Book Review: Days of joy and grief – a diplomat’s narrative

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 21 Jan 2021

In the second volume of his biography, Amr Moussa, a prominent Egyptian/Arab diplomat, shares more of his first hand accounts on the often turbulent path of Egyptian and Arab politics


It was 19 January 2011, a sunny winter day in the picturesque Red Sea city of Sharm El-Sheikh, when Amr Moussa, then Arab League Secretary General for almost a full decade, was walking along with the then president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, and Emir of Kuwait, Sabah Al-Ahmad, into the summit hall for the inauguration of the second Arab Economic summit.

It had been five days since Zein Al-Abeddine Ben Ali, the president of Tunisia at the time, had fled his country to Saudi Arabia after an almost month-long nation-wide demonstrations that demanded an end to his police-state rule that had lasted for a quarter century.

A presidential correspondent standing by threw the question to Mubarak: “What do you make of the developments in Tunis?” Mubarak promptly and abruptly answered: “Egypt is not Tunisia.”

Into the summit hall, Moussa made an opening statement that addressed the core issue of the economic summit: the severe development deficiency is hurting Arab people as it brings about poverty and humiliation and is begging for an immediate response. “What is happening in Tunisia is not far from this hall,” he said.

Moussa ends his speech and takes back his seat next to Mubarak who was the incoming chair of the Arab Economic Summit. Mubarak leans to him and asks if he could have a cup of coffee in the summit hall. Moussa orders two coffees – one for Mubarak and another for himself.

This account of one of the crucial days that separate Ben Ali’s escape from Tunisia and the beginning of the 25 January Revolution in Egypt comes from the narrative that Moussa shared in the second volume of his biography which came out shortly before 2020 came to an end.

Ketabiyah – Sanwat Al-Gamaa AlArabiya (A testimony and an account – the Arab League years) came three years after the first volume was printed in 2017 — Ketabiyah (A testimony and an account) — which tells the story of Moussa’s decade as a foreign minister, from 1991 to 2001, when he became the Arab League’s secretary-general, with a bit of insight about his personal life ahead of joining the foreign service in the 1950s.

Khaled Abu Bakr, a journalist and writer, authored both books for Dar Al-Shorouk. Each of the two volumes is around 500 pages — with two selections of photos for each book.

In the second volume, there is an interesting photo from the Second Economic Arab Summit that convened in January 2011 in Sharm El-Sheikh.

In the picture, Mubarak, who was taking over the presidency of the summit from the Emir of Kuwait, is looking with unmasked boredom at his watch. Moussa, sitting next to Mubarak, is talking to two of his top aides with his finger pointing beyond the space that Mubarak had in the cadre of the photo.

The picture might have been a prophetic shot by the photographer. However, for his part, Moussa is not claiming that he expected what happened in Egypt towards the end of that month of January. At least he is not saying so. Nor is the prominent Arab diplomat sharing a candid account of what he really anticipated during the days leading to the January Revolution.

He is just sharing a conservative testimony: Mubarak and his aides were not very bothered by the call for demonstrations on 25 January; “they believed that 25 January would just come and go.”

Mubarak’s minister of interior was saying that he could “round up those kids in an hour,” and Mubarak’s foreign minister and minister of trade at the time, Ahmed AboulGheit and Rachid Mohmed Rachid respectively, blamed Moussa for his statement in the inauguration of the summit.

This second volume of his biography is promising an account of his 10 years at the helm of the pan-Arab organisation. However, Moussa is not exactly living up to this promise when it comes to the developments in Egypt which started in Tahrir Square right outside of his Arab League office and forced Mubarak to step down on 11 February 2011, just four days before the beginning of democracy calls in Libya on 15 February 2011.

Moussa was in office as Arab League secretary-general until 15 May 2011. He promises this segment to come in the third and last volume, which should cover his post-Arab League years, during which he ran for president and remained engaged in politics until he chaired the committee that in 2014 amended the constitution of Egypt that had been written after the ouster of Mubarak.

