Egypt has officially nominated its former foreign minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit as chair of the Arab League.
Aboul-Gheit was the last foreign minister in the 30-year rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak – a job he kept for about seven years before the cabinet was forced to resign under pressure from angry demonstrators in the wake of the January Revolution of 2011.
During the early days of the revolution, Aboul-Gheit argued that the protests were inevitably limited and could not force the fall of Mubarak.
For about two years after leaving the foreign office, Aboul-Gheit was forced into a political seclusion. He came out of his retreat briefly during the 2012 presidential elections when he publicly supported his close cabinet associate and Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafik against Islamist Mohamed Morsi.
During Morsi's rule (2012-2013), Aboul-Gheit kept a very low profile, returning to the public scene only after the ouster of Morsi.
During these years of seclusion, Aboul-Gheit wrote his memoires on his term as foreign minister, which were printed by Dar Nahdat Misr in 2013 under the title of “My testimony – Egyptian foreign policy: 2004-2011.”
Aboul-Gheit's "testimonies," as he wrote in the introduction to his book, were inspired by the dairies he started keeping since the outbreak of the October 1973 war with Israel, when he was still a relatively junior diplomat at the office of the foreign minister.
Prior to his assignment to the helm of Egyptian diplomacy in 2004, Aboul-Gheit served as the permanent representative of Egypt at the UN headquarters in New York (1999-2004).
He also served as the chief of staff of former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa for several years in the 1990s.
During his service under Moussa and then in New York, Aboul-Gheit showed excellent administrative skills and considerable diplomatic poise, accomplishments which eventually helped him get selected by Mubarak in 2004 to succeed Ahmed Maher (2001-2004) as Egypt's foreign minister.
As foreign minister, Aboul-Gheit had to deal with one tough mission after another, which he handled with his typical diplomatic poise.
The most difficult mission for Aboul-Gheit as foreign minister, according to diplomats who had served with him at the time, was to motivate an aging and increasingly disinterested and disenchanted Mubarak to engage the country in political action to face up to serious regional challenges, including the Arab-Israeli conflict and Egypt's African and Arab relations.
“I would not say that he pushed the line often,” said one diplomat. “I would not even say that he ventured to push the line in general beyond what Mubarak wanted to do. He opted for a smoother tactic whereby he would sell his ideas to those that had Mubarak’s ears, especially former intelligence chief Omar Soliman, before sending a written proposal for the consideration of the president.”
Overall, however, these diplomats say that Aboul-Gheit, who always keeps a smile and a disciplined work routine, was aware that Mubarak’s rule was coming to an end; he believed, as many at the time did, that the presidency would go to Mubarak’s son Gamal, who was reportedly being groomed for the top job as early as 2002.
According to another diplomat who served in Washington during the last few years of Mubarak’s rule, “Aboul-Gheit could certainly see what was coming and he played along, just like everybody else in the government. He may have been more visible to the public because he was foreign minister."
In his memoires, Aboul-Gheit suggested that he did not favour the grooming of Gamal Mubarak and that he shared this sentiment privately with intelligence chief Soliman, who seemed to have also been against the idea.
During his seven years at the helm of Egyptian diplomacy, Aboul-Gheit, to the great pleasure of Mubarak, managed to keep the then-growing disagreements between Cairo and Washington over democratisation in Egypt relatively contained.
He also found areas to augment the scope of Egyptian-US cooperation at the regional level and to encourage Washington to overlook its disagreements with Cairo over matters related to human rights, the rights of minorities and democracy.
The Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were carefully used by Aboul-Gheit to serve as relatively easy space for Egyptian-US cooperation.
The firm opposition of Islamist resistance movements to US policies in the area – Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon – was another venue for close Egyptian-US and Egyptian-Israeli-US cooperation during Aboul-Gheit's time as foreign minister.
It is his critical position towards these two groups that is said by Gulf diplomats to have secured him the nod of approval from the otherwise not very welcoming Gulf Cooperation Council.
During Aboul-Gheit's tenure as foreign minister, Egypt enjoyed close cooperation with Saudi Arabia, in fact the closest between Cairo and Riyadh in decades.
This tight coalition between Egypt and Saudi Arabia was consolidated during the last years of Mubarak by Cairo and Riyadh’s shared dislike of Doha’s overture to play a larger regional role – aspirations that Doha pursued vigorously after the Arab Spring, and took to higher levels during the one-year rule of Morsi in Egypt, but tamed after the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2015 and the beginning of a new era of reconciliation between Riyadh and Doha.
Qatar was not the only Arab state with which Aboul-Gheit had “diplomatic issues.”
Algeria and Sudan were subject to the scorn of the top Egyptian diplomat during a public relations squabble in January 2010 over a football World Cup qualifying game that Sudan hosted for the national teams of Egypt and Algeria.
Last year, these three countries strongly objected to news that Egypt planned to formally nominate Aboul-Gheit during the Arab summit in Sharm El-Sheikh.
This year, however, Saudi intervention reportedly managed to broker a political deal in which Egypt would have its candidate passed in return for political understandings.
According to Egyptian diplomats, Egypt had to offer generous diplomatic concessions for the three previously anti-Aboul-Gheit countries – Algeria, Sudan and Qatar – on contested vacancies in regional, sub-regional and international organisations in order to secure their support for its candidate.
“There is no great interest in the Arab League or in its role at this point, given the many hiccups that most member-states are passing through, and nobody really cares to make a big fuss over the matter,” said an Arab League source.
Meanwhile, Arab diplomatic sources said that the top priority for Riyadh now is to orchestrate a relatively united "Arab front" in the face of its regional arch enemy Iran – which is something they trust Aboul-Gheit could help forge given his long-time dislike of that regime.
As part of the political package that the Saudis reportedly brokered, Egypt and Qatar would both tone down the high pitch in their disputes, which are essentially related to the hospitality that Doha had been showing to the ousted members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“What counts for the Saudis now is to build a Sunni political – maybe later military – front in the face of Iran; and nobody wants to contest this,” the same Arab League source said.