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Welcome to "Ask the Ambassador" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to U.S. Ambassadors around the world.

U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., discussed U.S.-Egypt bilateral relations.

Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to Egypt
Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr.
U.S. Ambassador to Egypt

Event Date: 4/18/2008

Jasmine in Washington, DC writes:

The U.S made democracy promotion a cornerstone of its Egypt policy after 9/11 but some of the methods have been controversial; for example attaching human rights-related conditions to U.S. aid to Egypt. Do you think aid conditionality is a policy that should be continued as we head towards a new administration, and can you provide a brief overview of how well U.S. democracy promotion has fared in Egypt from 2003-present? Thank you for your time.

Ambassador Ricciardone:

Jasmine, the President, the Secretary of St ate and I opposed the conditionality element of our assistance package for fiscal year 2008. I know many sincere and knowledgeable people, including even a few of my Egyptian friends and some of our most distinguished and expert Congressional leaders, reason th at thre atening to withhold economic or military assistance from Egypt is the best or only way to move its Government toward gre ater political reform and respect for human rights. From my own many years of service in Egypt and other countries, and my convers ations with Egyptian, American, and other human rights activists, I respectfully disagree. Sometimes thre ats and punishment can be effective motiv ators in human and diplom atic rel ations, or they may just be morally necessary. But usually such a punitive approach, especially toward a friendly country, represents a last resort, because it carries side effects including reaction and resentment. These can set back not only the specific objective, but also the broader rel ationship between two parties, and thus the totality of their shared interests. Nonetheless, there is no easy answer to this deb ate. I believe th at the deb ate itself, particularly at the high intensity and quality we saw on the floor of our Congress in June 2006, does positively influence popular and official Egyptian thinking. As Ambassador, my responsibility has been to do all in my power, and to recommend policies and approaches, which I judge will best advance all our priority objectives -- of which promoting democracy and human rights certainly comes at the top of the list.

Egypt is a young society in an ancient country. It shows a new restlessness, ambition, and even dynamism in many ways, and not all the strains are due only to n ational and global economic disloc ations such as infl ation. Young people in particular have made the building of democracy and human rights an explicit n ational aspir ation. I believe th at with our economic assistance and positive engagement over three decades, and especially under President Bush's tenure, we have contributed both to strengthening those aspir ations and to enabling Egyptians to take some important steps to achieve them. Many people inside and outside Egypt deduce from the widely publicized stresses and resistance to change th at change is being effectively blocked. I see the opposite: the very visible and stiff resistance to change indic ates to me just how seriously and meaningfully change is thre atening the established order -- I believe, much more for the better, r ather than for the worse. Egypt's media, including new independent newspapers and television st ations, internet blogs and SMS networks, engage in lively and serious deb ate on politics, religion, economics, gender roles, and every conceivable social issue -- smashing many ancient taboos th at perhaps should be smashed, but also thre atening traditional values th at many hold dear. Gradually, a shared n ational vision for the future may be emerging -- we have to stay closely tuned to follow a complic ated and dram atic process. Egyptian civil society, with thousands of NGOs, provide Egyptian citizens the opportunity to address many of their social, economic, and political problems. More girls are getting educ ations, and women are moving into more positions of gre ater leadership in business and public life.

This will be a long and exciting process, with lots of turns and reverses. I choose to be optimistic about Egypt. If you share my fascin ation with this country and with the promotion of democracy and human rights, I hope you'll come to study in Egypt for an extended period.

Kathy in Massachusetts writes:

Dear Mr. Ambassador: I will be traveling to Egypt ( Cairo, Nile Cruise, Sharm el Sheikh) with a tour group in June.  Given the current situation of rioting do you still believe it is safe for Americans to travel to Egypt?  Are there any indications that any violence will be toward American tourists?

Ambassador Ricciardone:

Kathy, I am so glad you are coming to Egypt and I do believe you will enjoy your trip. I would also like to note that you are part of a growing and positive trend. The number of American tourists to Egypt grows each year – in fact, the number is up 85% in just three years. As does the number of American students, my own daughters included. A little known, but very important, fact is that the number of American students in Cairo has tripled in the past three years.

I also believe you have the odds in your favor th at you will have a safe and incident-free trip.  But it doesn’t hurt to do some prepar atory reading so you have an understanding of how you take responsibility for your safety and security. A good place to start is the St ate Department’s website, A Safe Trip Abroad, at http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/safety/safety_1747.html.

Travelers are, of course, sometimes victimized by crime and violence, or experience unexpected difficulties.  Embassies are here to lend you support. Every day of the year, U.S.  embassies and consulates, including Cairo, receive calls from American citizens in distress. We can not protect American students or any other visitors from all harms, of course, but a priority responsibility of every American Embassy is our services to American citizens. We post warden messages on our website to keep American resident and visitors apprised of things which could impact their safety. You can read the most recent messages at http://egypt.usembassy.gov/consular/travpubl.htm. And if you do become sick or injured or encounter unexpected problems, you can also call the Embassy at 2797-3300 and ask to be connected to the American Citizen Services officer on duty. This service is available to Americans 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Enjoy your trip!

Alan in Saudi Arabia writes:

Your Excellency, I would like to have your comment on two issues: Firstly, U.S. disregarding of the democratization process in Egypt.  Second, Why U.S. is not leading a dialogue with the main opposition force in Egypt, i.e. Muslim Brotherhood?  

Ambassador Ricciardone:

Alan, thank you for your question. Promoting democracy and human rights have been one of the pre-eminent strands in American foreign policy at least since I joined the Foreign Service under President Carter, and even before President Carter instituted the annual Human Rights Report to Congress, and every administration since then, whether Democrat or Republican, has made promotion of human rights, democracy, and justice a central element in our foreign policy. It has been one of the yardsticks to measure the health of our relationships with other countries.

I 'm puzzled and sorry that you judge we "disregard" the democratization process. Egypt is opening up, not only economically, but also politically, to fuller participation of its citizens in national life. We support journalists, bloggers, or judges insisting on independence, or other strong civic and religious leaders who love their country and are determined to build a democratic future. Egyptians themselves are leading the way forward, and this is as it must be. They deserve our support and they get it, in many ways and at many levels. This past week, my last in Egypt, I have discussed democracy and human rights issues with President Mubarak, the Foreign Minister, and the Interior Minister of Egypt, to cite a few of the top leaders with whom we keep raising these issues -- and I 've also discussed them in the Egyptian media as well, and with civil society leaders, including critics of the Government of Egypt. I believe that Egyptians know just how seriously we support democracy and human rights in their country, in ours, and in the world.

We have seen this country come a long way but we acknowledge, as do Egyptian leaders, that there is much more to do. There are different ways of promoting democracy. I have found that insightful, well-considered support, assistance, encouragement, and respect go far to advance our goals, including democracy; though it is true that at times we are constrained, as a matter of principle, openly to criticize intolerable abuses.

We do have open and formal, though limited, contacts with the legally elected members of the Egyptian parliament, including members of the legal opposition parties and some "independent" oppositionists who are in fact members of the Muslim Brotherhood. We respect everyone elected to the People 's Assembly and the Shura Council, who acts in accordance with Egyptian law, and who wishes to have a mutually respectful dialogue with us. With regard to the Muslim Brotherhood, we differ fundamentally on many ideas, and our limited contacts with them should not be taken as supporting their platform in any way.

Sara in New York writes:

I would like to know why the U.S. refrained from taking the Egyptian government to task for their obvious breach of democracy by detaining 40 Muslim Brotherhood members and trialing them at a military tribunal when the civil courts had acquitted them, and lastly, the court as of today April, 15 has given Khairat Alshater 7 years in prison, what does our government have to say about that considering that Egypt is the second highest recipient of USAID?

Ambassador Ricciardone:

Sara, I 'm not sure what you mean by the United States "taking to task" another foreign government. We speak out against human rights abuses by all countries, including our friends, regardless whether they are aid recipients. In the case of Egypt, we have made clear our concern at the conviction, in a military court overruling previous dismissals by civilian courts, of twenty-five Egyptian civilians for allegedly engaging in money laundering and planning terrorist activities in support of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. We have said that these convictions raise serious due process and human rights issues. We are also concerned by the ongoing detention of hundreds of detainees who have not yet been tried, but yet remain imprisoned.

We have also objected to the Egyptian government’s arrest and detention of dozens of activists in recent weeks. While we respect the Egyptian Government’s right and responsibility to protect public order, we hold that freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, including internet freedom, are pillars of a democratic society. We have urged the Egyptian government to exercise restraint and respect these and other core human rights.

Twice in the past five weeks, the White House has made these concerns public. On April 8, the White House expressed our concern about reports that Egypt 's local council elections of that day were characterized by widespread electoral violations. We have been troubled by the reports of harassment, detainment, and arrests of opposition candidates and campaign workers in the lead up to the elections, as well as the allegations that large numbers of opposition candidates were prevented from registering.

On March 12, the White House spokeswoman st ated very clearly th at we are concerned by the arrests in Egypt of individuals who are opponents of the current governing party and were involved in the recent local elections. We believe the people of Egypt should be permitted to choose freely among competing candid ates. We called on the government of Egypt to cease any actions th at would compromise the ability of the Egyptian people to fully exercise their intern ationally recognized human rights and to particip ate in free and fair elections. On April 16, the St ate Department spokesman questioned Egypt's resort to military courts to over-rule the judgments of civilian courts in the recent trial of Muslim Brotherhood members on charges of financing terrorism.

Bethany in Minnesota writes:

Although Egypt has a great deal of influence within the region to broker peace deals between feuding nations and foster Middle Eastern unity, it seems that Cairo is less and less able to meet the needs of its own citizens - take for example the recent strikes in Mahalla al-Kobra over the increasing price of bread, not to mention the imprisonment of several opposition newspaper editors last year. How would you respond to the claim that Egypt is failing its own people, and what solutions can you offer to help bolster civil society?

Ambassador Ricciardone:

Bethany, Egyptians themselves are debating the very question you pose, and they are doing so openly and energetically through traditional and new media. They know that change from a highly centralized, state-directed welfare system is necessary and overdue. The way forward is stressful and unclear, and most Egyptians seem to want gradual reforms rather than destructive or revolutionary change. But I do not believe that Egypt is "failing," or that it will fail.

The intern ational system today is experiencing transform ation th at defies precedent: The rapid growth of parts of the Middle East economy, the emergence of truly global labor and capital markets, the spread of technology, massive new migr ations of people, global infl ation especially in food and energy prices, and environmental challenges like global clim ate change are placing huge stresses on individual countries and the larger global system.

Egypt is certainly vulnerable. 40% of Egyptians live on $2 a day or less. They cannot absorb the price increases as easily as others can. But Egypt is in a fair position to meet the needs of its people over the long term. Egyptians can face the future with confidence, and provided they take and sustain the tough decisions necessary now to sustain future growth. These include the priorities set forth by President Bush 's Millennium Challenge, of governing wisely, investing in people (health and education), and freeing their people 's creative energies through free and open economies.

Egypt faces truly great challenges, but it also has many advantages and has begun to exploit them. In December, the International Monetary Fund said Egypt 's sound macroeconomic management and bold economic reforms “increased market confidence, boosted investment and helped to sustain high pace of economic growth to a record 7.1%.”

Consider also the following milestones in the Egyptian financial markets last year:

  • The Cairo and Alexandria (CASE) Stock Exchange topped the 10,000 mark, up more than 40% year by the end of 2007 and 450% over the past four years.
  • Market capitalization reached 700 billion Egyptian pounds.
  • Monthly trading of securities exceeded 29 billion Egyptian pounds.
  • Foreign investment surged to US$ 11 billion from just US$400 million in 2002.
  • International reserves reached US$ 30 billion
  • 9,000 new companies were established and 1,750 companies expanded.

