The 76th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations opened on 14 September, with debates taking place from 21 to 27 September. Unlike the 75th session last year, a virtual one because of Covid-19, this year the General Assembly was hybrid with in-person attendance and virtual participation.
It was the first appearance at the UN of US President Joe Biden since his taking office earlier this year, and in his remarks to the General Assembly he spoke of his administration adopting an international agenda of what he termed “relentless diplomacy” to meet the challenges of today’s world through alliances, partnerships and cooperation, among them to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic as well as climate change.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke of a world standing on the edge of an “abyss” due to the gravity of the Covid-19 pandemic and the disastrous consequences of climate change. He also spoke of the dangers of the widening gap between the wealthy and developed nations and the developing countries.
Both the Chinese and Russian presidents addressed the General Assembly virtually this year, as did President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi of Egypt, repeating the way in which he had addressed the assembly last year. It was the eighth time that President Al-Sisi has spoken to the UN General Assembly since he was elected president in 2014.
His remarks this year were the most progressive so far and dealt with how Egypt is carrying out the international agenda and UN priorities. They were wide-ranging, comprehensive and in tune with the present-day agenda of multilateral diplomacy. He emphasised Egypt’s commitment to the UN system as one of its founding members.
His remarks were balanced between dealing with the major challenges of the day, such as Covid-19, climate change and the fight against terrorism, and Egyptian positions vis-à-vis various Arab crises and differences around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which President Al-Sisi said could threaten international peace and security if the parties concerned do not reach a binding agreement on the filling and operations of the dam. He warned that the status quo represents a threat to the well-being of 150 million people in Egypt and Sudan.
Al-Sisi also brought up the decision by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to allocate $650 billion in Special Drawing Rights to the developing nations to help them deal with the financial consequences of Covid-19. He called for a major infusion of foreign direct investment into the economies of the developing countries coupled with debt alleviation, particularly for the African countries.
As far as international assistance in providing vaccines against Covid-19 is concerned, Al-Sisi called for a balanced distribution of such vaccines, pointing out that Egypt has begun producing the vaccines and is ready to provide the African countries with them.
Regarding the fight against terrorism, President Al-Sisi called on the international community to adopt a comprehensive approach in this regard. Resorting to security measures alone will not suffice, he said, and such measures will fall short in ultimately defeating it. He spoke of the necessity of dealing with the economic, social and intellectual underpinnings of the appeal of terrorist groups to some members of the younger generations. He also addressed the need to impose sanctions on countries harbouring terrorists and providing assistance to various terrorist groups.
It came as no surprise that the Palestinian question was the first Arab issue that the Egyptian president dealt with. His remarks were comprehensive, and a major part of his comments on Arab crises was dedicated to the situation in Palestine, calling the Palestinian question the central issue of peace and security in the Middle East.
Al-Sisi reiterated Egypt’s commitment to the two-state solution according to UN resolutions in this regard, and he called on the international community to speed up humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians in Gaza and to provide the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) with the necessary funds to alleviate their suffering.
By the same token, he also stressed the urgency of launching reconstruction efforts in Gaza, adding that Egypt has already earmarked $500 million for these. It goes without saying that he stressed how imperative it is to reach a long-lasting truce between the Palestinians and the Israelis to replace the existing ceasefire in Gaza that Egypt successfully negotiated in May 2021.
One of the most interesting parts of Al-Sisi’s speech to the UN General Assembly this year was the clever linkage it made between the weakening and targeting of state institutions, especially the military, and the insecurity and instability in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
The basic message that he wanted to convey was that Egypt is reaffirming its commitment to multilateral diplomacy and firmly believes that present-day challenges call for worldwide cooperation that will benefit the developing countries.
President Al-Sisi’s remarks at the UN this year chart a way forward for Egyptian diplomacy in a fast-changing international environment that presents Egypt with opportunities to interact constructively and effectively with allies and partners in building a better world and a more secure and stable Middle East.
For many years, Egypt has been busy dealing with regional crises and threats, and perhaps today the time has come to balance our involvement in Arab and regional crises with a more forward-looking diplomacy geared to more cooperation with the international community in facing the challenges and open-ended opportunities of tomorrow.
These have started to manifest themselves in the shape of emerging pandemics, climate change, the development of cyberspace, the transformation to green economies, the protection of the environment and rapid advances in technology and information technology, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly