordained as saints, for not pursuing the acquisition of nuclear weapons. It does not serve anyone’s interest to acquire nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and I would hope that we would not have to do it soon. However, allowing the Israeli nuclear program to remain beyond international norms and standards has and will generate an arms race and make any attempt to convince Iran to fully resolve its issues with the IAEA ever more difficult. Nuclear weapons are existential and strategic weapons. If one state is allowed to have them, others are going to counter, because the threats of political miscalculations or human and technical mistakes over and above non-proliferation risks are too great to be countered simply by good intentions and wishful thinking.


Q: There was some controversy over President Barack Obama receiving the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, with some calling it premature and others calling it entirely undeserved. What are your views on his receiving the prize?

A: I welcomed President Obama’s award as a pleasant surprise. It is the first time the award is given for expectations rather than achievements. I applaud president Obama for choosing and adopting the right approach in dealing with the rest of the world. But cynically speaking, he should probably share the award with President Bush for creating the environment where a call for change was itself an achievement. I also believe that, while I applauded the award, it places a heavy responsibility on Obama’s shoulders to stand by his convictions and deliver on his rhetoric, or he will leave office after one or two terms as a tremendous disappointment.


Q: You have been writing quite prolifically for newspapers in the past year, obviously drawing on your experiences and inside knowledge. Are there ever topics that you would like to write about but cannot, given the need to protect privileged information that you received while Ambassador?

A: I tend to be outspoken and to speak my mind whether or not it is politically astute. That has served me well within and beyond government, contrary to what people may believe. On the other hand, professional ethics and standards require that certain information remain privileged, such as on national security issues. And on that I continue to be respectful.