So there is hope for economic growth, jobs and prosperity in Egypt. But sustained economic and social reform, such as much greater success in family planning, are necessary to sustain growth that will outpace Egypt 's population explosion.

John in Central America writes:

How much danger of destabilization is there in Egypt when President Mubarak leaves office?

Ambassador Ricciardone:

Egypt has some 5,000 years of recorded history as a state, so perhaps "stability" is not what should most concern us about the land of the Pyramids. I think the real question is whether Egypt will continue its economic growth and social and political development at a faster pace, or at a slower pace. That is, I do not worry so much about "instability" in Egypt as stagnation, when a youthful and restive population is demanding so much more. Egypt has many advantages. My hunch is that Egypt faces a much higher upside potential for rapid economic and social development, than its downside risk of "destabilization."

Eric in California writes:

Dear Ambassador Ricciardone, Jr.,

I am a graduate student studying the Middle East and wanted to know about what the United States government is doing to promote and protect the freedoms of speech of Egyptian citizens such as Wael Abbas and others who are critical of official Egyptian government policy.  As you know, Wael Abbas posted YouTube videos on servers outside of the United States which were subsequently taken down because of pressures from the Egyptian government (the videos showed harsh torture and interrogation treatment by Egyptian police).  Does the U.S. Embassy play any role in protecting the rights of Egyptians overseas?  Are you in contact with NGOs and companies that work on these issues of human rights and freedoms in Egypt? Thanks.

Ambassador Ricciardone:

Eric, we are energetically in touch not only with NGOs, companies, and individuals, but also with other elements of civil society, the media and the Government of Egypt, on all these issues. Egypt is opening up, not only economically, but also in terms of politics, to fuller participation of its citizens in national life. As it does so, it should not be surprising that conservative forces in society as well as government react to the changes that are going on. Sometimes they react harshly and unwisely, and we let them know what we think. For example, we do actively support journalists, bloggers, or judges insisting on independence, and other strong civic and religious leaders who love their country and are determined to build a democratic future. Egyptians themselves are showing that it is possible to make progress toward greater political openness. We are in touch with many, many inspiring Egyptians, inside and outside government, who are moving their country forward in so many fields, at times in the face of strong social and even official resistance.

I am aware of the situation with Wael Abbas’s videos on YouTube. His videos were removed because YouTube initially believed the content violated the site’s terms of service. We actually urged YouTube to review its decision. Upon review, Mr. Abbas’ videos were reinstated.

Yusuf in New York writes:

What you are doing to promote human rights and religious freedom in Egypt?  Do you regularly raise your concerns with high level Egyptian government officials?  I believe religious freedom concerns, such as for dissident Muslims and reformers, Coptic Christians, Baha 'is, and others, are neglected in official U.S. policy toward Egypt and would like your response to that.  The State Department only reports on these issues in the human rights and religious freedom annual reports on paper, but the issues never see the light of day publicly, either by you or other high level U.S. officials.  Why?

Ambassador Ricciardone:

Yusuf, thank you for your question. Our goal is to educate and to influence Egyptian public and official opinion and decision makers in favor of democracy and human rights. To accomplish this, besides the reports you cite, we actively and energetically engage the Government of Egypt at all levels, as well as civil society groups and individuals. Sometimes we feel constrained to speak out critically and publicly, but you should not mistake this as the only tool of statecraft or international influence, nor presume that we are doing nothing unless we criticize publicly. Sometimes "naming and shaming" is the only recourse, and it is proper and necessary on principle, regardless of whether that is effective in bringing desired results immediately. But more often, we promote human rights, including religious freedom, less visibly but more effectively, through education and other forms of support and encouragement. We do this for example through numerous daily contacts with Egyptians in civil society and in Government, with the media and in classrooms and through training programs and exchanges of speakers. Such engagement produces results, though usually only over time.

