Boutros Boutros-Ghali: A diplomatic nonconformist

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 22 Nov 2022

To mark the centenary of Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s birth, Dina Ezzat revisits the memoirs and legacy of an Egyptian diplomat with unconventional views



Boutros Boutros-Ghali, one of Egypt’s leading diplomats, died on 16 February 2016 at the age of 93. Boutros-Ghali was given a military funeral and funeral mass led by the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Born to a Coptic Orthodox family in Cairo on 14 November 1922, Boutros-Ghali studied law at Cairo University from which he graduated in 1946. Three years later he completed a PhD and began what would be a three-decade career as professor of law at various universities.

In 1975, Boutros-Ghali moved from the path of academia. President Anwar Al-Sadat had replaced Mohamed Hassanein Heikal at Al-Ahram over simmering political differences and asked Boutros-Ghali to head Al-Ahram’s Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. He held the post for four years, during which time he launched Al-Seyasa Al-Dawliya, a monthly political publication that he hoped would become the Arab world’s version of Foreign Affairs, and Al-Ahram Al-Iqtissadi, planned as an Egyptian model of The Economist.

Four years down the road, just weeks before announcing his plan to visit Jerusalem to start negotiations to end the Israeli occupation of Sinai, Sadat appointed Boutros-Ghali as minister of state for foreign affairs.

In his memoirs, based on diaries that he had kept since his youth, Boutros-Ghali writes that when he received a summons to meet with prime minister Mamdouh Salem on 25 October 1977, he told his wife Leia Maria that a “disaster” had just hit their lives.

Within days of being sworn in office, Boutros-Ghali was in parliament listening as Sadat announced he was willing to go to Israel and address Israelis “at the very heart of their Knesset” in pursuit of a negotiated settlement to the Israeli occupation of Egyptian territory. The bombshell announcement provoked consternation, including the resignation of the then foreign minister Ismail Fahmi. In less than two weeks, Boutros-Ghali was accompanying Sadat as he landed at Ben-Gurion Airport to be received by top Israeli officials, including prime minister Menachem Begin, Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel during the October War, and leaders of the Israeli Labour Party, including Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

In The Road to Jerusalem, published in Arabic in 1997, Boutros-Ghali shares extracts from his diaries between 1978 and the eve of Sadat’s assassination on 6 October 1981. In more than 300 pages he outlines the frustrations and challenges of over two years of US-sponsored negotiations between Egypt and Israel that eventually led to the signing of the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty in March 1979, months after the signing of the 1978 Camp David Accords.

Boutros-Ghali provides a first-hand account of the tough negotiations that often seemed to be heading towards an impasse. In the volume, Sadat is portrayed as a passionate, determined, and somewhat erratic politician whose vision of managing one of the most complicated conflicts of the 20th century met with enormous opposition, not just in Egypt but from Arab and a number of Third World countries. Boutros-Ghali provided a vivid account of the dismay Yugoslavian president Josip Tito shared with him over Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem which Tito feared would “weaken the non-aligned movement”.

Boutros-Ghali’s recollections of the Camp David talks show Sadat having to “negotiate with the Israelis and also with the Egyptian” team working with him and make clear that his faith in Sadat’s choice to opt for negotiations was not shared by many of Sadat’s senior aides, or even the Foreign Ministry team that arrived at Camp David.

Boutros-Ghali often doubted whether Israel’s leaders were serious about reaching a deal and the conversations he recounts with Sadat during the negotiations, as shared in the book, show Sadat himself was unsure whether Begin was serious about making peace, or whether US president Jimmy Carter, who was hosting the talks at Camp David, would be able to bring the Israelis to agree to a peace agreement Sadat could sign.

Boutros-Ghali understood that he had been appointed as minister of state for foreign affairs to help Sadat in his negotiations with Israel, a job he knew would have been easier had he been foreign minister. He also knew that Sadat would not appoint a Copt to such a senior post.

Boutros-Ghali was determined not to be restricted to a single file. He regularly reminded Sadat that the focus on ending the Israeli occupation of Egyptian and other Arab territories should not overshadow Cairo’s need to reduce tensions in its relations with Nile Basin countries, especially Ethiopia, “the source of the Nile”.

The 11th chapter of The Road to Jerusalem, titled “Snubbing the source of the Nile”, explicitly addresses Boutros-Ghali’s concerns. He blames the bad chemistry between Sadat and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam for the tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa, and credits himself for having tried to dial down the tensions, not least during an emergency landing that his plane had to make in Addis Ababa.

The Nile issue remained a key concern of Boutros-Ghali’s work, first as minister of state for foreign affairs and later deputy prime minister for foreign affairs, under both Sadat and his successor Hosni Mubarak, and in The Road to Jerusalem he makes clear his frustration at what he characterised as the inadequate attention Egypt’s political leadership was paying to Nile Basin countries, especially Ethiopia, and other African states.

In Between the Nile and Jerusalem, published in 2013 and which covers the years 1981 to 1992, Boutros-Ghali details how he tried to push for a more engaged rapport with Nile Basin countries and makes clear his concerns that Cairo’s focus on the Arab-Israeli struggle, even after the return of Sinai, came at the expense of more focused attention on the source of life for Egypt, the Nile.

Waiting for the Next Moon, which appeared in Arabic in 2005, underlines Boutros-Ghali’s conviction in the importance of Egypt’s role in managing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but also makes clear this should not detract from engagement in African affairs. He shares his worries when one of Mubarak’s senior aides mumbled incoherent platitudes during a conversation in 1999, when Boutros-Ghali was secretary-general of the International Organisation of la Francophonie, over the need for Egypt to give more attention to the uneasy political situation in Sudan and tensions over the Nile between riparian states, and his reassurance when, in a subsequent conversation with then foreign minister Amr Moussa, he realised that the top Egyptian diplomat shared his opinion that Egypt needed to work more on both files. Unfortunately, as he notes, Moussa admitted that the management of relations with Sudan and with Nile Basin countries was fragmented between multiple state bodies.

“We get too consumed by the details of our everyday business to the point that we forget to plan for tomorrow,” he wrote.

Boutros-Ghali’s books make clear that his determination for Cairo to reach out to Africa was never just about Egypt’s strategic interests but also a result of his own passion for the continent.

As the sixth UN secretary-general, and as secretary-general of the International Organisation of la Francophonie, Boutros-Ghali travelled across the world and the accounts on African cities in his diary extracts underline the affinity he had with the continent. It was no surprise that his nomination for the job of the UN secretary-general was essentially the idea of an African leader, as he reveals in My Years in a House of Glass, published in Arabic in 1999.

Together, the four volumes shed light on the making of major political decisions that continue to impact on Egypt, the region and the wider world. The books are often anecdotal and include details of Boutros-Ghali’s occasional chats with taxi drivers and waiters. They are also packed with enough details to make it clear what Boutros-Ghali, a naturally reserved man, a professor of law and a diplomat, really thought of his colleagues, his seniors and the many people he met through a long career in diplomacy. It is just a question of reading between the lines.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Search Keywords:
Short link: