Cairo surprised by closure of Western embassies

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An Egyptian policeman stands guard outside the Canadian embassy in Cairo on December 8, 2014 after Canada joined Britain on closing its embassy in the Egyptian capital to the public for security reasons, with neither country providing details about any specific threat. AFP/Ahmed Sayed

By: Ahmad Jamaleddine

Published Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The last thing the Egyptian regime needed was for powerful countries, like Britain and Canada, to close their embassies in Egypt. Such a reputation aggravates Cairo, which denies any factual reasons for the closure. The issue has raised the ire of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while diplomatic sources attributed the decision to exaggerated security fears.

Cairo – The embassies of the United States, Canada, Britain, and other countries are located In the upscale neighborhood of Garden City in downtown Cairo, just a few meters away from Tahrir Square, which is why the area is known as the embassy district. It is a diplomatic hub, around which the Egyptian authorities have imposed tight security measures since the events of September 11, 2001 until today. In addition to the high walls, and the surveillance and investigation of residents in surrounding houses, the government has banned the leasing of one of the towers overlooking the British Embassy garden. This means that the area is well-secured.

Here, cars are carefully inspected throughout the day, and more than 500 officers and soldiers protect the neighborhood. Residents, however, feel that their area has become akin to military barracks due to these measures. A bystander scoffs at the security concerns cited by the embassies of Britain and Canada given the tight security in place, despite the Ministry of Interior announcement that it has seized maps of diplomatic premises in Cairo from persons that were recently arrested.

The German Embassy announced that its consulate will be closed on Thursday, November 11. The US Embassy has also warned of the possibility of taking a similar decision based on the security situation, and the Australian Embassy has followed suit. This prompted Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab to go on an evening tour around the streets of Cairo, and take pictures with citizens to show that the security situation is stable. He made sure to take pictures just tens of meters away from the headquarters of the two closed embassies.

Many took advantage of the situation to talk about security and political scenarios facing the regime. According to a diplomatic source in the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the closures are part of a general state of exaggerated fear by Western ambassadors in the Arab region. Nevertheless, the source expressed surprise that Britain and Canada have closed their embassies although they remained open in the past, even when clashes took place just a few hundred meters away, that is, in Tahrir Square.

The source told Al-Akhbar that the British Ambassador to Cairo, who supposedly “feels concerned about his safety,” was in the province of Minya in Upper Egypt a few days ago, where he met with officials at a church, although “Minya saw the most violent clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and security members after the dismissal of former President Mohammed Mursi.” The source added that the ambassador also visited the city of Luxor and its ruins, which is “an indication of safety and freedom of movement in Egypt.”

Many circles in the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have expressed surprise over the positions of these embassies, and wondered why the diplomatic corps did not send communiqués to the ministry containing the security assessments on the basis of which they decided to suspend their work.

Ibrahim Abdel Ghaffar, ambassador and former assistant foreign minister, says that the decision to close the embassies is normal given the general situation in the “Arab Spring countries,” pointing to the great concern by embassies since the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya. He added that the closure of the British and Canadian embassies may be due to fear of reactions from the Muslim Brotherhood in light of the legal inquiry conducted in Britain on the group.

Ambassador Ahmed Najm, a former diplomat at the Egyptian Embassy in Canada, attributed the Canadian and British positions to security considerations, especially given the increased targeting of foreign citizens in Arab countries.

He told Al-Akhbar that the closure is not expected to last long due to the urgent needs of Canadian and British nationals in Egypt. He said that the decision is not in any way linked to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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