Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry: The ‘Lion of Diplomacy’ on the international stage

By Abir Sorour
Posted on Tuesday, 20 September 2022 15:30

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry attends a news conference during the Petersberg Climate Dialogue at the Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany July 19, 2022. Christophe Gateau/Pool via REUTERS

Heading this year's COP27 in Egypt is its Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. But his reputation as a solid diplomat has been known for years on the international stage, from peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine to the on-going negotiations with the US and Ethiopia over the Nile dam. We delve into the many layers behind this diplomat.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was born in 1952, the year the modern post-colonial Egyptian state was established to intrinsically put an end to a history of British occupation and monarchical rule.
The career diplomat has lived through the eras of all Egyptian presidents.

He was educated during the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954-1970), and served as an attaché during Anwar al-Sadat’s tenure (1970-1981). In 1982, at the beginning of Hosni Mubarak’s time (1981-2011), Shoukry returned to Egypt.

Speaking English and Spanish in addition to his mother tongue – Arabic – the minister has for years been the poster boy of Egypt’s diplomacy. His wife, Suzy, is also involved in diplomatic and charity circles. They have two sons.

In an attempt to delve into Shoukry’s history and the ideologies he represents, The Africa Report spoke to a security source, a few members of his closest circles, and three diplomats – one in service and two in retirement. For security reasons, all have asked that their names not be identified.

Climbing up the ladder

Rising from being the second-secretary of the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, Shoukry was sent in 1984 to Argentina where he served as first-secretary at the Egyptian embassy in Buenos Aires. From 1988 to 1990, he was counsellor to the deputy prime minister and foreign minister in Cairo.

His breakthrough was when he became the head of Egypt’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York; a position he filled until 1994. The next year, he served as secretary of information, reporting directly to Mubarak.

Shoukry, who also served time as a diplomat in Vienna, was appointed as ambassador to the US from 2008 until 2012. It was a critical period for the bilateral ties between Egypt and the US, during which the 2011 popular uprising toppled Mubarak and an Islamist president succeeded him.

As the Egyptian ambassador in Washington, Shoukry was the cornerstone of diplomacy between the two countries. His role in talks between the Egyptian administration – championed by Mubarak and the military – and its American counterpart is still classified up till today.

Pragmatism

During the 2011 uprising, Shoukry was the sound of calm pragmatic thinking that embraced calls for democracy. Yet in the same breath, he favoured the involvement of the military in politics in order to prevent chaos.

His pragmatic nature and calm diplomatic approach, however, did not grant him a seat in the short-lived post-Mubarak government tailored by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which the late President Mohamed Morsi hailed.

After Morsi was ousted in 2013 and President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi came to power the following year, Shoukry returned to diplomacy, becoming the Foreign Minister, the position he had been holding since 2014.

A true believer in the institution of diplomacy in a modern state, Shoukry’s pragmatism came in handy in retaining, to some extent, the foreign ministry’s pivotal role on the international stage, even though it still plays second-fiddle to sovereign security apparatuses.

‘Lion of diplomacy’

Hypernationalist news outlets have nicknamed Shoukry the “lion of diplomacy”, due to his eloquence and rigorous attitude against Qatar for years after the ousting of Morsi. The Islamist president was a close ally of Doha, and thus its relations with Cairo were dealt a major blow when he was forced to step down and consequently imprisoned until he died in 2019.

On more than one occasion during the peak of these tensions, Shoukry, speaking publicly with multiple microphones of different media outlets in front of him, pointedly removed that of Al-Jazeera. At the time, Sisi’s government was heavily condemning what it described as tendentiously slanted news coverage by the Qatari-owned network.

At my time, a diplomat is a fancy upper-class individual who spoke three or four languages and knew international relations and foreign policy, but now a good diplomat is one who knows how to counter rumours and is well-aware of the fourth generation warfare tools and foreign plots to hurt Egypt.

