An Interview with Yale World Fellow, Mohamed Elfayoumy

Interview with Mohamed Elfayoumy
Conducted by Justin Schuster and Salaar Shaikh

Disclaimer: This article represents the interviewee’s personal opinions. It does not represent the views of the Government of Egypt or any Egyptian diplomatic mission.


Mohamed Elfayoumy is an Egyptian diplomat who served as his government’s representative to the Syrian Opposition. Previously, he was posted to the Egyptian Embassy in Syria and was instrumental in evacuating thousands of Egyptian nationals from Syria during the conflict in 2011-12. He is also active in a number of civil society organizations working toward the political development of Egypt.

The Politic: Why did you apply to the Yale World Fellows Program?

I first heard about the program in August last year. I have a colleague, more senior than myself – he is also an Egyptian diplomat – and I remember he told me about the program, which he attended in 2007. And I remember him telling me that his Yale experience was, in a word, ‘life-changing.’ He actually did not go back to the ministry: he went further into an economic management program to help him focus on the growing economy of Egypt. So when I heard about the program from him, I looked it up on the Internet and did some research. The main thing that convinced me that this was a program worth applying to was that the Yale name is a good brand: it is one of the greatest institutions in the world. I had some impressions of this university beforehand and I wanted to come and see it for myself – all the stories of the Clintons and the Bushes and all the mystery [surrounding] Skull and Bones and the other societies! I remember seeing “The Good Shepherd” (Robert DeNiro, 2006) and hearing more about it. So all these things made the allure of Yale very strong. I wanted to see how this university, this institution, works and how people interact inside it as well as its relations with other universities.

On the other hand, there was a personal reason behind this as well: before this I lived for four years in Syria, including during the war, and things change on an hourly, even on a minute-by-minute basis. My job required me to be available and alert at all these times. Add to this what was going on in my home country of Egypt – it has been through a revolution and subsequent turmoil. I thought I needed to take a break and look at things from a distance, from a new perspective; I thought this was a good opportunity to look at what was happening in Egypt and in Syria from another country, using the tools at this university. And of course, the program itself: the leadership and training that we are receiving here at Yale is amazing. The group of people they have chosen for this program too is inspiring, and I thought this was a network of people I would like to belong to. That is when I applied. A few weeks after I sent my application, in December 2012, I met with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, a Senior Fellow here at the Jackson Institute who had been Ambassador of the US to some Middle Eastern countries. I talked to him about the program and he encouraged me very much for it as well.

The Politic: So have you discovered any deep, dark Yale secrets yet?

No, not yet! And you know, you will probably talk about this later, but when you live through the life-changing experience that is a war, you see a lot of things that you never expect to see beforehand. When I was appointed as Egyptian Representative to the Syrian Opposition, my job made me very involved with the decision-making process. This allowed me to witness many things that were previously mysterious first-hand. But what I am trying to say here is that coming to Yale, I have realized that most of these mysteries are over-rated.

The Politic: Do you have any advice for Yale undergraduates that you would like to share?

Yes. Compared to its peer universities Yale has been perhaps more elitist and less internationalized. The world is not just the US – for instance, I remember having had several talks with graduates of Yale who go and work in offices in DC and for companies such as McKinsey, or in science and technology endeavors and they think they have seen the world. This is not true. There are a lot of things in the world other than the US – and my main advice would be for students to try putting themselves into the shoes of those in other countries to gain more exposure and learn more about the rest of the world.

The Politic: Transitioning to Syria – you were in Syria at a time when there was great turmoil not just in that country but in your home nation of Egypt as well. How did the political unrest back home affect your day-to-day life?

Well, the first few months after the revolution in Egypt were very promising. Granted, there was instability, but there were very positive and optimistic feelings about the future. I felt privileged to be an Egyptian: I played my part in the revolution and took part in the protests. I have been active in many political associations as well. Because of this I have always had the privilege to be able to draw an analogy between what is happening in Syria and what is happening in Egypt. We learnt some very scary lessons from Syria, and we want to make sure those mistakes are not made in Egypt. And when I see mistakes in Egypt, and I see the differences between the Syrian and Egyptian societies, I realize how important this is again. So while it has been very difficult, at certain points it has also been very helpful.

