Bulgarian Diplomat Kiriyak Tsonev: Islamists Very Likely to Grab Power in Egypt, Arab States through Democratic Means
Interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with Bulgarian career diplomat Kiriyak Tsonev, the first specialist in Bulgarian diplomacy on the Arab world.
A native of Kavarna in Northeast Bulgaria, in 1965, he graduated with a degree in international relations and Arabic from the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, and joined the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry.
He has worked in the Bulgarian embassies in Damascus, Algiers, and Cairo, and in 1987-1990 was Bulgaria's Ambassador to Algeria and Mauritania. He was also the first Bulgarian consul in the United Arab Emirates.
In 1990, he became the head of the Arab States department at the Foreign Ministry in Sofia. He retired from the diplomatic corps in 2000.
He has taught as a professor of Arabic studies and foreign policy of the Arab states at Sofia University and several other schools. In 2006, he completed his full translation of "1001 Nights" into Bulgarian, which took him 15 years. He is a member of the unions of Bulgarian writers, journalists, and translators.
How do you view the processes in the Middle East and North Africa at the moment?
I was a bit dismayed just to see them unleashed and happening at first but the developments there are expected taking into account the social situation in the Arab world – which is divided into rich oil producing states in the Persian Gulf – and poor – all others. The social problems remain the major challenges for these countries.
Egypt is a leader in the Arab world, and it often sways all other countries into the developments in this region.
Egypt owes to the world several hundred billion dollars in state debt. At the same time, in the past 20 years, its population grew 2.5 times, and is around 80 million people now. I remember the time I worked at the Bulgarian Embassy in Cairo – the city was 6 million, while today it is said to be 20 million but no one knows exactly how many.
A huge number of these are young people faced with great challenges. They don't have work, livelihood, healthcare, and other social needs. And the tragedy here is not that President Hosni Mubarak or the Egyptian government or somebody else does not want to solve the problems of the country – of course there was corruption and all that – but which country doesn't have corruption? The main thing about Egypt is that there is nowhere to find the funds to solve these grave social problems, and whoever comes to power also will have that challenge.
Do you expect that Hosni Mubarak will complete his term until the September 2011 presidential elections in Egypt, or will he be brought down from power much earlier?
It all depends on what his friends across the Atlantic will advise him to do. And from what I understand, they are not interested in his staying in power. Even though he is America's best friends in the region, his staying in power means a complication of the situation, and nobody is interested in such complications. So I think he will be out earlier than September.
The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is known to be the most popular organization in Egypt and the possibility that they might come to power has been brandished internationally as a scarecrow by the west. How likely do you think it is that the radical Islamists in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood will come to power in Egypt using democratic means, i.e. thanks to the unleashed democratization? The cases of Hamas coming to power democratically in Gaza and of Hitler in interwar Germany are mentioned as such cases.
The Muslim Brotherhood has declared it supports the opposition. But at first, as the protests started rolling, they had no position for several days. I think that the Muslim Brotherhood wishes exactly for the scenario that you mention – i.e. they are letting the others bring down the president.
This will cause a democratic mess which usually occurs when dictatorial regimes are brought down, clashes between the individual parties and movements, and then the Islamists will emerge as saviors of this people.
Knowing the situation in the Arab world, I believe there is a strong possibility that if democratic – I stress democratic – elections are held, the Muslim Brotherhood would win them. And this would bring to Egypt such a dictatorship regime to which even the regime of the ayatollahs in Iran pales in comparison.
So you do think that the concerns of the USA and the West that democratization not just in Egypt but also in the wider Middle East could pave the way for radical Islamists to grab hold of power are justified?
These fears that the Muslim Brotherhood may come to power using democratic tools are absolutely justified. That is why the Americans are doing everything they can to support the civil movement opposition.
The problem here is that the domino effect is quite possible – with Egypt sway the other Arab countries. There have been declarations for protests in Syria, the same thing happens in Jordan, Kuwait, even in Algeria.
Note that in Algeria such movement is definitely instigated by Islamist organizations, which if you remember, in 1991, almost made it to power. They had won the elections, and only the intervention made by the military prevented them from coming to power. No one knows what would have happened if they had come to power. Because these Islamist groups are unmanageable, they don't subscribe to what we understand as a democratic authority. So the Arab countries now having secular dictatorships may end up with much worse dictatorships that now.
Other than Egypt which Arab regimes seem most threatened by the civil unrest?
Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Libya, Algeria.
But the regimes of Assad in Syria and Qaddafi in Libya seem stable from the outside?
These regimes are not as stable as these leaders would like. One should always keep in mind that these are dictatorships. For example, Syria reminds a lot of Bulgaria before November 10, 1989. The seats in Parliament are apportioned from top.
Syria has already seen such civil unrest twice. The first time when Hafez Assad was still in power, and the second time was a couple of years ago when there were ethnic-based clashes between Arabs and Kurds which started from a football game.
It will be interesting who will be in the real opposition in Syria since technically all political parties that could be defined as opposition are members of the patriotic front in power.
Do you think the revolutions in the Arab world should be viewed the way the changes in Eastern Europe in 1989 are viewed as "a spring of democracies" – as many commentators have suggested – or that they should be treated with great concern because of the fear of the fear of the Islamists?
There are two sides here – first, not letting Islamists come to power in a democratic, legal way. Second, the fact that there is no democracy in the Arab world as of now. Not even in Lebanon where every community and clan is closed and are commanded by a single person.
So at least for the time being it is hard to expect the formation of a typical democracy in this region. Any kind of democracy here will be mixed with the religious factor. There is no way to exclude religion in the Arab world just because the Islamic religion is part of the everyday life and lifestyle of these peoples. It is not something imposed on them from the outside.
If you go to Cairo on a Friday you will see hundreds of thousands of people with their prayer carpets to lay them on the ground and start praying. Many of the man have dark spots on their foreheads – these are from hitting their heads on the ground while praying.
What is the best course of action for the EU, of which Bulgaria is a part, in the current crisis in the Arab world?
We, the EU, and the Arab states as well – we are all part of another organization – the Union of the Mediterranean, the Barcelona Process. This organization has been neglected for the time being but it is starting to gain ground – for example in certain specific areas such as environment in the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean has three power centers aiming at imposing their influence. The first is, of course, France, which came up with the initiative for this Union; it wants to draw in the Arabs and be the leader.
The second is Turkey, which cannot join the EU because many member states are against that. Turkey is even looking to compensate its failure to join the EU assuming a leading role with respect to the Southern Mediterranean, the Islamic Arab states.
The third factor is Israel, which has emerged as Turkey's adversary, a development epitomized by the Gaza flotilla and the ensuing clash. I was actually part of this flotilla. I flew to Cyprus together with a number of European former diplomats, members of parliament from the EU, and others. However, the Cypriot authorities prevented us from boarding the ships so I had to go back.
The EU has a great role to play but there will be great rivalries here – first, within the EU where for the time being France has the lead in the Mediterranean. Second, the EU will be trying to isolate Turkey. But this will also bring to the fore Israel. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are part of the Union of the Mediterranean as states.
Europe continues to face the dilemma between the Arab world and Israel. There is no way to make such a choice so the EU will be pressing for finding a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is still this great feeling of nostalgia in Bulgaria for the communist period when Bulgaria enjoyed very close relations, including economically, with the Arab states. You represented Bulgaria as a diplomat all across the Arab world, do you think this feeling are justified?
When I headed the Arab countries department at the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bulgaria's trade with the Arab world amounted to USD 3.6 B, with a positive balance of USD 1.6 B that went straight into the Bulgarian budget.
Today Bulgaria's entire trade with the Arab states is about USD 300-400 M, and the balance is even. Of course, there is no way we can recover the Arab markets that we had just because after the end of communism Bulgaria slashed the plants that made products sold in the Arab states.
For example, several years after the communist regime fell in 1989, I had Arab business representatives come to me asking me to help them find the factories from which they bought water pumps during the old regime.
It turned out that in Bulgaria these water pumps were produced cooperatively by 3-4 factories that no longer exist. At the end, we found businessmen who offered the Arabs new, electronic pumps. The Arabs, however, sent them back, and said, "We are sorry but our people cannot do well with these pumps, we want the old ones." And of course, these old and simple ones are no longer produced in Bulgaria.
Another similar example – Arab businessmen come to Bulgaria to restore the trade with fertilizers – they used to buy fertilizers from us. They went to the fertilizer factory in Devnya, and were told to go to Vienna, to the regional headquarters of the foreign investor because the plant is no longer a state-owned Bulgarian company.
To sum up, Bulgaria doesn't have any more the goods that it used to sell to the Arab states. Of course, it has some products it exports to them but the trade is much below what it used to be.
Now with the crisis in Egypt, it is interesting, Bulgaria might face a shortage of onion. It turns out that Bulgaria has been importing onion and potatoes from Egypt...
The economic relations aside, Bulgaria still appears to enjoy good diplomatic relations with the Arab states, to the extent that in 2010 there was much talk of Bulgaria hosting a round of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?
This idea is largely a fantasy, it was first raised by Stoyan Ganev when he was the Foreign Minister of Bulgaria in the early 1990s. Bulgaria is not the country that can act as such an intermediary. We can probably host some really minor round of talks here, on some specific question – for example, haggling over the status of some village. But we shouldn't hope on anything more than that, anything more in terms of hopes on our part would be an overstretch.
Bulgaria can indeed play a certain role because we are traditionally friends with both the Israelis and the Palestinians. But for that to happen we should not get into rows with the Palestinians and the Arabs as a whole. And what do we do? Even right now!
Take the doner comment of the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov about how Bulgaria is not threatened by terrorism because we are friends with the Arabs, and they sell doner all over the country.
I don't want to criticize the prime minister but this was really superficial that does not correspond to a level of a prime minister. His tongue just slipped but this offended the Arabs.
First of all, doner is not even Arab, it is Turkish as a word. The Arabs call the doner shawarma.
How has Bulgaria's participation with troops in the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan affected the way it is perceived in the Arab world?
Back in 2003 I was the person who defended the argument that neither the Americans, nor the Bulgarians have any business invading Iraq. We had Bulgarian soldiers killed in Iraq but what makes me even sadder is the fact that these boys did not die for Bulgaria. They died as mercenaries serving foreign interests.
Iraq is well on the way of breaking up into three states – one Kurdish and two Arab. This was not the Americans' goal but their unjustified and untimely intervention led to this situation. The Kurds, Shia and Sunni in Iraq are yet to start a civil war to determine the borders of their future states. On the one hand, the Arab world supports the Sunni Iraqis, while Iran backs the Shia. The entire Kurdistan question makes the situation even more complex as an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will destabilize Turkey, Syria, and Iran.
So would you say that Bulgaria faces a terrorist threat from radical Islam because of its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan?
I don't see a threat for Bulgaria but for the facilities used in Bulgaria by the US forces. And such a threat could only come from radical Islamists.
We must not forget that we have a Muslim population in Bulgaria that they can use as a base. We might be a state of one nation but we are bi-religious country. There are indications that the Islamist extremists are finding deeper and deeper roots in Bulgaria even though those haven't surfaced yet. But you know that when US targets in Bulgaria are attack, Bulgarians will also be hurt.
With all that said, how should Bulgaria go about its relations with the Arab states, what should be the specific approach?
We must work to strengthen our relations with the Arab countries. Take the entire affair with Bulgaria's Foreign Ministry being about to revoke all of its ambassadors who worked in one way or another for the DS, the State Security, the secret police and intelligence of the communist regime. Half of Bulgaria's 80 ambassadors will be revoked because of that. It has turned out that practically all Bulgarian ambassadors to Arab countries will be revoked. They all turned out to be former agents.
What is more, the Foreign Ministry has announced plans to close several embassies – including in Sudan and in Tunisia. With the recent events in Tunisia, you can imagine the importance of having an embassy in such a country.
This plan for closing seven embassies has not been thought all the way through. It is very rash. I am speaking from experience as I had to close an embassy in the past – when we closed the Bulgarian embassy in Kuwait. We had to reopen it only two years later because it turned out that we had vital interest in this country, and it cost us twice more than if we had just had kept it running.
We must think in perspective. We could always reduce the staff but why shut entire missions down? We have wonderful diplomatic properties and embassies in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria. I know that very well because I was in charge of development of the embassy in Algeria. Why should we sell such properties today to get a few bucks when we will be needing them tomorrow?
Bulgaria has had a very weird case with respect to sending an ambassador to Saudi Arabia in which the appointment has been delayed for many years. Why do you think that is?
This is just a very indecent haggling here in Sofia about who should be sent as ambassador there. We have established relations with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis already have accredited an ambassador to Bulgaria, he is stationed in Athens but still. Ours can be based in Yemen or Kuwait if we can't manage it with having an embassy in Saudi Arabia itself.
But this haggling over who will get the job in Saudi Arabia has been going on for 10 years. This is totally unprofessional. This is not how diplomacy is done. Unfortunately, our Foreign Minister is still not up to the task. Because diplomacy is a job, a trade like any other. And you learn and grow into a trade. You start as an apprentice, then you grow, and then finally you become a master. I can say that I became a master in this trade at the age of 50.
So your young people's generation that is really in a hurry and rushing to get places, please, excuse me, but you should first have some practice before going into greater tasks.
As a career diplomat, do you think that the decision of the Borisov Cabinet to revoke all ambassadors who worked for the former State Security is right?
No, I don't think it is right because every single ambassador and diplomat in the world also has the role of an intelligence officer. Under the respective Bulgarian law, if you were an actual intelligence officer, you are still subject to withdrawal.
It was the Socialists who laid this trap for PM Boyko Borisov when they adopted this law a couple of years ago when they were in power to making him initiative such unpopular measures.
The law is really stupid because it treats equally professional intelligence officers and collaborators and snitches working for the former secret police. This is completely stupid, and we lose from it.
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