Against all the odds

Mohamed S Helal
Friday 23 Aug 2019

Former foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s second volume of memoirs dealing with Egypt’s declining influence abroad will soon be available in English translation

The US scholar Hans Morgenthau was the foremost scholar of international relations of the 20th century. In his magnum opus, Politics Among Nations, Morgenthau argued that the essence of politics is the pursuit of power.

The objective of all states, regardless of their historical circumstances, civilisational background, or geographical location, is to acquire and amass power to pursue their national interests. 

Power, of course, takes many forms, including military capabilities, economic vigour, financial wherewithal, cultural attractiveness, and human capital. These, according to Morgenthau, are “the raw material out of which the power of a nation is fashioned”.

Ultimately, however, the most potent component of national power is what Morgenthau called “the quality of a nation’s diplomacy, which combines these different factors into an integrated whole, and gives them direction and weight”. 

Diplomacy, in other words, is the art of deploying the instruments of power to achieve national interests. It is the process of employing the resources of a state to preserve its national security, expand its influence, and confront its adversaries.

Success in diplomacy is, therefore, entirely dependent on a nation’s power. History provides countless examples of states that achieved significant diplomatic breakthroughs as they acquired greater power.

America’s dramatic economic growth in the late 19th century enabled it to establish hegemony over the western hemisphere and beyond. Russia’s transformation from an agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse in the mid-20th century propelled it to become a superpower that challenged Western supremacy for several decades.

And today, China’s economic miracle is enabling Beijing to expand its influence throughout the Asia-Pacific region and is marking the end of the American unipolar moment. 

To be sure, serving as the foreign minister of a powerful or rising nation is no mean feat. It is infinitely more difficult, however, for a diplomat to be entrusted with leading a nation’s diplomatic service in a time of decline. That was the challenge that Aboul Gheit faced.

He was appointed minister of foreign affairs of Egypt on 14 July 2004, a position he held until 6 March 2011. He was, thus, the last foreign minister to serve under former president Hosni Mubarak. 

Like Charles de Talleyrand, France’s foreign minister after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, or Count Alois Aehrenthal, foreign minister of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of World War I, Anthony Eden and Selwyn Lloyd who witnessed the demise of the British Empire, or Eduard Shevardnadze who was Russia’s foreign minister in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, Aboul Gheit became foreign minister in an era during which Egypt’s relative power was receding.

Aboul Gheit’s predicament was further complicated by Egypt’s history and heritage. Egyptians generally have an inflated sense of pride. We think of Egypt as the indispensable nation of the region.

We assume that it is destined to dominate the Arab world, lead the Middle East, and exercise influence throughout Africa. We presume that Egypt’s rightful place is to be recognised as a pivotal state in world politics and to be dealt with as such by the great powers.

Throughout his seven years in office, Aboul Gheit was required to use limited and increasingly dwindling resources to protect Egypt’s interests and fulfill this ambitious vision of Egypt’s standing and stature.

In my view, Aboul Gheit succeeded despite considerable difficulties. He operated in what was a stagnant political system. He served under an ageing, uninventive octogenarian president who, despite his lethargy and deteriorating health, insisted on maintaining an iron grip on the processes of articulating and executing foreign policy.

Aboul Gheit also represented a country that had failed to achieve significant economic progress and that was unable to realise sustainable development despite decades of peace and political stability. He competed with countries like Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa that had larger economic resources, and, particularly in Turkey, Iran, and South Africa, that were led by dynamic political elites that were implementing ambitious foreign-policy agendas. 

He also had to contend with Israel, which is vastly more advanced than Egypt in terms of technology, research, and innovation. T

o further complicate matters, he served during years when the world’s sole superpower was waging a war on terror that targeted the Middle East and the Islamic world. Aboul Gheit overcame many of these challenges and achieved important diplomatic victories.

He preserved vital Egyptian interests, protected Egyptian national security against a broad range of threats, and sought to maintain Egypt’s standing at a time when its regional competitors where becoming increasingly assertive. 

In short, Aboul Gheit succeeded against all the odds.  

Memoirs Of War

This becomes apparent from reading Aboul Gheit’s memoirs, which have been released in two separate books. 

Book one, entitled Witness to War and Peace was published in Arabic in 2013 and in English in 2019. Book two was also published in Arabic in 2013 and is entitled My Testimony: Egyptian Foreign Policy 2004-2011. The English version of this book is forthcoming from the AUC Press in Cairo under the title: Egyptian Foreign Policy in Time of Crisis

These memoirs chronicle two periods of Aboul Gheit’s 46 years of public service. The first, which is the subject of Witness to War and Peace, is Aboul Gheit’s service as a junior member of the secretariat of the National Security Council during the crucial years preceding the 6 October 1973 War and his participation in several rounds of negotiations with Israel that culminated in the signing on 17 September 1978 of the Framework of Peace in the Middle East and the Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel, otherwise known as the Camp David Accords. 

This book also outlines Aboul Gheit’s reflections on the peace process, beginning with the Madrid Peace Conference, which he attended, and until the efforts to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations following the second Intifada.

The second book, My Testimony, is an equally fascinating read. It covers Aboul Gheit’s seven years as foreign minister and discusses virtually every aspect of Egypt’s foreign relations during that period. 

One overarching observation that is apparent from reading Aboul Gheit’s memoirs relates to Egypt’s political system and the mechanisms of formulating and administering foreign policy in Egypt.

Since the establishment of the republic on 18 June 1953, Egypt has been governed by a highly centralised political system. While many might find it self-evident and perhaps even banal to make this observation, Aboul Gheit’s books reveal the extreme degree to which the Egyptian president has exercised unrivaled political authority that has extended from monumental decisions, such as waging war and pursuing peace, to relatively quotidian administrative matters.

For instance, in Witness to War and Peace, Aboul Gheit recounts the deliberations among Egypt’s political leadership about the decision to launch a surprise attack against Israel across the Suez Canal on 6 October 1973.

In an historic meeting on 30 September 30, a mere one week before the war, former president Anwar Al-Sadat informed Egypt’s senior statesmen of his decision to wage war.

During this meeting, Sadat dismissed the concerns of various ministers about the prospects of success in the upcoming battle and rejected calls to delay the commencement of military operations to allow for better preparations, such as ensuring the availability of sufficient stocks of strategic supplies and essential war materiel. 

Similarly, on 13 October 1973 as battles were raging in the deserts of the Sinai, Sadat took a series of critical tactical decisions that had serious repercussions on the war effort.

Despite the ardent opposition of several field commanders, the president ordered Egyptian forces to advance towards the Mitla and Gidi passes that were beyond the range of Egypt’s air-defence missiles, thereby exposing Egypt’s armoured divisions and infantry to ravaging attacks by Israel’s superior air force. 

Sadat also rejected, without much consultation with his advisers, British and Soviet calls to reach a ceasefire with Israel on 13 October 1973, which would have ended the war at a moment when Egypt had achieved significant victories and before Israel had breached Egyptian lines and placed forces on the western back of the Suez Canal, thereby encircling Egypt’s Third Army Corps.

And Peace

Egyptian presidents have also been equally involved in matters of lesser consequence. 

In My Testimony, Aboul Gheit recalls that while he was serving as Egyptian ambassador to Italy, former president Mubarak repeatedly inquired about the technical specifications and price of the armoured vehicles that the Italian government had provided for the Egyptian delegation during the visit.

The president, Aboul Gheit later found out, was interested in the Italian car because he had been considering different models of European vehicles that Egypt was planning to purchase to assign to senior government officials.  

Regardless of whether one agrees with Sadat’s decisions and considers him a master strategist or whether one applauds Mubarak for his involvement in issues of government procurement to ensure the prudent use of public funds, these incidents reveal the extent to which the president has monopolised political authority in Egypt. 

Since former president Gamal-Abdel Nasser’s ascent to power, and throughout Aboul Gheit’s decades of public service, the fortunes of the nation have been entirely dependent on the will and whim of a single politically omnipotent man.

The government has functioned merely as a technocratic secretariat that has implemented the president’s directives. Egypt has not been governed by a political system that has operated on the bases of checks, balances, and popular oversight, but rather has been ruled by a state apparatus headed by a single individual who has wielded extensive powers. 

Indeed, in a revealing paragraph in My Testimony, Aboul Gheit states that “I rejected, and still do, the claims of some Egyptian foreign ministers that ‘their’ foreign policies were aiming at this matter or that, or this foreign policy that ‘they’ established achieved so and so.

These claims do not reflect the truth of the Egyptian presidential regime. My assertion is that all the foreign ministers implemented and managed foreign policy as instructed by the presidents, using different methods and ideas that varied from one minister to another according to his convictions, the challenges he faced, his competencies, and his experience.” 

Occasionally, the results of this political reality were propitious. One example is the success of Sadat’s strategy in negotiating with Israel, which he pursued doggedly despite pushback from his senior aides. Indeed, three foreign ministers, Ismail Fahmi, Mohamed Riad and Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel, resigned in protest at Sadat’s policies, and, as memoirs by Aboul Gheit and others have revealed, several Egyptian diplomats expressed reservations about Sadat’s approach and the concessions he made to Israel.

Nonetheless, as Aboul Gheit argues in Witness to War and Peace (an assessment with which I agree), in hindsight, Sadat’s calculations, choices, and his almost despotic resolve to reach an agreement with Israel were entirely warranted and achieved vital Egyptian interests. 

More frequently, however, this centralisation of power exacted significant costs on the administration of Egyptian foreign (and domestic) policy.

The most calamitous example, of course, is the crisis of May and June 1967 during which Nasser’s misadventures, missteps, and miscalculations led to the Six-Day War and the occupation of Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Jerusalem. 

Another, albeit less disastrous, example mentioned by Aboul Gheit in My Testimony is Sadat’s decision to ratify the 1969 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

This was an unnecessary, gratuitous concession by Sadat to the US and Israel that led to the strategically hazardous situation in which Israel retains a nuclear weapons programme that is unchecked by the international community.

Aboul Gheit’s two-part memoirs are replete with similar cases in which the centralisation and personalisation of power damaged Egyptian interests.

These, in my view, were the twin challenges that faced Aboul Gheit as he took charge of Egypt’s foreign ministry in 2004. First, Egypt was being outperformed economically by many of its peers in the Middle East and Africa and it faced considerable financial difficulties that were often addressed by requesting assistance from Arabian Gulf states — a practice that caused Aboul Gheit, as it would any proud Egyptian, profound discomfort. 

Second, Aboul Gheit served under a president who, despite his many ailments, exercised unflinching control over the foreign policy-making process.

The detrimental effects of these circumstances are evident throughout Aboul Gheit’s memoirs. These realities were like a straitjacket that limited the maneuverability and effectiveness of Egypt’s diplomatic corps and its foreign minister.

Throughout his memoirs, you hear echoes of Aboul Gheit’s frustration as he competed with wealthier and more dynamic nations that were governed by vibrant political systems and that were led by younger reform-minded leaders.

Effects Of Circumstances

The effect of these political and economic circumstances is most evident in the challenges that Ahmed Aboul Gheit faced in engaging with the question of UN Security Council reform. 

Serious efforts were made during the opening years of the 21st century to revisit the structure, powers, and composition of the Security Council. Various proposals were tabled to expand the council’s membership, including the number of permanent seats, to reflect the changing topography of world power.

Britain and France had become mere shadows of their former imperial selves, while Germany and Japan, the vanquished powers of the axes, had emerged as economic titans.

India and Brazil were accumulating greater wealth and were demanding recognition as influential players in world affairs. And Africa was calling for remedying the wrongs wrought upon it by colonialism by increasing its representation on the council.

Egypt considered itself a natural candidate for permanent membership if Africa were assigned permanent seats on an expanded Security Council.

The reality, however, was that Egypt’s stature in Africa had receded. Despite decades of diplomatic efforts and hundreds of visits by successive Egyptian foreign ministers and senior envoys to almost every African country, Egypt was losing ground on the continent. This was due to several factors. 

First, Africa had changed. In the 1950s, Egypt established itself as an African powerhouse by supporting African liberation movements and by leading anti-colonialism efforts at the UN.

In the 21st century, however, Africa’s priorities had become achieving sustainable development, attracting foreign investment, and promoting state-building.

Egypt simply did not have the resources to contribute to these efforts. When he entered office in 2004, Aboul Gheit discovered that the budget of the Egyptian Fund for Technical and Economic Cooperation with Africa, the principal mechanism for implementing development projects in Africa, was a meagre $10 million.

Although by 2010, Aboul Gheit had succeeded, after arduous negotiations with the prime minister and other government agencies, to increase the fund’s budget to $23 million, that was still woefully insufficient to maintain Egypt’s stature in Africa.

Second, Egypt’s president had essentially absented himself from Africa. Since the assassination attempt on his life in Addis Ababa in 1995, Mubarak had avoided attending African summits or visiting African capitals.

In addition to the sensitivity of the president’s security services, Mubarak’s advancing age also prevented him from participating in these African gatherings.

It took all of Aboul Gheit’s powers of persuasion to convince Mubarak to participate for several hours in African summits in Nigeria and Ghana. Aboul Gheit also convinced the president to instruct the prime minister to lead Egypt’s delegations to African summits that the president would not attend. 

As Egypt’s influence decreased, its regional competitors gained ground. Having overcome the evil of apartheid, an economically advanced and democratic South Africa that was celebrated as the “rainbow nation” had established itself as the dominant power in Africa’s southern cone.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous state, was also exercising greater influence in western Africa and using ECOWAS as a vehicle to entrench itself as an important African power.

In North Africa, Algeria and Libya, with its megalomaniac leader Muammar Gaddafi who spent billions of dollars on expanding his influence throughout Africa, considered themselves to be viable candidates for an African permanent seat on the Security Council. 

As an expert tactician with decades of experience at the UN, Aboul Gheit appreciated the stakes involved in the issue of Security Council reform.

On the one hand, he understood that Egypt did not have the potential, resources, or regional clout in Africa to guarantee that it would be assigned a permanent seat on behalf of Africa.

On the other hand, he realised that Egypt’s regional and international influence would be fatally damaged if it were excluded from an expanded Security Council that included permanent seats for Africa.

He feared that Egypt would become second-rate player in world affairs if other African countries, such as South Africa or Nigeria, were granted permanent seats on behalf of Africa on the Security Council.

Therefore, Aboul Gheit led a team of Egypt’s best and brightest, which included the current foreign minister Sameh Shoukri, that waged a pitched battle to protect Egypt’s national interests in this area.

As he explains in My Testimony, Aboul Gheit cooperated with like-minded African states to ensure that the African Union adopted a maximalist position, known as the Ezulwini Consensus, that demanded five new seats on the Security Council for Africa.

These would include two veto-wielding permanent seats and three non-permanent seats. Everyone involved understood that it was highly unlikely that the general membership of the UN would accept these proposals.

By dramatically inflating Africa’s demands and by torpedoing the repeated attempts by Nigeria and South Africa to undermine the Ezulwini Consensus, Aboul Gheit ensured that the Security Council reform would not proceed to Egypt’s detriment. 

To some, this policy might appear as obstructionism that undermined the effectiveness of the UN. That view is simply misguided utopianism. A permanent seat on the Security Council is the ultimate mark of global influence and political prestige.

Any country that is granted a permanent seat on an expanded Security Council will not use it to realise the high-minded objectives of the UN, but will exploit it to serve its individual interests and will leverage its new-found power to expand its regional standing.

It was natural, therefore, that having calculated that it was unlikely that Egypt would be assigned a permanent Security Council seat on behalf of Africa, Aboul Gheit fought to protect Egypt against the incalculable harm that it would suffer if it were excluded from an expanded Council.

This, I believe, is one of the most significant achievements of Aboul Gheit during his years as foreign minister. 

Expanding Horizons

As the battle to prevent the expansion of the Security Council raged, Aboul Gheit and Egypt’s Foreign Ministry laboured to expand the horizons of Egypt’s foreign policy. 

In the heyday of Nasserism, Egypt was at the forefront of the international diplomatic forums that emerged during the decolonisation era, especially the Non-Aligned Movement.

Unfortunately, however, by the early 21st century, Egypt’s sluggish economy and torpid political system meant that new forums of diplomatic activity were being created without Egypt’s participation.

For instance, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa formed the BRICS, a grouping of emerging economies that were articulating a common political agenda that called for the establishment of a multipolar world order that would counter Western dominance of international affairs. 

Similarly, the G20 became the principal forum for international economic governance, especially in the years following the global financial crisis. Egypt, of course, was not invited to join either the BRICS or the G20. This undoubtedly affected the impact of Egyptian foreign policy.

The fact that African, Arab, and Middle Eastern countries, such as South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, had joined these groupings meant that Egypt’s peer competitors were increasingly being recognised as enjoying greater clout in their respective regions. 

Aboul Gheit sought to overcome this unfortunate reality. He applied a strategy that one can call “hyperactive diplomacy” to compensate for Egypt’s socio-economic deficiencies and the torpor of its political leadership.

He proposed creating political groupings and coalitions similar to BRICS with like-minded states, such as South Korea, Mexico, and Pakistan.

He exploited the rapport between Mubarak and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to convince the Italian government to invite Egypt to the 35th G8 Summit in L’Aquila. 

He lobbied to ensure that Egypt was assigned leadership positions in regional initiatives such as the Union for the Mediterranean which Egypt co-chaired with France.

He organised dozens of regional and international conferences in Egypt. These included the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the 19th NEPAD Summit, the 11th African Union Summit, the 15th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Reconstruction of Gaza Conference, the Neighbours of Iraq Conference, and multiple meetings of the 6+2+1 Forum that included the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Egypt and Jordan, and the United States, which met to coordinate regional policies between these countries.

These summits were an attempt to raise Egypt’s profile and to signal that it was a hub of international diplomatic activity. 

Concurrently, Aboul Gheit sought to expand the range of Egypt’s global contacts. After extensive talks, he succeeded in securing Russia’s agreement to establishing an institutionalised dialogue with Egypt in which the foreign and defence ministers of both countries consulted on political and strategic matters.

He instituted a strategic dialogue with China, and succeeded, after considerable effort, in convincing president Mubarak to visit India after a quarter of a century since the last visit by an Egyptian head of state to Delhi.

On the other hand, the foreign minister could not coax the president into visiting Latin America, which meant that Aboul Gheit had to tour these countries himself to maintain positive relations with these important players.

Aboul Gheit also strengthened relations with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which led South Sudan to independence in 2011.

As early as 2005 when he attended the signing of the peace agreement that ended the civil war in Sudan, Aboul Gheit foresaw that the implementation of this agreement would lead to the secession of South Sudan.

He, therefore, understood the importance of establishing and expanding contacts with Juba. He opened an Egyptian consulate in South Sudan and provided assistance to southern Sudanese officials in Cairo, and despite the inadequate resources at his disposal he took the initiative to establish several projects in South Sudan, including an Egyptian medical facility and several power plants.  

Hyperactive diplomacy, however, has its limits. While a dynamic, innovative and active diplomacy may enable a country to maintain the appearance of influence at the UN, the African Union, and other multilateral forums, the realities of power will ultimately determine outcomes on major political questions.

On issues such as the Arab-Israeli peace process, inter-Palestinian politics, inter-Arab relations, and the situation in Lebanon, the effects of Egypt’s decline were palpable.

One striking symptom of this was the markedly visible role that Saudi Arabia was performing in the region, and Cairo’s tendency to calibrate its foreign policy to match Riyadh’s views.

As Aboul Gheit explains throughout My Testimony, president Mubarak insisted on maintaining close coordination with Saudi Arabia’s king Abdullah, which meant that Saudi Arabia’s policies, especially regarding the internal politics of Lebanon and relations with Syria, heavily influenced Mubarak’s positions.

Arab Affairs

To further complicate matters, this was a period during which the Arab world was becoming increasingly divided into two opposing camps. 

The first was dubbed the peace camp or the moderation camp, which included Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, while the second was called the confrontation camp, which was led by Syria and included sub-state actors such as Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine.

This latter camp was actively supported by Iran and enjoyed the sympathies of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Qatar also frequently aligned itself with the confrontation camp and employed its Al-Jazeera news network to promote its views and to criticise the peace or moderation camp. 

Iran and Turkey’s increasing intrusiveness in Arab affairs reflected the general deterioration of inter-Arab relations and the overall atrophy of the Arab political system.

The fact that two non-Arab Middle Eastern powers had become influential players in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq evinced the extent to which inter-Arab cooperation and solidarity had withered.

Furthermore, the fact that Syria, traditionally a bastion of Arabism, had drifted from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, its natural partners, and established itself as a stalwart ally of Iran demonstrated the degree of the breakdown in inter-Arab relations. 

Tensions between these two camps reached their zenith on two occasions during Aboul Gheit’s term in office.

The first was during Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon and the second was during the military operations launched by Israel against Gaza in December 2008.

One of the distinguishing features of these conflicts, especially the 2006 Lebanon War, was the fact that these were the first instances in which a non-Arab power, namely Iran, had become heavily involved through its Lebanese proxy, Hizbullah, in an armed confrontation with Israel. 

Egypt’s policies during these conflicts was consistent. First, it exercised political pressure against Israel through bilateral contacts and in multilateral forums, especially the UN Security Council, to end its military operations against Lebanon and Gaza.

Second, it worked to limit the impact of Israel’s repeated acts of aggression on Egypt. In particular, Egypt was attentive to the dangers that Israel’s military strikes against Gaza posed to its national security.

It ardently opposed attempts to transfer responsibility for the Gaza Strip from Israel to Egypt and insisted that Israel continued to be recognised as an occupying power in Gaza despite its unilateral withdrawal in 2005.

Egypt also understood that the gravest danger to the Palestinian cause was internecine conflict between the Palestinian factions, especially Fatah and Hamas, and worked to promote reconciliation between them. Third, Egypt adopted a two-pronged approach towards the confrontation camp.

On the one hand, it sought to contain the influence of those countries and undermine proposals by them to take escalatory and even aggressive measures against Israel.

On the other hand, it worked to moderate the positions of the countries and parties of the confrontation camp. It encouraged Hamas to agree to long-term ceasefires with Israel. It was engaged with Damascus in a bid to improve its relations with the West, especially the US, and to encourage it to alter its policies in Lebanon.

It also retained contacts with the various components of Lebanon’s complex political spectrum, including Hizbullah, to maintain stability in that country.  

This Egyptian posture was subjected to considerable criticism. Especially during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against Gaza that was launched in December 2008, Egypt’s policy was condemned by many Egyptians and Arabs.

Some, including Nabil Al-Arabi, Aboul Gheit’s successor as foreign minister, considered that Egypt’s stance was tantamount to complicity with Israel in its crimes against the Palestinians.

In his memoirs, Aboul Gheit rejects these criticisms. He argues, forcefully and convincingly, that these views were naïve and could imperil core Egyptian interests.

He insists on the importance of maintaining Egypt’s overall posture towards Israel, which is predicated on preserving the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty as long as Egypt’s national security is not threatened. 

I do not contest this view. Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel is a cornerstone of Egyptian foreign policy and a foundational tenet of Egyptian strategy. However, it has often appeared that both Aboul Gheit and his critics conceive of relations with Israel as a binary choice between war and peace.

In reality, however, Egyptian policy towards Israel should be imagined as a spectrum. Exercising pressure against Israel and taking relatively more assertive political measures in response to its often-brutal actions against the Palestinians and in Lebanon does not undermine the peace treaty with Israel. 

It is true that in the 40 years since the conclusion of the peace treaty with Israel, Egypt has been critical of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories in Palestine and Syria.

It is also undeniable that Egypt vociferously opposed the Israeli nuclear weapons programme both at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and during the NPT Review Conferences. However, the political impact of these measures has been minimal.

Israel has been largely unaffected by the condemnations and expressions of disapproval of Israeli policy that are periodically issued by Egypt and other Arab countries. 

Instead, serious consideration should have been given to suspending or terminating the Arab Peace Initiative. Egypt and Aboul Gheit’s opposition to proposals to withdraw, or at least threaten to withdraw, from the Arab Peace Initiative were inexplicable.

There were innumerable occasions since Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon began implementing his unilateral disengagement plan when the Arabs should have revisited their peace initiative.

Benyamin Netanyahu’s policies in the 10 years that he has served as prime minister of Israel have provided further evidence that Israel has no interest in reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians and that it has jettisoned the two-state solution as an option for a final settlement.

On Israel

Egypt’s policies during the Gaza War, and towards Israel generally, were deeply unpopular. 

Although issues of foreign policy were not central to the grievances that fueled the discontent that exploded in a mass uprising in Egypt on 25 January 2011, many Egyptians found their government’s positions unconvincing, if not entirely contemptible.

Aboul Gheit and others might argue that this was the result of Al-Jazeera’s propagandistic coverage of the Gaza War, which was fueled by Qatar’s animosity towards Egypt.

That is partially true. However, one must concede that the Egyptian government failed to explain and justify its policies to its own populace, which contributed, even if only slightly, to the erosion of the popularity and legitimacy of the-then ruling regime. 

Furthermore, even if the government had exerted greater efforts to defend and rationalise its policies to domestic audiences, the reality is that, at least upon Netanyahu’s election to office in Israel in early 2009, it had become wholly unpersuasive to talk of a peace process or the pursuit of the two-state solution.    

Obviously, it was unlikely that Mubarak would have entertained any such suggestions on the termination or suspension of the Arab Peace Initiative. As Aboul Gheit explains, Mubarak was cautious and unadventurous.

These characteristics were ingrained in his nature and also reflected his advancing age. Moreover, Mubarak, like any authoritarian leader, did not attach too much importance to popular opinion regarding his foreign policies.

Furthermore, there are subtle intimations in Aboul Gheit’s memoirs that the president’s policies might have been influenced, at least partially, by his desire to maintain positive relations with the US and Israel to facilitate his son’s ascension to the presidency. 

These observations lead me to my principal critique of Aboul Gheit’s memoirs. Especially with My Testimony, Aboul Gheit provides a detailed description of the content of Egyptian foreign policy and the mechanics of executing that policy.

Aboul Gheit does not, however, provide an in-depth critical evaluation of these policies. His books, particularly My Testimony, read as a dialogue with his detractors and a defensive response to critics of Egyptian foreign policy, who were particularly harsh in their attacks against Aboul Gheit and the foreign ministry in the days and months after the 25 January 25 Revolution. 

Unfortunately, however, his memoirs offer precious little analysis of the successes and failures of Egyptian foreign policy. With the exception of some general, ambiguous observations in the final pages of My Testimony, Aboul Gheit does not present any prescriptions regarding the future of Egyptian foreign policy. 

Public office is, essentially, a public trust. As part of their responsibilities, holders of high political office must reflect on their own failures and successes and on the trials, triumphs, and tribulations of their nations.

I, therefore, expected Ahmed Aboul Gheit, a seasoned statesman and astute student of history and geopolitics, to present a systematic and systemic analysis of both Egyptian foreign policy and domestic politics and to offer his thoughts on the general state of affairs in the Arab world.

I hoped to read a candid and comprehensive evaluation of the root causes of Egypt’s relative decline and a diagnosis of the malaise that afflicted Egyptian society in the past decades. 

Perhaps these are topics that he might consider addressing in a third book of memoirs chronicling his time as secretary-general of the Arab League and reflecting on his life and legacy in diplomacy. 

* The writer is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and was an assistant professor of law at the Moritz College of Law and affiliated faculty at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University in the US.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Against all the odds

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