RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Bob Carr's the Foreign Minister. It is remarkable that he has had a meeting with a man from the Muslim Brotherhood. Mohamed Morsi is the President of Egypt. For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood was sidelined by Mubarak, the President of Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood have been maligned for decades by many in the United States and Israel for being too extreme, for being, in effect, a terrorist organisation.
Now the Foreign Minister has sat down with the Muslim Brotherhood. They are part of the mainstream political discussion around the world. We'll have a word to Bob Carr from Cairo in a moment.
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Let's have a word to the Foreign Minister about his meeting with the new President of Egypt.
Bob Carr, welcome.
BOB CARR: Thank you, Rafe. How are you?
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Look, I'm good. Did it – it must have gone through your mind – you're a keen student of history. The Muslim Brotherhood have been maligned for decades. It seems to be for being terrorists, the people who inspired the Muslim Brotherhood, the same ideologues inspired al Qaeda. Not saying they're the same thing, but they have the same intellectual roots.
Did that sort of thing go through your mind when you were chatting with the new Egyptian President?
BOB CARR: A very different proposition. This is a government that is opposed to the, terrorists now concentrated in parts of the Sinai Desert. And I think we've got to make an effort as Australians, dependent as we are on western media, to grasp the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood as it presents itself today.
It's a diverse movement but it has, for example – this would surprise people – pro-market economic policies. They're going to attempt to liberalise a socialistic economy inherited from decades of Arab nationalist dictatorship.
As President Morsi said to me when I raised some issues with him, he said I am a civilian president, I'm the first civilian president of Egypt, that is, the first non-military president, and the first elected by the people of Egypt.
So what's happening here is a very significant development, and the evolution, the maturation of the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be a major theme in Egypt's development.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: The army's entrenched in the economy and in the power structure in Egypt. Does this new president actually have that much power yet?
BOB CARR: I think it's got to be said that he's demonstrated authority. What Egyptians I've been able to speak to and have been struck by is his confidence in moving around the globe; his visit to China, then his visit to Teheran where he did not hold back in criticising the Syrian Government.
He had a wry smile as he referred to the fact that that speech in which he called for the departure of President Assad, was censored in Iran. They reported his comments but crossed out Syria and inserted Bahrain. And when I referred to his speech, he said with a smile, he said, what translation did you read?
I think observers of Egypt have got to say this is – it's very interesting to see a re-energised Egypt after the somnolence of the Mubarak years, speak to China, take Egyptian businessmen there, go to Brazil, go to the United Nations in September, which he's planning to do.
There are of course concerns in Egypt about human rights and minorities, and I should say very quickly that I used this meeting with President Morsi to raise the concern we have for Egyptian's Coptic population.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Sure.
BOB CARR: And the Coptic population's very big in Australia of course.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: And Syria, the way you're talking about it, clearly there's Arab countries funding the opposition. Egypt's opposed to the President. Is it only a matter of time before the regime falls in Syria?
BOB CARR: Certainly that's how it's spoken of. I'll be talking to five Arab foreign ministers today – I'm here because they're gathered for a meeting of the Arab League and it's a good opportunity for me to meet a significant number in a short period.
The assumption is that the regime will fall but no one is able to tell me how long they expect that process to take place. In the meantime, an appalling humanitarian catastrophe simply mounts.
Two months ago, I was in Jordan and was able to visit refugee camps in the north of the country full of Syrian refugees, some of them children who arrived unaccompanied by adults. Well, in August, there were 100,000 refugees believed to have fled Syria. The total number, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, now stands at 235,000 people. And if you go to those camps, as I did, and look at the swirling dust, the minimal tents, people who arrived across a border, some of them shot at by Syrian guards, with nothing, with not even a backpack, and now not knowing how long or when at all they'll be able to return to their homes or whether their homes, whether their villages will be standing or will have been blasted to dust by more bombardment. It's a huge tragedy.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: It's coming up to 13 minutes past four, 774 ABC Melbourne. We're having a word to Bob Carr, the Foreign Minister. He's in Cairo.
Mr Carr, if I can just ask you to switch your attention to Afghanistan, these three soldiers killed by a rogue Afghan soldier and then in the hunt for that rogue soldier, two Afghans were killed. It seems every Afghan official from the President down to the local chief of police is not impressed by that operation because it led to the death of two Afghans.
Do you think the ADF made a mistake?
BOB CARR: No. And I have accepted the ADF's account that it mounted that operation with the approval of Afghan military and Afghan civilian leadership. This is proof of…
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: But the chief of police is pretty much the – I mean, he is the chief in that region, both financially and officially. He is not happy…
BOB CARR: [Interrupts] Yeah, I – yeah, I'm not in a position to arbitrate on that, but I back the judgment of the ADF, as does the Government.
This is something that feeds the war weariness that we all feel. And I say again, as I said a few days ago, there is no one in the Australian Government or the Opposition where we've got a bipartisan stance on this, there's no one in the 50-nation coalition that is committed to leaving behind a sovereign functioning country in Afghanistan who wants to stay there even a day longer than necessary.
This debate is not about withdrawal; it's about the timing and the circumstances of withdrawal. I understand that an Andrew Wilkie or a Mal Washer are speaking sincerely when they say, look, just get out now. But Australia's given undertakings at two big international conferences in Chicago and at Lisbon…
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Yeah.
BOB CARR: …about being part of a planned, phased transition that sees Afghan security forces elevated, mentored and properly trained, and assuming, as they are now month by month, assuming more of the responsibility for security.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: And look, no one would suggest that you or the Prime Minister believes there'll be some sort of Jeffersonian democracy when Australia leaves, but if AusAID isn't even planning on leaving people there once the Australian soldiers leave, isn't that a terrible indication of where we believe the country will be if when our troops pull out we're not even planning to leave any aid officials where Australian soldiers have been working?
BOB CARR: No, no, that's not a response to those concerns about security. It's a response to the fact that AusAID is completing projects and will allow Afghans to run them. We've built schools so that numbers, the numbers in schools in Afghanistan has gone from a million under the Taliban to eight million today. You only had a few thousand girls in schools under the Taliban. Now you've got 2.5 million, and 30 per cent of the teachers are female.
And with these major – this major progress in place, we're able to hand over responsibility to the provincial government in Uruzgan. And I just say again, we're committed to withdrawal, but we're committed to a phased withdrawal…
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Yeah.
BOB CARR: …that we've negotiated and agreed on, not just with the United States – it's not to please America – but with 50 nations, the largest coalition in history, who have committed to the same timetable.
So Australians are going to be out of there in 12 to 18 months, and I just ask people who've got the most understandable weariness with this war and frustration with the government of Afghanistan, that it is worth bequeathing to these people a sovereign functioning government that can make decisions, like the decision…
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: And let me ask you about a sovereign functioning government. I mean, you know the detail to a greater degree, I imagine, than I do. The current chief of police chased out the previous governor out of the province. The current governor was kicked out of the British [sic] from another province because he's a drug runner. I mean, who are you handing over to? I mean, I know it's hard to deal with a perfect world, but the chief of police has got any number of human rights abuse allegations. The current governor was so disappointing to the British they kicked him out.
Who are you really handing over to when Australia's troops leave?
BOB CARR: Well, there are a lot of criticisms of the elections that were held in Afghanistan, but this is a country that, after decades of dictatorship and decades of war, totally weary of war and a society traumatised by war, this is a country that is stretching itself to exercise sovereignty.
And we've got to persist with all the distractions about malfeasance and incompetence because what we can get there will be better than a situation where the Taliban ruled and turned the country into an outdoor training camp for terrorists who worked on plans, literally there in Afghanistan, in those training camps, to bring down buildings in New York, to hijack aircraft and to blow up night clubs in Bali and claim, as they did in 2002, 88 Australian lives.
This is really in Australia's interest, as it is in the interests of other countries, not just western countries but Turkey, for example…
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Sure.
BOB CARR: …to see that we leave behind a sovereign functioning government, that is, a central government in Afghanistan, which among other things, makes a decision not to allow Taliban with their tolerance for Islamist terrorist groups, to return to control of the country.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Sure. Look, just briefly before I let you go, I just want to return to where you are in Cairo. One of the Egyptian newsreaders has done a broadcast wearing a hijab. Do you see that as a worrying sign of the influence of some sort of restrictive religion in Egyptian life?
BOB CARR: I wouldn't settle on that, but there'll be other – there'll be other indicators along the way that human rights groups in Egypt – and I spoke to some representatives here last night at dinner in our embassy – would be very concerned with.
This country's in transition. A political force that previously had been in opposition, its members tortured and languishing in the jails of the military dictatorship…
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Yeah.
BOB CARR: …are now in charge. I have confidence that President Morsi understands that the world has a keen interest in the revolution in Egypt delivering civil liberties, rights for women, and the rights of religious minorities, like the Copts, are uppermost in the world's concerns, and certainly in ours, and I've made that clear while I've been here.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Look, thanks so much for joining us. Enjoy your rest of your time in Cairo.
BOB CARR: Good, Rafe, thank you.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: That's Bob Carr, the Foreign Minister, speaking to us. He's been attending the Arab League Foreign Minister's Meeting discussing Syria.
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