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At Pharaoh’s Court

Egypt’s Road to Jerusalem: A Diplomat’s Story of the Struggle for Peace in the Middle East

by Boutros Boutros-Ghali
Random House, 366 pp., $27.50

October 25, 1977, was a routine day in the life of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a fifty-five-year-old professor at Cairo University. He had spent the morning at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science. Then he went to the offices of Al Ahram, the semi-official newspaper and printing plant, to read the proofs of Al siyasah al-dawliyah, a quarterly on international affairs of which he was the editor. Later, he went to the airport to meet his wife, who was returning from a trip to Italy. As he entered the terminal, a breathless journalist from Al Ahram ran up to him. “The Presidency of the republic has been looking for you everywhere. Where have you been? A thousand congratulations, Doctor, on the ministry!”

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was baffled. Egypt is known as a “pharaonic democracy”—nobody had bothered to consult him on this appointment, which he had never sought. Nor would it have made a difference if he had. His wife, Leia, came through customs. As soon as she saw his face she asked what was wrong. He replied that he was threatened with a calamity that would turn her life and his upside down.

He had never held public office before. His first reaction was that it was not in his interest to assume one now. He felt no hesitation. His life as a prominent scholar, fairly well known in Egypt and abroad, was pleasant enough. He had made a name for himself for his pan-Arabism and his pan-Africanism—fashionable ideologies at the time, especially among Francophile intellectuals—and as a severe critic of Israel, which he saw as dominated by the “colonialism” of “white settler” mentality. His harsh views on Israel implied that an Egyptian reconciliation with Israel was possible only if Israel were to become assimilated politically and culturally within a united Arab federation. As an isolated “Jewish Hong Kong” facing the “Arab” land mass, it was, he believed, doomed.

He was rich, not as rich as he might have been had most of his inherited feudal property not been sequestered by Nasser in 1952, but still prosperous enough to live very comfortably. He could do serious academic work and attend scholarly congresses held in pleasant places abroad. He decided to see the Prime Minister immediately and to decline the appointment.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was a slim, good-looking man, a Copt, that is to say both a Christian and, in all probability, a descendant of the ancient, pre-Arab population of Egypt. He had been brought up in Cairo, and gone to its university before taking degrees in Paris; his wife came from a well-to-do Romanian Jewish family that lived in Alexandria. In academic circles he was known for his wry wit and occasional sharp tongue as well as his elegance. His trousers were always creased and his polished shoes never scuffed, not in the African bush or even in the dust-choked streets of downtown Cairo.

And yet, even as he told his wife on the way to their home in Gizah that he would decline a ministry, he might have had second thoughts. He was, after all, an ambitious man and power occasionally also waits on him who earns it. And did he really have a choice? In the Western world, Boutros-Ghali would tell his students, one can dissent and resign and life goes on, but in the third world, dissent and resignation were more complicated and often meant a betrayal of the leader, leading to what the Romans had called “civil death.”

At eleven o’clock that same night, at one of the former royal palaces in Qasr al-Dubarah, where as a youth Boutros-Ghali had attended elegant parties in honor of King Farouk, Prime Minister Mamduh Salim received him. The two men had never met. The conversation between them was short and curt. Salim brusquely confirmed his appointment. Boutros-Ghali said he was not interested in public office. Salim had a reputation, Boutros-Ghali tells us, for “honesty, self-control, and careful and infrequent speech—a rare combination in the Arab world.” “Above all,” he adds, “he was a security man, a policeman.”

In this, perhaps somewhat menacing, atmosphere, Boutros-Ghali (could it be that he was fearing “civil death”?) asked lamely: “How can I take such an official position? All Socialist laws are [still] applied against me, from the first Land Reform Law of 1952 to the third Land Reform Law.”

Mamduh Salim replied, “We are aware of that.”

My wife’s fortune has been sequestered,” Boutros-Ghali continued. “We are not, therefore, in high standing politically in the eyes of those who have made the revolution.”

We are aware of that,” said Salim.

Your laws have made me an enemy of the people. It is not in the interest of Egypt to offer me this appointment.”

We are aware of that,” the prime minister said again.

So it went. Boutros-Ghali felt the noose tightening, he tells us. He suddenly realized that he had not even been told what ministerial position he was supposed to assume. Salim laughed and said that he had been appointed minister of state without a defined sphere of activities. “You will work with me here in the Presidency of the Council of Ministers.” Boutros-Ghali did not know what that meant. Once again he asked to be excused. He assured Salim that he was ready to serve the government as a citizen without a ministerial title. Salim’s patience was running out. “Dr. Boutros, you are fussing,” he said. “The republican decree on the composition of the ministry, and your membership in it, has been broadcast on the radio and television…. You have no choice…. I want to see you early tomorrow morning in Abdin Palace, where you will take the constitutional oath.”

On the following morning, Boutros-Ghali went to Abdin Palace, the former royal residence. Its great rooms, furnished in a gaudy style often mocked as “Farouk Quinze,”glowed with gold decoration. He was agitated. He had been given a small card on which the text of the oath was printed but found himself unable to recite the oath without mistakes. The problem, he confesses, that seemed to him of the utmost importance at that moment was: “Should I wear my glasses while taking the oath or take them off? As I pondered this dilemma I found myself standing in front of the president of the republic with my glasses on…. I took off my glasses, slowly pronounced the oath, and returned to my place.”

He knew his place perfectly well. Just what it was is made clear in his new memoir of life and work at pharaoh’s court. It covers his three years (1978-1981) as Sadat’s chief diplomatic agent—in fact if not in title—from the day Sadat rocked the Arab countries and amazed the world by going on a flamboyant peace mission to Jerusalem, to his assassination three years later—possibly because he had made peace. Boutros-Ghali’s role in achieving that peace treaty was considerable. His book is based on his diary of more than a thousand manuscript pages in Arabic, which he has deposited with the Hoover Institution at Stanford, where, after ten years, anyone may examine it. He claims that he does not go beyond what he knew or felt at the time. If this is so it is a great pity. Twenty years after the events he might have told us what he thinks of them today, as Harold Nicolson did in his book on the Versailles conference, with its two parts, the first an historical essay, the second Nicolson’s diary telling us how things “seemed at the time.” It is a considerable loss that Boutros-Ghali has been unwilling or unable to do the same.

Even so, his book is an instructive, and at times moving story, full of revealing glimpses of Egyptian affairs, and of the author—his changing political positions, his obsessions with clothes and with whether Sadat’s shoes matched his trousers, his prejudices and his vanities—who went on to become an embattled secretary general of the UN. He writes:

In Egypt, from pharaonic times to the present, the tradition is one of al-Hakem, the ruler. One is the ruler or one is nothing. Therefore, the highest position to which one can aspire is in the service of the ruler.

Boutros-Ghali came from a long line of Egyptian public servants who had served their masters faithfully. Under the late monarchy, the family—one of the richest in Egypt—supplied the country with ambassadors, chamberlains, and ministers. Its palace was one of the finest in Cairo. His grandfather, Boutros Ghali Pasha, had been prime minister of Egypt. He was regarded as a British stooge and was assassinated in 1910 by an Egyptian nationalist.1 Boutros-Ghali dedicates this new book to “the memory of my grandfather Boutros Ghali Pasha, whose devotion to Egypt inspired me to follow the road without turning back.” There is something defiant in his making this dedication. He might not have considered it politic to do so under Nasser or Sadat.

As it turned out, Boutros-Ghali was not to become minister without portfolio. He became acting foreign minister. On the eve of his visit to Jerusalem, Sadat had lost his foreign minister, the second in a row. A third would soon quit Sadat’s service in protest against his Israeli policies. According to Mohammad Heikal,2 Ismail Fahmi and then Muhammad Riyad had been asked over the telephone if they were ready to accompany Sadat on his trip. Both said no, and when they opened their newspapers on the following day they saw that they had resigned. Boutros-Ghali was not asked.

It was said at the time that despite his harsh views on Israel in the past he had been picked by Sadat because, as a Christian married to a Jewish woman, he might be more pliable than a Muslim, more dependent on Sadat’s goodwill, less likely to resign on him; and also that he might be eager to “redeem” himself and the family name from the onus of having been prosperous collaborators with the British. He writes that upon being told by Vice-President Mubarak on the telephone that he was to accompany the president on his trip to Israel the next day (and that must also draft the President’s planned speech in the Knesset) his answer had been: “I am prepared to serve the country in any capacity requested of me.”

Take it easy,” Mubarak had responded.

Why was he not given full ministerial rank? It was widely thought at the time that Sadat was reluctant to appoint a Christian to so high a position. “For me,” Boutros-Ghali now writes,

it made no practical difference whether or not I bore the title of foreign minister. The job was the same. But I was pained by the increasingly intolerant religious current in Egypt, a sign of intellectual regression.

Nobody had hesitated to appoint his grandfather as foreign minister in 1908, or his uncle Wasif in 1919. “But today, in the fourth quarter of the twentieth century, Sadat hesitated to appoint a non-Muslim as foreign minister of Egypt.” Sadat’s hesitation, he says elsewhere, “hurt me deeply.”

  1. 1

    In 1903, the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl negotiated with him the lease of the Sinai peninsula for the homeless Jews. According to Herzl, Boutros Ghali Pasha had been sympathetic to the idea, but this was not why he was assassinated (Boutros Ghali Pasha “headed a ministry in which Egyptians cannot give any orders,” Herzl complained. Lord Cromer, the British overlord of Egypt, was opposed to the plan). The young murderer, a man named Ibrahim Wardani, knew nothing about this exchange. He assassinated the Prime Minister because he had signed away Egypt’s rights over Sudan and the Suez Canal and, as minister of justice, presided over the notorious Denshawai trial. At Denshawai, in 1906, a party of British officers had gone pigeon shooting for sport. The pigeon farmers whose livelihood was at stake protested. In the ensuing scuffle one of the British guns went off, wounding three men and a woman who fell and was taken for dead. The villagers now attacked more strongly. One of the officers, severely beaten, managed to get away but died of concussion and heatstroke.

    Fifty-four felahin of Denshawai were tried for his murder. It was seen by the British as one more symptom of nationalist xenophobia and religious fanaticism. The penalties, meant to be exemplary, were medieval. Four were sentenced to death, two to penal servitude for life, six to seven years in prison, and the rest to fifty lashes. President Sadat, born nearby at Mit Abul Kum, claimed in his memoirs that the trials of Wardani and of the Denshawai villagers had traumatized him as a young man. The hangings and the floggings were carried out on the site of the incident and the villagers were compelled to watch. The scaffold, Sadat wrote, had been erected in the village square even before the sentences had been passed. The incident bred a generation of Egyptian rebels. Ibrahim al Wardani, the murderer of Boutros Pasha Ghali, became a national hero in Egypt. Students roamed the streets chanting

    With acid sarcasm, Bernard Shaw wrote of the Denshawai affair in John Bull’s Other Island: “Try to imagine the feelings of an English village if a party of Chinese officers suddenly appeared and began to shoot the ducks, the geese, the hens, and the turkeys, and carried them off, asserting that they were wild birds, as everybody in China knew, and that the pretended indignation of the farmers was a cloak for hatred of the Chinese, and perhaps for a plot to overthrow the religion of Confucius and establish the Church of England in its place.”

  2. 2

    Mohammad Heikal, Secret Channels: The Inside Story of the Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations (London: HarperCollins, 1996).

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