Instead, in this second volume, and also in the first volume, Moussa is indirectly offering a detailed and documented account on the long and often-turbulent path that Arab countries had to go through before reaching the point of the 2011 uprisings.

In one significant part of this story, in the second volume of the biography, Moussa tells the story of the 2004 Tunisia Arab Summit that had to address the need for development and governance reforms — which was way overdue as indicated by research sponsored by the Arab League in the previous two years.

This summit, Moussa reveals, saw a lot of squabbles over the document that proposed gradual reforms designed to address the severe democracy and development deficiencies in Arab countries. It came at a time of growing international pressure on Arab regimes to tone down their dictatorial style of rule that the West, especially the US, thought was feeding the seeds of anger and consequently the cells of terror groups.

The US, Moussa recalled, during the George W Bush Administration had decided in the wake of the horrific 9/11 attacks to promote democracy and moderate political Islam as a possible shield against the threats of terror groups like Al-Qaeda.

However, Moussa recalled, Arab leaders, for the most part, had no appetite for these calls for pursuing good governance. They thought, he wrote, “that they were immune to the anger and possible revolutions of their peoples.”

In an earlier segment that appears in the first volume of his biography, Moussa unequivocally blamed the poor quality of governance in Egypt under Gamal Abdel-Nasser for the 1967 defeat.

A regime which promised much — all in good, sincere, and patriotic intentions — but failed to deliver enough and instead walked the country into a humiliating military defeated that unveiled, in a very sad way, the delusional fallacies that had suggested that democracy and good governance were compromised to serve the bigger national objectives of liberation and leadership.

In the first and second volumes of Ketabiah, Moussa indirectly compares the 1967 defeat to the decision of Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in the summer of 1990 and to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, when the Iraqi president declined to reach an agreement with the UN on the inspection of the weapons of mass destruction which the US falsely claimed Iraq had.

Moussa argued, in the first volume, that the 1973 War and the subsequent decision of Anwar Sadat in 1977 to pursue the path of negotiation to complete the liberation of Egyptian territories from Israeli occupation — despite a few remarks — managed to partially save the day for Egypt.

He even argues that while Mubarak was not the Pharaoh-like-ruler that both Nasser and Sadat were and that while he was a lot more cautious than his predecessors, he still was not at all forthcoming in regard to the much needed reforms of the problematic reality that was never fully of Mubarak’s own making.

In the second volume of Ketabiah, Moussa implicitly argues that an agreement on gradual reforms in 2004 could have saved the day for Arab peoples and Arab countries from the havoc that came with the defeat of Arab democracy calls in 2011. Instead, Arab leaders declined to pay attention to the early voices of contempt, and they got instead immersed in marginal squabbles.

Meanwhile, Moussa does not offer much insight on the reasons behind the failure of almost every Arab Spring revolution. Only in the case of Libya, where the Arab League had, of late, been blamed for being party to an approval of a NATO intervention in Libya to suspend the brutal slaughter of the Libyan people at the hands of Muammar Qaddafi.

Qaddafi had promised to turn Libya into “a Red Libya” with the blood of demonstrators, Moussa refers to the public statements that Qaddafi’s politically influential son, Seif El-Islam, made ahead of the elimination of the country’s eccentric dictator who had ruled for 40 years: “either some reforms now or a long-term civil war — Libya is not Tunisia nor Egypt”.

That said, Moussa, in the second volume of his biography, chooses to succumb to the claims of critics who have been arguing that the current plight of Libya is to be blamed on NATO’s intervention. Moussa is, however, not saying how else would a worse blood bath could have been prevented in Libya when Qaddafi was actually bombing his own people.

He also does not say why has the Syrian plight not been averted despite the lack of international intervention to save Syrian civilians, who today make one of the worst humanitarian tragedies, with millions displaced and becoming refugees.

The Arab Spring is only one part of the over 500-page second volume of Moussa’s biography. The volume offers an incredible deal of documented accounts on many consequential issues of the Arab world, including the unending story of the political squabbles in Lebanon and the dramatic fate of the Palestinian cause.

He says that the Palestinian cause is standing today at a very disturbing point, with many countries from the Arabian Gulf normalising with Israel, believing that the pursuit of Palestinian rights is becoming old fashioned.

However, to put things in the right perspective, Moussa, both in the first and second volumes of his biography, shares several accounts that reveal an older willingness on the part of some Arab countries, out of the gulf zone, to open up for some forms of economic cooperation and diplomatic relations with Israel — with or without a fair and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace that should have allowed for a viable Palestinian state on territories that Israel occupied in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital as stipulated in the Arab Peace Initiative that was put forward in 2002 during the Beirut Arab Summit by the then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

The second volume of Moussa’s biography is particularly rich on documentation. In fact, it has what could at times come across as overly lengthy extracts from speeches and resolutions, especially on the Palestinian file.

And throughout the many paragraphs on the Palestinian cause, Moussa directly and indirectly praises and blames Arab leaders for their positions on the matter.

Mubarak, who passed away in February 2020, receives candid praise for having been committed to all the core issues of Palestinian rights. Mubarak, Moussa states, “never compromised on issues like the [illegal] Israeli settlements [on occupied Palestinian territories] or on Jerusalem or for that matter any of the [indelible] Palestinian rights.”

Moussa shares a limited version of the disagreements he had with Mubarak, only to say that it was a late-phase of tension that hit an otherwise friendly and decent working relationship that the two men had kept since Moussa was sent to head the Egyptian mission in New York in 1990 and during most of Moussa’s years at the helm of the Arab League Secretary General.

The clipped profile of Mubarak as president of Egypt since the assassination of Sadat in the autumn of 1981 to his ouster in February 2011 is one of the few profiles that the top Arab diplomat offers through a series of anecdotes that are dotted all over the 1200 pages of the two volumes.

Other figures who are briefly portrayed in the two volumes of Moussa’s biography include Omar Suliman, the second man of about 20 years of Mubarak’s rule. On 23 January 1993, Mubarak assigned Suliman as chief of intelligence. 18 years later, almost to the day, Mubarak chose Suliman as vice president to appease the demonstrators of the January revolution who had made it clear that they categorically rejected what was known as the ‘succession scenario’, whereby Gamal Mubarak, the younger of the president’s two sons, seemed to be grooming himself — or for that matter groomed by some from within Mubarak’s inner circle — to lead after Mubarak.

In one of the very few conversations that Moussa puts in his books, he shares a narrative of a conversation with Suliman, where both men expressed concern over the succession scenario.

According to Moussa’s account, while he thought that such scenario, if true, would be a serious breach of legitimacy, Suliman’s concerns were not just about legitimacy but about the fate of the country if this scenario was to be seriously pursued.

There is a smaller portion of anecdotes and conversations in the second volume than in the first. In general, the two volumes do not allow the reader to get an intimate walk through the life of Moussa from October 1936 when he was born to 15 May 2011 when he said good-bye to the staff of the Arab League.

Of these anecdotes, there is the state of shock and devastation that hit the offices of the foreign ministry upon the humiliating military defeat of 1967 that left everyone with total disbelief. Moussa recalls a senior diplomat fainting when the defeat was confirmed. He recalls his own grief, as he looked the bare truth in the eye — despite the delusional news reporting in Egypt claiming victory for two days.

Then, in New York, about six years later, Moussa received the news of the 6 October 1973 crossing. On 8 October 1973, while in a session at the UN Security Council, Moussa, he writes, had one of the most joyous moments of his life as the full crossing of Egyptian forces was affirmed and so was the destruction of the Bar Lev Line.

Instead, the two books offer a thorough insight into the political developments that he lived through since he joined the foreign service — there again, Moussa would not take his reader much behind so many closed doors. He just puts the developments and the news in their full context.

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