I remember back in November 2011 there were protests in Tahrir Square (Cairo). This was an important phase in the trajectory of the Egyptian Revolution: the protesters gathering in Tahrir Square and the military dispersing them using violence. I remember that day myself and another Ambassador had a meeting with the Senior Minister of Foreign Affairs. We talked about Syria and the situation there, and then he said: ‘You have to understand the context and see why the Syrian government is doing this. You are in the same situation: see when the military needed to use violence, they used it, and we appreciate that they used it.’ This was a sad moment for me, because I do not agree with this at all. With the Syrians I always had the ability to look them in the eye when they tried to justify unjustifiable things, or when they lied. When someone at that level lies to you, you can tell – and there is some sort of exchange between the eyes through which they too know that I am aware they are lying. But it’s just part of my job. At this moment, I could not look the minister in the eye. Later when I was with the Ambassador I was not able to do this while this was going on in Cairo. I could not maintain my profession at this time. The protests went on for a week and I took part in the sit-in, and it was one of the epic phases of the whole revolution. After the protests, General Tantawi said he will hand seat power [elected power] within the next six months and this was crucial because he had given no date or deadline before this. He apologized for all the violence, and this was a great moment for all of us. This moment was very important for me, and I returned back to Syria after spending a week in Cairo.

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The Politic: Can you walk us through the practicalities of evacuating your nationals from Syria?

Evacuating your country’s nationals from places where you have widespread instability and violence is an extremely difficult job. What most Western embassies had since the beginning of the uprising was that they issued warnings and travel advisories, and they kept increasing. None of them though – Americans, British, Canadians – actually did any evacuation from Syria because it is extremely difficult as the violence was not localized anywhere. Syria is diverse: you can find people from anywhere in many different parts. So, there was no ‘focal point,’ so to speak. Then in March 2012, most Western embassies closed down as well as many Middle Eastern embassies without doing any evacuation – but they had been issuing warnings for a while. It was different for us. We had 12,000 Egyptians in Syria, a big number, and the majority of them were not visitors in the country, they were residents who had migrated and come many years ago and had settled with families. Though they were not Syrian citizens many had lost their Egyptian links, and did not speak the Egyptian dialect either. We had not gone as far as Western governments in attacking the Syrian government initially, so it was a sensitive issue to raise a strong alarm at that point.

I had just become the Consul just a few weeks before the uprising in Syria. Generally the Consul is someone much older – above 40 – but because of the revolution I was full of energy and so at 29 they appointed me. I thought at the time that many things that were not working well needed to be changed. I started with trying to establish a database of Egyptians in Syria. We only had very vague information about Egyptians at the time and so this was important. We established focal points in the different parts of Syria – for instance, in Aleppo, we had three Egyptians who were acting as focal points. I could contact them and vice versa. We did this in various cities and areas and I even went the extra mile to publish my personal phone number everywhere. You can imagine what happened next… I started getting some very silly phone calls at one in the morning asking: “Will you be at work tomorrow, I want to register my family,” and me responding, “Come, but why did you have to call me now to tell me this?!”

So a few weeks after the uprising began I would contact the Egyptian people in Syria. This would help in two ways. First, as the Consul, having direct links with the people was very useful, and second – which was far more important – we had the ability to verify the different sources of news that we were receiving. So for instance, if we heard some news on AlJazeera or some other network that there was an explosion in a certain area, I would be able to call the people in those focal points and ask if it really happened and what the severity of the situation was. Actually, this was a great network and I am trying to translate our experience in Syria through this to other situations where such a network would be necessary, just so that we can verify information when necessary.

In other places such as Dara’a it was harder. We had very few Egyptians in Dara’a but I contacted them and expressed my willingness to help them. I also told them of our concern for their safety and advised them to leave; some of them agreed, and others continued to stay. I would do this for every region when things became very serious: I would contact them on a personal basis, because like I said, we did not want to send a message to the Syrian government to show that we are evacuating because they are very sensitive in this regard. So without issuing a widespread alarm we contacted the people we had to. Gradually people followed the advice and left. By July 18, 2012, I would say that 12,000 had come down to about 4,000. Great progress – but still dangerous. For instance, the Americans had about 20, the French had a similar number, and just about a couple of hundred Russians were in the country. On this date, though, the clashes reached the heart of Damascus – in the area where the embassy was located and where I was living. It was scary – my car was shot at, there was an explosion next door – and things were crazy, totally crazy. I took the responsibility at the time and informed the ministry in very clear terms that we needed to completely evacuate. It was not advice, or a recommendation – this was a full-scale evacuation. I had at the time a contingency plan for an evacuation for over two months and with my team we put this into implementation. The problem was that the main route I was depending on was the airport. When clashes reached Damascus, the airport was closed; however, Aleppo and Latakia airports were still open, as well as the land route to Beirut. So I managed to send people to these locations and then the next two weeks – July 18 to August 1 – was probably the most difficult time of my life. I would receive calls at all hours of the day from people saying things like “Please save us, our houses are burnt down, my son has been killed”, and so on. It was not easy. But thanks to God we managed to get out and survive. We made arrangements with our embassies in Beirut and in Turkey to receive people at the border – some people in Aleppo unable to reach the airport managed to reach the border to Turkey – and so we were able to evacuate them. This was a big thing. We had several flights to come and pick people up from accessible points. I coordinated with airline agencies at bigger airports to organize this, as well as with some Syrian security forces and some rebel forces to get out because as you know there are checkpoints set up and only some people are allowed to go through. So we managed. It was difficult, but we managed.

The Politic: Transitioning from your role in the evacuation to your role as Ambassador to the Syrian Opposition – you talked about the ability to look the person sitting across from you in the eye. To what extent does that hold true now with the rise of Jabhat Al-Nusra [a wing of Al-Qaeda operating in Syria] in the ranks of the Syrian opposition, and to what extent are you disconcerted by it?

Two wrongs do not make a right. The Syrian government and the Assad regime is a criminal regime – it is a very brutal killing machine. The world does not see many such regimes. There is a dire need for change in Syria. On the other hand, there is a civilian uprising against the government. The brutality of the regime together with the lack of conscious response from the international community has led us to the current impasse that we are at. The opposition is highly fragmented. There are many parties who offer an ever darker future than the current government. But again, two wrongs cannot make a right. The regime cannot continue, and the continuation of the regime is what feeds these extremist groups. This is what feeds Al Nusra and ISIS [The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]. The reason why they are able to continue appealing to youngsters and the foreign fighters and jihadists is that there is a regime that encourages these people. Now, the situation is getting more and more complicated every day. As we speak it is getting more complicated, but we cannot forget the essence of the problem.

The Politic: You mentioned the lack of international response to the crisis in Syria. Could you expand your take on that?

The international community responded in different ways. Most of the ways that the international community responded were not good. The first responders were the Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia wanted a way to counter the threat of Iranian influence in Syria, and found a chance to curb this influence. Turkey found to a way to expand its influence in its backyard, which is Syria. Qatar is always looking for some role; they declared support for the revolution. They first provided media support, which was very good – in Aljazeera for the first weeks and months because they were the main coverage media – but then they actually helped the militarization of the opposition. The regime’s brutality led many people to be convinced that they [the opposition] had to be militarized. Turkey also kept its borders open to help in this effort.

More importantly, the U.S., France, and the U.K. always spoke about how Bashar al-Assad has to step aside, but not many people knew what they meant by ‘step aside.’ After a few weeks they asked him to ‘step down,’ which is a stronger word. What is the difference between ‘aside’ and ‘down?’ You found a lot of word play. Obama then came out and said Assad must leave. When you have the strongest country on earth – the strongest military, strongest economy, strongest influence – coming out and saying this then you would expect that there is a strategy or a concise plan to act. But this was not the case.

On the other hand, Iran perceived the uprising in Syria as a threat because they felt that if the Syrian regime falls then they would be very weak; they would be losing one of their main allies in the Middle East. They felt that they would probably be the next target for any Western attacks. They were very adamant and took it as an extension of themselves being engaged in a war. In Russia, for various domestic and international reasons, Putin decided that this is a place he wants to meddle in and gain as much as he can from it. In general, what we found is that the regime has regular and strong political, financial, and military support from Russia and Iran. On the other hand, we found the opposition receiving moral support from different players. But when it comes to financial and military support, it is very disorganized and fragmented and lacking objective, meaning that there are a lot of broken promises leading to more and more fragmentation on the part of the opposition.

Having said that, what should be done now? Every party has a role to play, though I will be speaking about the U.S. Whether they like it or not, they are perceived as a major player internationally, especially in the Middle East. They have to know this, and they have to act accordingly. The U.S. has to come up with a conscious plan to deal with the situation; this plan has to have the objective of ending the killing, suffering, and grievances of the Syrian people. [The U.S.] has to help them through a political transition. There has to be a transition, this simply has to be, and then a new government has to be established. This transition can be reached only through political policy. Politics means that they use all the resources they have: economic, diplomatic, and possibly military. Then they have to know that they have to be involved with all the aspects of the situation. Diplomatically, the U.S. has to talk with the Russians and help them identify their assets in the region and help them to reach a compromise. The U.S. has to talk with the Iranians. Even if the Iranians are giving mixed signals now, the U.S. needs to come up with a consistent plan to deal with Iran. The plan has to include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. This is very important – the U.S. has to exert influence on them and convince them that their policies are very counterproductive.

The Politic: On the eve of President Morsi’s ousting, when he gave his national speech, he used the word “legitimacy” 57 times. To what extent do you think that there was legitimacy behind his ouster?

This is a tough question, but I would say that the ouster was totally legitimate. Legitimacy is different from legality. First, we have to look at things in context. Egypt is not an established democracy. We are not even in a stable situation. We have been in a very crude situation since January 2011. All the decisions have to be put in this context. It should not be looked at as there being elections and then him being chosen so people have to wait for four years. It is very fluid. Millions of people who voted for Morsi the first time protested against him. Probably in an established democracy this would be illegal and illegitimate, but in a fluid situation I think it is pretty much legitimate. He is the one who didn’t respond; he had the power and the ability when he saw the millions on the street to give them what they wanted: yearly elections.Having said that, personally I am not very happy with the political violence and the military presence. But I would blame Morsi first and not anybody else. He brought this to himself and to everybody else. His exclusionist policies, his manipulation of institutions, his lack of understanding towards the state and towards the society was very worrying to most Egyptians. They felt that they had to rise up.

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The Politic: Recently the Muslim Brotherhood was banned and their financial assets were seized. Also, all religious political parties were banned in Egypt. What are your thoughts on these developments? Are we returning to a pre-2011 era?

The Brotherhood was not banned; this was the first decision and there will be an appeal, so it is not final. The government is not yet obliged to implement the banning of the Brotherhood. Second, as to the banning of religious parties and bases, this is part of the discussion over the constitution. The constitution is not yet approved or ratified.

Having said that, the Muslim Brotherhood, now, is facing not only government persecution, but also popular persecution. This is the main thing. Millions, the majority of Egyptians now, support the government’s actions against the Brotherhood. They want the government to not extend to them the freedoms of other citizens. There are some signs that the government is not very much aware of the extent of its actions. But then, I would say to answer the question which is, ‘Are we facing setbacks to pre-2011,’ ‘we just have to put things in perspective, and turn to the history of revolutions.’ What happened in Egypt in 2009 was not at the state level. At the state level, Foreign Service, I am a diplomat under Mubarak, under Tantawi, under Morsi, and now under Sisi. I am not a diplomat when I am speaking, but I still have my job. The changes that happened to the state’s institutions since January 2011 are very minimal. The politics in general, what happened after the revolution, which is macro politics, is the military, which is the hard core of the Egyptian state before the revolution, maintained and said it had output on the Egyptian state. The core of what changed was the society, a massive change in the fabric and the way we think about the Egyptian people. Freedom is something very sacred now. I would say it is almost impossible for any regime or any party to sustain a policy of persecution or oppression at any level. What we are facing now is temporary, and I hope that others in the current government realize it is temporary and it is targeted, because there are some people, some agencies, and some stakeholders in the regime who might be pushing for having this widespread policy. If this happens, I will be very dismissive about the future of the country.

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The Politic: The military accuses the brotherhood of being terrorists, and the brotherhood accuses the military of murder and carrying out a coup. Who do you really think is to blame?

Since the revolution, it is the Brotherhood’s doing. We can start with the referendum in March 2011 when there was an idea that we would change the whole constitution and change the whole system. The Brotherhood said no, and they wanted to keep things, and they actually compromised with the military at that point. There were massive protests and millions of people in the streets and the Brotherhood did not join them because these protests were saying down with the military rule. And the brotherhood actually condemned this. Then, afterwards, in January 2012, many milestones occurred over the past two years, so I would make the Brotherhood for failing and disappointing the Egyptian revolution. On the other hand, the military is actually doing what they know and what they have been doing for the last 60 years. It is pointless to name the military because these are the military. And they are mistaken – this is my opinion – they are the military and they cannot do politics, and when they do politics and they interfere in civilian life, they mess up. This is what we are seeing. General Sisi is smarter than his predecessor General Tantawi because he said he is only the Minister of Defense; he is not trying to run for the Presidency. We all know that he is the one who is actually the leader of everything, but he does not interfere in the basic, day-to-day management of the situation. But the military is running the security campaign. We have to reach a healthier civil-military relationship, and the military authorities and the mandate obligations and the constitution, for me, have to be reduced.

The Politic: Two years from now, what do you see as the face of the Egyptian government?

I am pessimistic for the Egyptian government, for the future of Egyptian diplomacy over the next few months and for possibly the next two to three years. I would say probably after four or five years, I will say that we have reached the point that we have a civilian government, and a central platform for practicing politics between the secular and the religious, more space for the youth in running the government, and then, at that point, I hope we will start facing the real problems. Because so far, having a civil-military relationship and a central platform between the centralists and the seculars is just the basis to start thinking about the economy and demographics. The population is growing incessantly and we have a lot of problems that are not really being tackled right now because the infrastructure of them is not done yet.

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