During the Cairo-Doha falling-out, which only ended recently amid increasing thawing signs, Shoukry was also instrumental in restoring Egypt’s relations with several countries that doubted and condemned the military’s role in removing Morsi from office.

On top of that, the foreign ministry since 2013 has hastened to hit back at critics and rebuff accusations over violations of human rights, restrictions on freedom of speech, and maltreatment of minorities in Egypt.

Protective of his men

In 2017, according to a former diplomat who spoke to The Africa Report, Shoukry resisted interference from “some security apparatuses”, which pushed for the sacking of certain diplomats.

“These ‘unforgiven’ diplomats were either suspected of having close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, or opinions that praised the January 25 Revolution, or were not efficient enough in publicising the new [Sisi’s] regime and its achievements.”

The source said that back then, Egyptian diplomats started to realise that the offices in diplomatic missions and their means of communication may have been “bugged”. “Everyone started to clearly stay away from voicing opinions, talking to the press, or going out of the script.”

Amid what was widely branded a scandal, Shoukry was said to have been pressured to reach a compromise. “He is not the guy who would leave his own men with no cover,” the source said, adding that a number of the diplomats who had fallen out of favour were either forced into paid leave or demoted to less sensitive posts.

Closing the gap

Shoukry sought to bridge the gap between the foreign ministry and the security apparatuses, which have been in pole position in Egypt’s decision-making process since 2013. He, therefore, started to approach people who have close ties with the General Intelligence Service (GIS).

“Shoukry worked on establishing training protocols with the military intelligence and the general intelligence in order to train and raise the awareness of the newly appointed diplomats,” a foreign ministry source currently based in Asia, tells The Africa Report. 

“At my time, a diplomat is a fancy upper-class individual who spoke three or four languages and knew international relations and foreign policy, but now a good diplomat is one who knows how to counter rumours and is well-aware of the fourth generation warfare tools and foreign plots to hurt Egypt,” the source adds.

These days, not only do the foreign ministry’s new recruits (from both genders) have to pass thorough language and politics tests, but also spend three to four months with the military intelligence, and another month at the GIS.

The main negotiating power in, for example, any ceasefire agreement between Gaza and the Israeli Defence Forces are members of the GIS and not the ministry.

A former diplomat said such a compromise aimed to prevent further security harassment and intervention in foreign policy, especially after the diplomatic mission in Berlin was raided by personnel from Egypt’s Administrative Control Authority to investigate embezzlement accusations against Ambassador Badr Abdel Ati.

Intelligence has the upper hand

Shoukry, according to two diplomatic sources and one security source, has also normalised the fact that certain files fall beyond the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The main negotiating power in, for example, any ceasefire agreement between Gaza and the Israeli Defence Forces are members of the GIS and not the ministry,” the security source tells The Africa Report.

This has also been the case with Libya, Sudan, and Turkey, the source adds. “Yes, Shoukry met [the Chief of Libyan National Army Khalifa] Haftar one time in October 2021, but look how many times he [Haftar] met [GIS chief Abbas] Kamel.”

In the prolonged dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), all the sources who spoke to The Africa Report confirmed that Shoukry and his men are the perfect vanguard representing Egypt, whether at the UN, NATO, or in bilateral meetings. “But security and intelligence players close to the presidency also play a role,” a security source said.

‘Vital in Egypt’s political scene’

Speaking to The Africa Report, a former diplomat who was deployed on the continent said that both the international community and the Egyptian public needs a figure like Shoukry.

In the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dossier he recently submitted to the UN Security Council, Shoukry added a verse from the anthem of the Egyptian military: “And, O Nile, you shall flow free, unrestrained, So that your banks shall tell the story of the meaning of the struggle”. This, the ex-diplomat said, was an example of the foreign minister’s clever touches.

“Shoukry is a very vital person in Egypt’s current political scene, and his role in protecting the ministry is undaunted,” the ex-diplomat said.

To maintain a balance between trust, pragmatism, and experience, Shoukry surrounds himself with other “lions”, who The Africa Report will cast light on.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options