The timing could not have been more perfect. The very day that the Southeast Connecticut Committee on Foreign Relations (“SECCFR”) held its regular monthly meeting featuring a speaker on Egypt, the Supreme Court of that country dissolved the Egyptian parliament.
The Egypt specialist, who addressed SECCFR that afternoon on June 14, was Dr. Steven Cook, a nationally recognized expert on Egypt and the new Middle East. Dr. Cook is presently the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Also, he has an upcoming new book is entitled, “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square,” to be published by the Oxford University Press. However, because of the rapidly changing events in Egypt, Dr. Cook said that he has had to update his book, constantly, before it before it goes to press.
In his remarks Dr. Cook also admitted that his wife has been complaining lately that he has been spending too much time in Tahrir Square in Cairo rather than at their home in Washington.
A Pessimistic Outlook for Egypt
In his remarks before an audience of over hundred persons in a meeting room at the First Congregational Church in Old Lyme, Dr. Cook was generally pessimistic about the present political climate in Egypt, a country that is the largest nation by far in the Middle East. He said that these days only two groups hold real political power in Egypt. They are: (1) the military generals left in place from President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years of rule, and (2) a newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood Party with an Islamist agenda.
This in turn has left little room in the nation’s political power structure for a Western-leaning, democratic center, a development which Dr. Cook feels is very unfortunate.
As for the format of Dr. Cook’s remarks, he followed the custom at SECCFR meetings by limiting his remarks to one hour. The first half hour he spoke from notes as to the current situation in Egypt, and in the second half hour he answered questions from the audience.
Also, as is customary after the formal meeting of the group, Dr. Cook and a couple dozen of SECCFR members went out to dinner at a local restaurant for informal discussions.
Local Business Leaders Direct SECCFR
The Chairman of SECCFR is Rowland Ballek. Ballek is a familiar business figure along the Connecticut shoreline, having recently retired as Chairman of the Essex Savings Bank. As for SECCFR in Ballek’s view, “People are very interested world affairs, especially recent developments.”
To satisfy this interest, since 1999 the organization has been holding regular meetings which feature presentations by foreign policy specialists. The forums are generally held monthly, except in July and August.
The Executive Director of SECCFR is another retired business leader. He is Bill Chatman, who is a former CEO and Managing Director of Foster Wheeler Limited, an Engineering Contracting company based in the United Kingdom. At SECCFR, Chatman’s job is to find and invite the speakers who address the monthly meetings of the group. Chatman sees the mission of SECCFR, “to try to educate people about what is going on in the world outside the United States.”
In addition to Ballek and Chatman, the Secretary of SECCFR is Martha Gibson, PhD. About SECCFR she says, “It is rare to have a local venue that offers an interactive forum on critical foreign affairs,” adding, “I am amazed by the array of backgrounds among our members.”
The Group’s Mission Statement
SECCFR’s mission statement notes that the group’s “principal activity is to provide a forum for non-partisan, no-advocacy dialogue between its members and eminent speakers on foreign relations.” It also states, “SECCFR is committed to hosting the widest possible range of views while advocating none. By maintaining a reputation for impartiality, the Committee facilitates civil discussion on issues that bear directly on American’s global interests.”
The speakers that addressed SECCFR meetings during the fall 2011 and through the spring of 2012 are typical. SECCFR meetings are both at the church in Old Lyme, as well as on-campus at Connecticut College in New London.
Recent Speakers at SECCFR Meetings
Last September a former U.S. Ambassador, Kenneth Brill, spoke on, “The Breakdown of American Diplomatic Effectiveness.”
Then in October another former Ambassador, Wayne L. Cutler, spoke on developments in North African and the Arabian Peninsula.
In November Dr. Joel Sokolsky addressed the group on Canadian and American security interests, and in December, foreign policy specialist, Wayne Merry, spoke on the provocative theme, “Back to the European Drawing Board” regarding “the German Question” and “America’s Trans-Atlantic Role.”
After skipping the next month, in February SECCFR members heard remarks by Dr. Mohsen M. Milani, Chair of a Florida university’s Government and International Affairs Department, who spoke of a possible change in U.S. policy towards Iran’s building a nuclear weapon.
This was followed in March by remarks by Linda Chatman Thomsen, Esp., a former Director of the Division of Enforcement at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, who spoke on U.S. laws that regulate American businesses in foreign markets.
At the April meeting Ambassador Morton Abramowitz spoke on, “Turkey: New Myths, New Realities.” The speaker is a former President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Then at the May meeting the speaker was Professor Shelly Rigger, who spoke about the importance of Taiwan and its relationship to China. The speaker is fluent in Chinese, and she holds a doctorate in Government from Harvard University.
SECCFR Never Pays Speakers’ Fees
SECCFR has a policy of not paying speakers’ fees. However, it does reimburse speakers for their incidental expenses, such as lodging and travel expenses.
As for those persons who wish to become members of SECCFR, the regular membership is $125 a year, and there are associate and student memberships at a lower rate. Also, any person interested in joining is invited attend two of the organization’s meetings without charge to see if they would like to join.
Those interested in becoming a member of SECCFR should contact the group’s Secretary, Martha Gibson, PhD. She can be reached at her office at Merrill Wealth Management, 100 Eugene O’Neill Drive, New London, CT 06320-6402; or by telephone at 860-447-7400.