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.”

Boutros-Ghali’s appointment set off vicious attacks in the Arab press: they wrote that since no Muslim agreed to accompany Sadat, he had been “forced” to choose a Christian with a Jewish wife. For Boutros-Ghali and the other Egyptians on the president’s plane the “unbelievable journey” was like suddenly seeing the other side of the moon. “I had not realized the distance was so short!” He noticed Sadat’s calm as he stepped out of his plane at Ben-Gurion airport. He stood “bathed in the glare of what seemed like a thousand floodlights. His presence seemed like a biblical vision.”

Boutros-Ghali fretted over how he would get on with Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, who would be his opposite number, and what he should say first to help break the ice. Before takeoff, he had tried to read Dayan’s writings but “was so nervous that I could neither concentrate nor even remember what I had read already.” Hearing that Dayan was fascinated by archaeology he decided he might begin by telling him of his own collection of antiquities. Dayan later said that he had laughed and answered they had one more important thing in common, they were both married to Jewish women.

If this broke the ice, the rest of this first conversation was far from satisfactory. Dayan pressed for a separate Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Boutros-Ghali insisted that they should try to draw in the Palestinians and the other Arab states. “Egypt,” he argued, “has an Arab dimension imposed by history, geography and national ties founded on culture and a shared language and religion.” He feared that if Egypt didn’t preserve its regional position in the Arab world it would be reduced to just another overpopulated African country, like Zaire or Nigeria. He was resolved to avoid this.

In his own memoirs,3 Dayan gives his somewhat different version of this first meeting. According to Dayan, Boutros-Ghali had come to Jerusalem on the erroneous assumption that Sadat’s flight to Jerusalem would by itself induce Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines. The two men quarreled over this. They disagreed on the Palestinian issue. Boutros-Ghali concluded that Dayan cared little about what happened to the Palestinians. Dayan suspected that Boutros-Ghali’s pro-Palestinian rhetoric was Sadat’s “fig leaf,” intended to please the Arab world, and did not necessarily reflect his chief’s true aims. He was not entirely wrong about this. Closeted with Begin or Dayan, Sadat made disparaging remarks about Arafat and other Arab leaders. They were, he said, corrupt dwarfs and mentally deranged. Boutros-Ghali thought that Dayan was “indifferent to the profound pan-Arab and Islamic dimension of the [Palestinian] issue.” Dayan could not understand why Boutros-Ghali felt so strongly about this. He “was impervious to my words,” Boutros-Ghali writes.

Dayan asked that Sadat refrain from including any reference to the PLO in his Knesset speech. “I did not tell Dayan that the speech I had drafted included a reference to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation,” Boutros-Ghali writes. When Sadat spoke, he did not include “a single word, phrase, or idea of mine” in “the wonderful speech he gave.” He read an entirely different text which disappointed the Israeli audience because it briefly referred to the Palestinians; but it “was no consolation” to Boutros-Ghali either.

He was entering, he felt, “the most important chapter of my life. How could I make the most of it?” In Jerusalem he was thrust into the limelight and appeared on one television talk show after another. He seemed awkward and ill-prepared for such an intense scrutiny. He understood English perfectly but spoke in heavy French accents and sounded at times as if he was suppressing a sneer. The Israelis considered him formal and stiff. When they (and later the American peace negotiators) undid their ties and took off their jackets Boutros-Ghali kept his on, saying, on one occasion, that staying buttoned up gave him “self-confidence.”

The unresolved Palestinian issue remained uppermost in his mind. He kept arguing about it with his Israeli interlocutors. They were not responsive. Begin’s main argument was that the PLO was a Communist-controlled terrorist movement. “Sadat did not object to this description,” Boutros-Ghali writes. Sadat had no patience with details. He was eager above all to regain Egyptian land. All other issues were secondary and could wait. Sadat made things worse by being cool to Dayan and cordial, even affectionate, to Dayan’s rival, Ezer Weizman, the Israeli defense minister. “Weizman can’t be a Jew,” Sadat said. “He is my younger brother.”

Boutros-Ghali was convinced that a peace treaty could endure only if the Palestinians’ minimum requirements were secured, i.e., the right of self-determination. Begin paid lip service to the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinian people but (like Netanyahu today) expected them to be content with semi-autonomous enclaves, Bantustans, surrounded by Israeli settlers. Begin wanted a separate deal with Egypt which would give him a free hand on the occupied West Bank and in Gaza. Boutros-Ghali pressed for a comprehensive peace. Dayan asked with derision: “How will you be able to negotiate in the name of the Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Jordanians if they reject the principle of negotiations?” Boutros-Ghali answered that it was Egypt’s task to convince them to change their mind. Israel could help by adopting positions that would demonstrate—above all in the occupied Palestinian territories—that negotiations could succeed. “The Egyptian mission,” he told a French interviewer, was to make Arabs and Israelis accept, in Sartre’s words, the existence of “the Other—the Jewish state by the Arab world; and, on the other hand, the existence of the Palestinian people by the Israelis.”

But this sense of mission was only partly, if at all, shared by Sadat. He was an Egyptian nationalist, and calculated that the Arab leaders, whom he belittled, would be forced to play by his rules. His style and rhetoric only antagonized them. His anti-Palestinian, anti-Syrian, and anti-Jordanian invective was music to Begin’s ears.

Dayan urged Boutros-Ghali to agree on a schedule for Egyptian-Israeli negotiation. Boutros-Ghali preferred to concentrate on the heart of the outstanding issues, not on technicalities and formalities. The two men argued for many hours. The racial and cultural difference between the worldly, pampered intellectual aristocrat and the often uncouth peasant-soldier Dayan could not have been bigger. And yet they grudgingly grew to like each other. Boutros-Ghali praises Dayan for his imagination in finding ways out of impasses—for example, when the negotiations seemed to break down over the timetable and extent of the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, or over Begin’s insistence on matters of national prestige.

