Boutros Boutros-Ghali was one of former president Anwar Al-Sadat’s key advisers in the process leading up to the Egypt-Israel Peace Accords in 1979, and he was later the UN secretary general in the 1990s.
His most important contribution to modern Egyptian thought was in national security. Like several other thinkers presented in this series of articles, he believed in the existence of a unique Egyptian identity that was vastly different from that of other countries in the region, and he also believed that Egyptian interests differed from those of its neighbours.
In a way, his thinking was the exact opposite of that of Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the doyen of Egypt’s theorists of Arab nationalism who was presented in the previous article in this series.
However, unlike many of the other thinkers who believed in a marked difference between Egyptianness and Arabism, Boutros-Ghali was not a Mediterraneanist.
He certainly believed in the immense value that Egypt had attained from its exposure to Europe in the 150 years from the beginning of the 19th to the middle of the 20th centuries and until the collapse of Egypt’s liberal age.
He himself was also a product of this exposure. His character and style were a mix of the culture of the Nile Valley, with a strong imprint from the heritage of Upper Egypt (the Saeed), along with the absorption of European, and especially French, culture.
But Boutros-Ghali was never infatuated with Europe. With his deep understanding of European intellectual history, he knew that there was an unbridgeable gulf between Egypt’s historical experiences and those of Europe, even those of the south of the continent.
He understood the historical connections between Egypt and Europe. Modern Egypt had evolved from internalising aspects of Romantic and industrial Europe, he thought, in the same way that Renaissance Europe had come about through internalising Greek and Arab ideas that owed a lot to ancient Egyptian concepts.
But he also thought that modern Egypt’s internalising of European ways had had certain limits. Unlike the Mediterraneanists in modern Egyptian culture, he was convinced that there were internal cultural barriers in Egypt’s collective consciousness that would stop the country from undertaking any advanced attempt at Europeanisation.
He never lamented the existence of those barriers, since for him they were also at the core of Egyptian identity and the products of Egypt’s extremely rich culture that had managed over the millennia to retain its uniqueness.
Even so, he was far too sophisticated to fall for any narrow-minded nationalism. He understood that Egyptian culture, the product of a predominantly agricultural country, has always been self-contained and that this was a blessing as well as a curse. For that culture to transcend its limitations, and for it to rise and innovate, he thought that it needed fresh ideas that often came from abroad.
In this view, a diversity of ideas, experiences, and perspectives was a key ingredient for modern Egypt to progress. It was the mix of the best ideas, talents, and perspectives that had chosen Egypt as their home with the country’s inherent stability, solidity, and anchorage in history that had made 19th and early 20th-century Egypt the beacon of the east, Boutros-Ghali thought.
The best and brightest ideas and talents did not need to come from Europe or from across the Mediterranean, however. They could also, and often had also, come from the south and from Africa.
Boutros-Ghali was the Egyptian foreign policy strategist most interested in, knowledgeable about, and involved in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the late 1970s, he effectively served as Egypt’s foreign minister and tried to resuscitate Egypt’s strong links to Africa, building on the major heritage of cooperation during the presidency of Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s.
He had a particular interest in East Africa. The fact that this region was also the origin of the River Nile carried immense weight in his view of its importance for Egypt’s national security. But he also saw East Africa as a land of opportunity for Egypt. He had the foresight, along with the geographer/ geologist/ scientist Rushdi Said, also discussed earlier in this series, to envisage major economic cooperation with the countries of the Nile Basin. Egypt needed the north and Europe, he thought, to bring out the best in its own consciousness, but it also needed the south and Africa to anchor it in place, including in terms of its development.
Boutros-Ghali’s thinking about East Africa and the continent as a whole also stemmed from his deep understanding of the history of the Egyptian Coptic Church. He knew the colossal weight the church had had in East Africa’s history from the earliest centuries to the papacy of Coptic Pope Kyrillos IV in the 19th century, a transformative Egyptian patriarch also discussed earlier in this series, to the late 20th century.
He was the kind of encyclopaedic and multi-dimensional thinker who conceived of national security as drawing on a deep and wide understanding of a country’s history, culture, and positioning in its neighbourhood. For him, the Egyptian Coptic Church was a pillar of Egypt’s soft power and influence in the region in the same way that Egyptian Christianity has always been a pillar of Egyptianness.
When remembering Boutros-Ghali, many invoke his light-heartedness and humility. For those who knew him and conversed with him, there lay behind a soft demeanour a remarkable sharpness and mental agility that made listening to him an education as well as a pleasure.
It is for this reason that Boutros-Ghali, unlike many of modern Egypt’s most notable thinkers, was also more than just an intellectual giant. He was also a magnificent teacher.
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly