Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee on Mideast tour
“More moderate than I expected” said chairman Soini after discussions with colleagues in Cairo
“More moderate than I expected”, is how MP Timo Soini (Finns Party), the chairman of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee described his impression of Egyptian colleagues that he met in Cairo on Sunday.
Egypt was the first stop of the committee’s week-long tour of the Middle East, which will also include visits to Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, and Jordan.
Many of the Egyptian colleagues that Soini met were representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafists.
“In the discussions even the Salafist wore a tie. He gave a bit of a smile when we spoke about the status of women”, said Soini, who had never been in Egypt before.
He found it extraordinary to think that many of the new members of the Egyptian Parliament had been in prison a year earlier.
Soini and seven other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee arrived in Egypt on Saturday to learn about the changes that the Arab Spring had brought. The committee was especially interested in the relations that the new Egypt would forge with Israel, and in the country’s human rights situation.
Egypt is one of the few Arab countries to have a peace treaty with Israel. There have been fears that the treaty might be in jeopardy now that Islamists have become a majority in Parliament.
“At least the Foreign Minister [Mohamed Kamel Amr] was adamant that Egypt would respect the peace treaty, and would not allow attacks on Israel from Sinai”, said MP Ben Zyskowicz (Nat. Coalition Party).
Egypt, the Arab country with the largest population, has been in a state of political turmoil since President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown over a year ago. It is hoped that the situation will stabilise in May or June after a new president is elected.
Soini is concerned about whether or not democracy will be respected. He feels that a key issue is whether or not it is understood in Egypt that those in power might one day have to step down at a later date.
According to the Finnish MPs, the so-called Arab Spring has not changed Finland’s policy toward the Middle East. Its cornerstones are support for the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and human rights.
Many members of the committee said that they were especially interested in the state of women’s and children’s rights in Egypt.
Soini said that the committee extended an invitation to their Egyptian colleagues to visit Finland. He said that it would be possible to hold a round-table discussion in Finland about how the rule of law has been promoted in the Nordic Countries. The Foreign Affairs Committee also plans to extend similar invitations to other countries in the area.
Soini has previously declared himself a staunch supporter of Israel and has said that the Jewish state lives surrounded by “hostile Arab countries”.
Now Soini cautiously conceded that the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a problem. He nevertheless said that he would continue to eat oranges grown in the settlements.
Soini also did not believe that the recent “arm band controversy” sparked by a blog article written by the aide of one of his party’s MPs (see link below) would cause any problems when the committee visits Israel.
Opinions were divided over Finnish involvement in the arms trade in the Middle East.
Amnesty International has criticised the sale of Finnish weapons to Egypt, and many influential figures in Finland have signed an appeal against buying weapons for the Finnish military from Israel, as doing so is seen to help the armaments industry of a country that engages in military occupation.
Ben Zyskowicz said that it is in Finland’s interest to buy the best weapons available at the lowest price possible. Left Alliance MP Annika Talvitie emphasised that there are differing opinions about this within the committee.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Middle East dominates meeting between Erkki Tuomioja and Hilary Clinton in Washington (17.2.2012)
Finland designated to host international conference in 2012 on nuclear weapons-free Middle East (17.10.2011)
Finns Party MP´s aide under fire for blog entry suggesting arm bands for foreigners (16.4.2012)