Joe in Argentina writes:

Hello, Ambassador Ricciardone.  I am an American studying abroad here in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  I am studying International Relations and Spanish and I speak 4 languages.  I was wondering what your advice would be to people aspiring and studying to become diplomats.  I 'm wondering if I 'm going in the right direction for the State Department.  What did you do yourself and how can we (as readers and possibly students) can achieve this goal?  Thanks for considering the question!

Ambassador Ricciardone:

Joe, I am very pleased to hear you are interested in joining the Foreign Service. It has been an honor and an adventure for me to serve the United States over the course of my career. My experience as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Italy in 1973, and later as a teacher in Iran, inspired me to seek a career in the Foreign Service.

There is no right way or wrong way to prepare for the Foreign Service, but proficiency in four languages and overseas experience is certainly a good start. I suggest you take a look at the State Department Career website at http://careers.state.gov/officer/index.html. It is an excellent source of information on life in the Foreign Service, preparing for the exam and the many career tracks available.

My career has taken me to Turkey, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Washington, DC and three times to Egypt. In the 1980s I served as a political officer in the embassy, and later as Chief of the Civilian Observer Unit of the Multinational Force and Observers in Egypt’s Sinai Desert. I later served as political advisor to the Commander of Operation Provide Comfort, covering northern Iraq from Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey. I also had the privilege of serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Philippines and the Republic of Palau. In Washington, I learned the ropes in foreign policy and management positions in the Department of State.

Martin in New York writes:

Sir! How would you describe Egypt with regard to the rule of law and democracy? Is there any significant progress? And what about Egypt as an ally in the war on terror?

Ambassador Ricciardone:

Egypt was among the inventors of the rule of law, several millennia ago. It 's still working to find its own way toward full popular participation in the direction of public affairs, that is, democracy. There has been both significant progress -- particularly in freedom of expression in the old and new media -- and very disappointing setbacks, in terms of human rights abuses. Every Government has to judge what it must do to protect the security of the citizens against very real threats of extremism and terrorism, while also protecting the citizens ' freedoms. Like us, Egyptians are vigorously debating how to get that balance right within their laws and traditions, and increasingly, they are setting modern world standards for themselves, rather than traditional or local ones. I 'm confident they will figure this out for themselves. As they do so, most Egyptians, often including the Government itself, welcome our input, advice, expertise, and encouragement, as long as we offer it in respectful fashion. What they do not welcome is what they see as "interference" or overbearing intervention or meddling in their affairs, which sometimes brings only a counterproductive backlash. It is hard to get this just right, but the goal is always to maximize our influence in support of democracy and the rule of law. Generally, I 've found we have most influence when we act as an inspiring example and an encouraging friend, especially in public speech.

As to Egypt 's value as an ally in the war against terror, there are few countries as pivotally important to regional peace and stability. Egypt 's security forces assure free navigation through the Suez Canal. There is no Arab country that has done more through its diplomacy to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Its media and cultural vitality influence the entire Arab world. And it is the only Arab country with global diplomatic reach.

Jasmin in New York writes:

Mr. Ambassador: I am a TV journalist who is currently testing for the Foreign Service with hopes of being a Public Diplomacy Officer.  I am studying Arabic, have travelled a great deal, am open to new people and cultures... so, my question for you, Sir… What else can I do to make sure I am the most qualified person to promote our country 's policies?  Also, could you please tell us how it feels to have spent the last several decades in the Foreign Service and how fulfilled you are with your career choice?  Thank you!

Ambassador Ricciardone:


Your study of foreign languages, interest and skill in media, and your evident sense of adventure are excellent preparation for a successful and deeply satisfying career in the Foreign Service. But a wide range of qualities and skills are essential to advance American diplomacy. For more discussion of the requirements and rewards of a Foreign Service career, I suggest you visit the State Department’s Career website at http://careers.state.gov/officer/who-qualifies.html.

After three decades in the Foreign Service, I feel even more intellectually restless and curious about the world as when I began: the more I have learned and engaged with foreign cultures, and our own fascinating (OK, sometimes exasperating) processes of government, the more I appreciate who we are as Americans, and the enormity of the blessings we enjoy -- and the more I want to learn and do. The psychic and intellectual stimulation is high and sustained. I can imagine no more meaningful or satisfying career than to be an American Foreign Service Officer.

Allyson in Massachusetts writes:

I will be traveling to Egypt for the first time with 2 other people, and we leave next Saturday! Needless to say we are extremely excited about our first time to Egypt/Africa, but we are a little anxious about a couple of travel requirements. Knowing the answers would definitely allow us to ease the tension and just concentrate on the good times I 'm sure we 'll have once we 're there.

I have 2 major questions/clarifications.

  1. We have read on several legitimate sites, but want to make sure that it 's true that we can buy our visa once we 're there.
  2. What are the mandatory travel vaccinations to be allowed into Egypt for U.S. Citizens and which vaccinations are recommended?

Thank you so much!!!!

Ambassador Ricciardone:

Allyson, Ahlan wa sahlan! Welcome to Egypt! Yes, you can get your visa at the airport. There are no mandatory vaccinations, either. For more health and travel information, I encourage you to visit http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1108.html. Travel.state.govis the website of the Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs and has extensive resources for Americans who are traveling abroad. It will help you make all of your final preparations for a safe and enjoyable trip.

Brian in Washington writes:

How much U.S. aid does Egypt receive and what does Egypt do with it?

Ambassador Ricciardone:

Brian, For three decades, the United States and Egypt have collaborated closely in economic development and regional stability. Each year for the first two decades after Egypt signed the Treaty of Peace with Israel in 1979, we used to provide $815 million in economic assistance and $1.3 billion in defense assistance. We began gradually to decrease economic assistance in 1999, so that in 2008 we are providing $415 million, and we have asked the US Congress to appropriate $200 million in 2009. We have held military assistance steady since 1980 at $1.3 billion per year, though of course inflation has taken a steep toll over three decades. Current programs focus on Trade and Investment; Utilities; Education; Healthier, Planned Families; Natural Resources; and Democracy.

Egypt has used the assistance well. Its armed forces have converted from almost exclusively Russian equipment to over half American-origin equipment, making Egyptian forces more capable of defending Egypt, serving in international peace keeping operations, and interoperating with our own forces. In economic development, our assistance has supported many of Egypt 's more visible accomplishments, including some 2400 school buildings, renovated hospitals and clinics, a massive expansion of water, sanitation, power plants, and road and loans to small and medium enterprises. Right now, we are about to complete a three year project to provide a full school library to each of Egypt 's 39,000 public schools, both to help inculcate a love of reading, and to help develop the Egyptian market and industry for publishing children 's books. Some other accomplishments are less visible, but no less important, such as dramatically lowered maternal and child mortality rates, reduced air pollution, and increased access to education, especially for girls. 99 percent of all Egyptians now have access to reliable electricity; 22 million Egyptians in 11 governorates have access to clean water and sanitary sewage collection, greatly reducing infant and child diseases. Since 1975, infant mortality has decreased from 132 per thousand to just 33; child mortality has decreased 80 percent. Polio has been eradicated, and life expectancy has been extended from 55 to 70 years old. Similarly, adult literacy has grown from 39 percent in 1975 to 60 percent now. Girls attending school has risen from 56 percent to 95 percent. We are supporting the Government of Egypt and the private Egyptian book publishing industry by providing complete libraries to each of Egypt’s 39,000 public schools, from elementary to secondary.

We also are supporting the Egyptian Government 's efforts to decentralize authority and increase the participation of local citizens in public affairs, to increase transparency and reduce corruption, and to improve public administration both in executive agencies and in the administration of justice. In such ways, and also through supporting NGOs, we seek to support Egyptians ' aspirations to strengthen human rights and democracy.

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