CAIRO – Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya was on a mission on Saturday to bolster her country’s economic and strategic relationship with Egypt against the backdrop of a complex situation in the Middle East.
Making her first visit to Egypt since becoming foreign minister, Gonzalez Laya said that as a “frustrated archaeologist,” she has a special regard for the land of the pyramids.
The minister met with her Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, and President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, as well as with the secretary general of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
“We have been able to examine the state of relations between Spain and Egypt, relations that are good, but we want them to be excellent,” she said during a joint press conference with Shoukry.
The two governments have decided to focus on the area of economy, investment and trade, she said, announcing plans for a “great Hispano-Egyptian business forum” next year to give form to the “desire to improve our economic relations.”
Though neither foreign minister mentioned the thorny issue of human rights, Gonzalez Laya later told Spanish journalists that she had raised Spain’s concerns about reports from Human Rights Watch and other organizations cataloguing tens of thousands of politically motivated arrests in Egypt.
“I put on the table all the issues that come to us apart from activists, human rights, political rights, social rights, all those cases that we collect and, in this case, there were, that I put to the consideration of my counterparts,” Spain’s top diplomat said.
Discussing those issues has to be “the rule, not the exception,” she said. “But it is also the rule and it is a rule that I impose on myself … which is to maintain a certain discretion.”
Gonzalez Laya did comment at the press conference about ongoing efforts to resolve a dispute between the Egyptian government and Spanish energy company Naturgy over the Union Fenosa Gas (UFG) Damietta plant.
A court of arbitration awarded Naturgy $2 billion in compensation in 2018, but in February of this year, the Spanish firm, Italy’s Eni (which holds a stake in UFG) and Egypt reached an agreement whereby Naturgy would accept $600 million in exchange for its 50 percent of UFG.
But that accord fell apart in April, when Naturgy cited Egypt’s failure to meet certain conditions for reasons that appeared to be linked to the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What the Egyptian president has transmitted to me is his wish that this issue can be resolved through negotiation,” Gonzalez Laya said, adding that she hoped to see a solution within “the coming weeks.”
Egypt’s importance as a regional actor, especially amid the instability in neighboring Libya, was also on the agenda Saturday.
Spain’s position is that “the turbulence in the eastern Mediterranean can only be answered from dialogue, never from unilateralism, and always from negotiation,” Gonzalez Laya said.
“Egypt is a great country and a great actor with Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African dimensions,” she said.
Shoukry, for his part, praised Spain has a “pioneer position” in the context of relations among the Mediterranean countries and for its role in enhancing ties between Egypt and the European Union.