Ministerial Statement - Egypt
Parliament House, Canberra
Speech, check against delivery, E&OE
10 February 2011
Over the last several weeks, we have faced a consular crisis in Egypt that was highly complex and unpredictable.
Our first responsibility as a government is to do whatever is possible to maximise the safety of Australians.
This is invariably a challenging task given that at any one time we have more than a million Australians abroad.
This has been a doubly challenging task given the fluid state of Egyptian politics.
From midnight Friday and into the early hours of Saturday 29th January, consular staff were called into Canberra to deal with the rapidly unfolding crisis.
DFAT's Crisis Centre was activated 24 hours later and has operated on a 24 hour basis since.
On 30 January we also raised the level of alert to "Do not travel" – I'm advised ahead of all of our like-minded consular partners around the world.
The government announced the first Qantas charter flight on 31 January.
Two Qantas charter flights carrying a total of 294 passengers (30 of whom were foreign nationals) departed on 2 and 4 February.
With the support of the Australian government, another 54 Australians and their dependents departed on five Canadian charter flights.
The Australian Embassy set up five locations to support Australians: the Embassy, the Conrad and Novotel Hotels, and Cairo and Alexandria airports.
In all those locations, except Alexandria airport, we maintained a 24 hour presence for most of the week.
As the security situation deteriorated, the practical problems faced by our consular staff on the ground became more complex.
Road blocks set up on the main routes to the airport created real safety and security concerns for our staff – including one group of staff who were detained for several hours until the Ambassador negotiated their release.
These staff were doing their duty – verifying the safety of the route before we dispatched Australian citizens to the airport that day.
Back in Canberra, over 300 officers were involved in the Government's response. Our crisis centre took over 4000 calls and our operators made over 7500 calls to confirm the safety and welfare of Australians.
In Egypt we deployed 45 officials to support our Embassy and another 12 to Frankfurt to assist Australians with onward travel.
Several Australian journalists were also detained while covering these events.
I spoke twice to the Egyptian Foreign Minister to convey the Government's strong concerns for the safety of Australian and other foreign journalists and our expectation of all possible assistance from the Egyptian Government to ensure their wellbeing.
The Australian Ambassador also made early and persistent representations to seek the release of the Australian journalists, and the Embassy has remained in close contact since to confirm their ongoing safety and wellbeing.
I'd like to pay special tribute to all our public servants and local staff who worked tirelessly around the clock in Canberra and in Egypt, together with our friends in Qantas, to ensure that Australians were evacuated as quickly and as safely as possible in an extremely volatile environment.
For example, Tricia Martino was our regional consular officer in Dubai and one of the first on the ground in Egypt. She worked for three days straight at Cairo airport, in chaotic conditions without even having time to go back to the Embassy to get a change of clothes.
Tricia was one of those detained with a group of Australian officials while scoping routes to the airport and held for several hours.
Mahmoud Tawab, a driver at the Australian Embassy Cairo, deployed to the airport for more than a week, despite having to leave his wife and two children, who were restricted to the Cairo suburb of Maadi after curfew.
Mahmoud tirelessly delivered food to stranded Australians within the airport terminals and shielded small children and elderly Australians through the at times violent scrum of passengers trying to get onto planes.
Tricia and Mahmoud are just two examples of the outstanding dedication of our staff on the ground in Egypt, under the leadership of our Ambassador, Stephanie Shwabsky.
I spoke to Stephanie practically every day during the height of the crisis, sometimes several times, and I can confirm to the House that our Ambassador represented the best traditions of the Australian diplomatic service in her handling of the crisis.
I personally spoke to a group of Australians who had been evacuated from Egypt. Some were highly traumatised by their experience, and had seen violence first hand, bullets flying and dead bodies on the ground.
But they were grateful for the support the Australian Embassy had provided.
Joanne Burgess of Epping, who was on one of the evacuation flights, described our diplomatic and consular officials in the following words:
"I cannot speak too highly of your staff. Each and every one of them deserve not just my personal thanks, but as a nation we can be proud that these people are representing us overseas and here in Australia.
"The trauma of dealing with what we saw and experienced in Cairo and other parts of Egypt was so much easier to deal with, because DFAT and Qantas staff had organised and planned for every contingency....
"....The whole team looked after us so well, it was hard to believe that they don't do this sort of evacuation more often. The evacuation was carried out professionally, but also with characteristic Aussie humour... At the Airport, your staff had to deal with many big and small issues, like babies and Egyptian husbands without Australian Immigration visas, unaccompanied minors, young Aussie / Egyptian men being pulled out of the final passport check queue by Egyptian police to check if they had done their military service, before they were allowed to leave the country.... all of this, under a growing hostile Egyptian police presence.
"Your staff were calm cool and determined. Their presence helped and reassured us through those final minutes in Cairo....
"It is such a small thing to say thank you to those men and women in Cairo and in Canberra for all they did for us on Thursday 3rd and Friday 4th of February 2011. What they did for us went far beyond just doing their job. They had been working tirelessly around the clock not just for our flight but for the previous flight the day before. They always put our comfort ahead of their own. These are wonderful people... I was never more proud to be an Australian. So my sincere thanks go to each and every one of your DFAT staff and to our Prime Minister. I am so glad to be home...thank you."
No one predicted the scale and duration of this crisis.
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians turned to the streets of Egypt's major cities demanding a more open and transparent society and greater economic opportunity.
Late last year, I reiterated that the continuing global democratic deficit represented one of the great global challenges for the decades ahead.
This deficit is particularly evident across the Middle East.
Democratic transformation through properly elected democratic forces is also the best long-term under-pinning of security and stability.
I have spoken to the Foreign Minister of Egypt several times during this crisis, most recently on Tuesday.
I have also spoken to the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa.
I have said the Australian government's position is that fundamental political reform in Egypt must begin now.
That this should be achieved peacefully.
That the security forces must refrain from violence.
That the rights of people to protest must be protected.
That the rights of journalists must be protected.
This expectation is shared by our friends and allies in the international community.
In the course of the last week, I've also discussed the wider ramifications of the crisis with the Quartet's representative to the Middle East and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, the EU's Special Representative Catherine Ashton, and the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, and other Foreign Ministers attending the Munich Security Conference last weekend when the future of the Middle East was a primary subject of discussion.
The political situation in Egypt remains volatile.
The political situation across the wider region is also fluid.
This includes the current impasse in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The external strategic environment surrounding these negotiations is changing.
It is in our view increasingly imperative that these negotiations be brought to a successful conclusion.
We believe this course of action would best support the long term security of the state of Israel – as the security of Israel remains of deep concern to the Australian Government.
It also would provide for an independent Palestinian state and the opportunity for stability and economic growth for the Palestinian people.
The Australian Government will continue to support democratic transformation both in the Arab world and beyond.
Australia holds democracy to be a universal value and a right of all peoples.
And the promotion of democracy remains an important part of this country's policy objectives into the future.
- Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
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