Fighting the pharaohs: Pretoria and Cairo engage in verbal combat


South Africa and Egypt have never been the best of friends. Egypt was rather miffed by the dramatic re-entry of South Africa into African and international politics after 1994 and its frequent challenges to Cairo’s dominance in many aspects of continental diplomacy. But Pretoria and Cairo nonetheless established a modus vivendi. Over the last few weeks, however, relations have plunged to their lowest level ever in the wake of the military coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood’s duly elected President Mohamed Morsi on 3 July.

The African Union (AU) swiftly condemned Morsi’s toppling, characterising it as a coup and suspending Egypt in line with AU policy on unconstitutional changes of government. Pretoria followed suit with a similar condemnation. However, the new government in Cairo regarded the removal of Morsi as a popular uprising, and so Egypt’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying it felt insulted at Pretoria’s characterisation of the event as a coup.

As the situation in Egypt has deteriorated with more and ever bloodier clashes between the government’s security forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, the tone of the verbal exchanges between Cairo and Pretoria has also become uglier.

After South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) issued a statement on 30 July condemning the killing of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators, Egypt’s foreign ministry reacted angrily, with a sharp implied dig at South Africa over the Marikana massacre, suggesting it put its own house in order before criticising Egypt’s handling of demonstrations.

‘It would be better for the South African government to restore the rights of miners who have protested against extreme repression, rather than interference in the internal affairs of an African country with the size and history of Egypt,’ the statement read.

Then came the bloodbath of 14 August, when the security forces cleared out the two Muslim Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo.

The next day South Africa’s DIRCO issued its strongest statement to date, ‘categorically’ condemning the violence ‘used by the Egyptian security forces to disperse the pro-democracy demonstrators’. It called on Egypt ‘to end the bloody actions against its own people’, to conduct a credible judicial investigation into the massacres, to release all political detainees, ‘and to launch a genuine and comprehensive transition process so as to allow for the return to constitutional normalcy and democratic legitimacy’.

‘South Africa remains ready to assist Egypt by sharing experiences and lessons from our own political transition from apartheid rule to a democratic dispensation.’

It was that last paragraph that Cairo seized on in its angriest response to date in the escalating war of words. ‘The Foreign Ministry is surprised South Africa is trying to export its failed reconciliation process,’ it said, adding that that process hadn’t achieved real coexistence or met the basic needs of South Africans ‘who suffer some of [the] highest world rates of crime, corruption, poverty, unemployment and epidemics’. As a ‘one-party democracy’ it was ‘better befitting of Pretoria to heed to their internal affairs and respect the rights of its citizens before interfering in the affairs of others’.

That bitter jab finally provoked Pretoria into responding directly to the war of paper darts. On 20 August it issued a statement saying it had deliberately avoided responding to Egypt’s statements so far, but this last one ‘cannot go unchallenged’. It said Egypt’s statement would not help its crisis and objected in particular to Egypt’s singling out South Africa for criticism, ‘despite the overwhelming international condemnation’ of its actions.

Pretoria also suggested that Egypt, as a founding member of the OAU and AU, should respect the AU’s policy against coups. It added that Cairo’s sharp rejection of its offer of advice was misplaced as ‘South Africa has never sought to export nor impose its version of national reconciliation on Egypt or any other sovereign country’.

South Africa had merely offered to share its experiences and lessons, and many other countries had shown willingness to learn from South Africa’s experience, ‘including democratic Egypt’. It repeated its offer to share that experience with the current Egyptian government.

It must be said that South Africa has conducted itself more diplomatically than Egypt in this contretemps. It has essentially just stated justifiable, principled positions, clearly if forcefully. It is unquestionable that AU policy demands the suspension of governments that come to power in coups and there is little doubt that the current Egyptian government came to power by a coup – no matter how much popular support that coup might have enjoyed. And the Egyptian security forces have evidently used excessive force, even if there may be uncertainty about who fired first on any particular occasion.

On its own terms, though, it is rather surprising how strongly and unambiguously Pretoria has expressed itself on this issue, compared to its usual rather muted and equivocal responses to such events. Especially against a country like Egypt, which will remain an important actor in Africa, regardless.

On Syria, for instance, Pretoria has never issued a statement quite as strong as this. Even in the early days of the crisis when Bashar al-Assad’s government was brutally cracking down on peaceful protesters, Pretoria’s statements were fastidiously even-handed.

At the time of writing, evidence of Assad’s government using chemical weapons was becoming ever harder to ignore and one wondered if this might at last prompt Pretoria to condemn its behaviour. In the case of Syria, South Africa apparently feels constrained by the geo-political dimension, as its Brics partner Russia is backing Assad despite Western opposition to him.

In Egypt Pretoria feels no such constraint and the geo-politics, though not quite as clear-cut, rather point the other way, with rather muted criticism by Western powers of the new Egyptian government.

The other noteworthy aspect of Pretoria’s statement is how it once again trotted out the now almost routine offer to share with Egypt its own experience of a negotiated solution to its crisis. Maybe it’s time to strike that paragraph from the template.

Firstly, it’s hard to take that offer seriously when it is wrapped in such strong criticism. That is hardly the ‘quiet diplomacy’ that South Africa controversially employed in Zimbabwe, for instance, where it had a real negotiating mission. But secondly, South Africa’s transition, exemplary as it may once have been, is now looking rather old and faded and ever less relevant to dramatically different circumstances such as those in Egypt.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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