Interview with Hesham Youssef

27 June 2014, Istanbul

Hesham Youssef is Senior Advisor for Secretary-General, League of Arab States. He is also the Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Youssef has been a career diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt in since 1985. Ambassador Youssef served at the Egyptian Embassy in Canada and the Egyptian mission in Geneva focusing predominantly on trade issues in the World Trade Organization. In 2001, he joined the Arab League as official spokesman.

Pınar Akpınar: What is your personal definition of the Arab Spring?

Hesham Youssef: For me it is very simple. It is a reflection of a dissatisfaction of people as to how their countries are evolving. They do not like their standard of living, they do not like the state of their country and they decided that things will not move in the right direction from their point of view, except if they revolve. So they decided to take it to the streets and express their views, positions, aspirations and what they feel should take place in their countries.

Pınar Akpınar: Do you think there has been a change of actors during the course of the Arab Spring?

Hesham Youssef: Of course but that is the nature of revolutions. That is the nature of life. You know there are political actors that gain power and there are political actors that become weaker and weaker. So this is the nature of political situations in different places and particularly during revolutions. There are those political processes that gain ground and then lose ground and then gain again and so on. So, this is not unusual in situations of revolutions.

Yasin Duman: Overall, do you perceive the Arab Spring as a positive or negative development for the Middle East?

Hesham Youssef: Well, overall I think it was inevitable. You cannot continue not to respond to the aspirations of the people and expect things remain as they are. You know I always describe this as a situation similar to blowing air into a balloon. You have a balloon and you are blowing air into the balloon. You keep blowing and blowing. The balloon will eventually burst. So the situation was a very high level of dissatisfaction that was growing every single day. People were becoming more and more agitated and more and more tense. So the balloon has no way to go except to burst. So it bursts in different places in different ways, with different outcomes, with different levels of success and failure. But revolutions are, by their nature, chaotic. There are no orderly revolutions and people tend to think about things in a very short term perspective. Things take time. Democracy needs time. Change needs time. You cannot have revolution today and expect the country to become democratic, developed or satisfactory to the aspirations of people tomorrow. It will not happen. Why? Because there is a learning process, there is a maturity process. There is an evolution process, there is a change and change is difficult. There are those who resist the change and so on. So now we are in this chaotic period in different places. Some are doing better than others but in general it is a difficult process. It is difficult in Libya; it is difficult in Egypt, Yemen even in Tunisia that is perhaps faring better than others. It is still a difficult process even in a country like Iraq that has witnessed change since the American occupation in 2003 until today.

Pınar Akpınar: How do you evaluate the current situation in Iraq?

Hesham Youssef: Chaotic! It is chaotic and a very difficult situation politically. It is in crisis. It is a country in crisis. So, having a generalized view as to how this Arab awakening would fare is very difficult. But the message is clear. The message is that business as usual cannot continue. Those countries that are governments that are responding to the demands and aspirations of people will be capable of continuing and countries that do not listen to the aspirations and demands of people will vanish sooner or later whether peacefully or violently, whether through a peaceful way or a violent way whatever it is.

Pınar Akpınar: What role do think that social media played in the process?

Hesham Youssef: It affected the whole process. At one point in time, "the Egyptian Revolution" was called "the Facebook revolution" because it was a revolution or demonstration that was called for on Facebook. With an invitation, "we are now going to demonstrate on the Police Day on January 25, please come!" So it was not a secret. It was a demonstration that was widely known to everybody that this is going to take place. And of course what happened after that - cutting the internet, cutting communication and so on - led to all kinds of developments but then they had to bring it back and then Facebook and Twitter played an important role in the developments since then until today. So it is not that this took place in a few days or whatever but rather in the build-up of this whole development and aftermath as well. The social media was a crucial dimension of the whole situation.

Yasin Duman: Today even politicians have their own Twitter accounts.

Hesham Youssef: Of course, now it has become a part of the political scene. What is written is widely spread and read by tens of thousands and millions of people. There is the internet; it is free and accessible to many people particularly to those who have become more and more active and involved in different dimensions.

Pınar Akpınar: Maybe that is one of the changes in the traditional conduct of international relations; the impact of the social media and how people are involved in the processes.

Hesham Youssef: Sure, absolutely, and also the role of the young. This is also another dimension. But that is also related to the demography of the region. This is a young region with vast majority in different countries as opposed to Europe, for example, that is seen as an aging society. But looking at our part of the world, the Arab world and the Middle East, it is a young population and they are active. So, these young people used to be regarded a spoiled generation that was not educated and used their Facebook accounts to play games, watch videos, chat, and the like. They were doing all that but they were also connecting with each other. Now many of them are disappointed and feel that their aspirations and what they were hoping to achieve are not achieved. That is taking much longer than they thought and they are not integrated into the system as they hoped to be. They are not part of the decision making processes as much as they hoped. They are absolutely right in that. Why, because there is a resistance to change. There is resistance to the young having a much bigger role.

Yasin Duman: What prospects do you see for Egypt?

Hesham Youssef: Well, I am always hopeful and there are some positive effects. Of course there are a number of disadvantages; there are a number of difficulties. There are huge challenges whether on political or economic and development sides. It depends on how the new system would deal with these challenges whether they will be affected or not, whether they will act in a conservative way or not, whether they will be able to bring the society back or not. All these are challenges. We will see how well the new system will be able to deal with such challenges.

Pınar Akpınar: Do you think it is too early?

Hesham Youssef: Yes, it is too early you know the president was elected a few weeks ago so he is yet to establish his team and also do not forget but there is a crucial first step in this solution process which is the parliament. Yes Egypt now has a constitution, yes Egypt has a president but it still needs to continue the third leg of this process which is the electing part.

Yasin Duman: At the beginning of the conflict the Arab League said that Syria's membership was suspended, declared Bashar al-Assad a dictator and that he must resign as soon as possible. How do you see the role of the Arab League in Syria?

Hesham Youssef: Unfortunately, it is a very weak role but the role of the whole international community now has proven to be ineffective. Unfortunately, Kofi Annan failed, Lakhdar Ibrahimi failed and we are yet to have another representative. This indicates that things are becoming much more complicated and difficult than it was originally anticipated.

Pınar Akpınar: What do you think could be done instead of what has been done so far?

Hesham Youssef: Unfortunately this question requires a very long answer. Probably we do not have time to do that because it is not a simple answer. Many mistakes were done during the last few years. This has allowed the situation to evolve in a manner that makes it extremely difficult to resolve. As I mentioned this is why two leading international figures, the former secretary general and Lakhdar Ibrahimi, one of the most prominent mediators in the world, failed miserably. It is not even that they made some progress and that somebody can come and build on what they have achieved. No, the situation is much worse and it is getting even worse. So the prospects for things to improve also are extremely removed. You do not see people very eager on moving, presenting ideas, initiatives to help solve the Syrian situation. No, this is not what happens. Even the level of ambition has become low. Now people are focusing on "let's try to save more people." Yesterday the Security Council said 11 million people need humanitarian assistance. 11 million! This is more than one third of the Syrian population. So it is a real catastrophe.