In his memoirs, Dayan was slightly less generous. When at one point, according to Dayan, Boutros-Ghali insisted that to preserve the peace in Jerusalem they must try to go beyond “obsolete” notions of sovereignty, Dayan inquired sarcastically whether the Saudis and the other Arabs were also convinced of this. “Boutros paused for a while,” Dayan writes, “and then said that to his great regret I happened to be right. With the Saudis it was difficult to conduct sophisticated symposia on sovereignty as one does in a university seminar.”

Many of the contentious issues that would bedevil Egyptian-Israeli relations during the next twenty years were first mooted during Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem—the press often spoke of it as a “pilgrimage”—and at the follow-up conferences in Cairo, Leeds, Washington, and Camp David. These issues are discussed in Boutros-Ghali’s book and some are still of central importance. On their second day in Jerusalem, Mustafa Khalil, one of the Egyptians in Sadat’s entourage and a future prime minister, suddenly asked Israeli defense minister Ezer Weizman: “Does Israel have the atom bomb?” Weizman did not answer, Boutros-Ghali remembers. “He rose from his place with his empty glass and walked very slowly to a nearby table to fill it with Scotch and began to drink. Then he spoke on a different subject, as if he hadn’t heard the question.”

Other issues, including some essentially ceremonial and other technical matters, are now completely forgotten, but they divided the negotiators so bitterly they would go to their rooms to pack their suitcases and the talks nearly broke down. The negotiations were plagued by differences in style. The Egyptian style was to concentrate on the broad meaning of statements. The Israelis were pedantic, concentrating on the precise meaning of every word; but they were also the shrewder lawyers. In the art of splitting fine legal and linguistic hairs they often retained the upper hand.

The two sides continued their search for a peace agreement because it was in their common interest. Both were tired of war. Dayan, sobered by the 1973 war which he had predicted would never happen, knew that Israel was exhausting its resources. Boutros-Ghali also believed that Egypt was pursuing peace not out of altruism but out of necessity. Few Egyptians were as acutely aware as he was of Egypt’s vulnerability for reasons that had little to do with the Arab-Israel conflict—among them the population explosion, Islamic fundamentalism, the exhaustion of water resources in the Nile, and the encroachment of urbanization on precious farmland in the Nile valley. Time and again he came back to the unresolved Palestinian issue which Begin’s team tried to sidestep.

Boutros-Ghali felt more strongly on this point than some of his Egyptian colleagues. Sadat vetoed his attempt to establish “linkage” between the two parts of the Camp David agreement, the first establishing peace and normalization between Egypt and Israel, the second recognizing the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinians. Begin would later claim that self-determination was not a “legitimate” right. Boutros-Ghali tried to delay “normalization” with Israel, including not only mutual recognition but the exchange of ambassadors, trade, tourism, and cultural relations, among other measures. He wanted to use normalization as leverage on Israel, to get Israel to meet Palestinian demands that they be treated as a main party to the negotiations. He was overruled by Sadat. Following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, in 1983, Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak withdrew his ambassador and froze “normalization” anyway.

And yet Boutros-Ghali was also changing. The peace process had a momentum of its own. He was also pushed by Sadat to “compromise.” Compromise, he said later, was always that which only yesterday one swore never to accept. When I first met him in 1978, he was still absolutely aghast at the prospect of Israeli tourists crowding into Luxor or the pyramids. He would do everything to prevent this. In his new mood, he even began calling himself a “technician.” His main purpose, he told me when I saw him in 1981, was to provide the diplomatic techniques that would allow the peace process to continue despite the prevailing disagreements.

He became a professional promoter of the “peace process.” In view of his militant rhetoric up to the moment of his appointment as Sadat’s principal negotiator, his metamorphosis was spectacular. “It is easier to overcome the contradictions between Marxism and capitalism than between [Israeli] imperialism on the one hand and the [Arab] war of liberation from imperialism on the other,” he had written in 1975.

Moreover, between the Soviet and the American blocs there is an element of equality that facilitates the arrival of détente. There is no such element of equality between the Arab homeland and the Zionist state…. In Kenya, Algeria and Mozambique the imperialist struggle was ended not by détente between the majority and the minority but by the liquidation of the racist minority or its assimilation.

I first interviewed Dr. Boutros-Ghali in Cairo a few days after the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty early in 1978. As I was putting my notes in my pocket and getting up to leave, I cited some of the views I have quoted above and asked him if he still held them. He looked up from his desk. For a moment, his dark, nervous face, long and gloomy, seemed almost the reincarnation of the delicate wooden statue of a Fourth Dynasty scribe in the Cairo Museum. “Did I write that?” he said absent-mindedly, shuffling his papers. “Ah, I have written so much.”

I remember another interview with Boutros-Ghali in Cairo about a year later, after the Arab countries had cut off diplomatic relations with Egypt. In the taxi, on the way over to see him, I had read an editorial in one of the Cairo dailies. It claimed that Egypt could not be isolated—the Arab countries could only isolate themselves, for “Egypt is the head and the Arabs are the body.” What good did this do? I asked him. Why do they write in this arrogant style? “Why not?” he said haughtily. “It’s the truth!”

He fascinated me then as yet another case of an intellectual in politics who was running up against the contradictions between his theories and the demands of practical negotiating. A few years earlier, he had been a veritable doctrinaire of conflict, with the familiar, prejudiced tendency of certain French intellectuals to find neat dividing lines between angels and devils. His radical generalizations were made more palatable on occasion by a judicious use of the subjunctive. For years he had considered Israel an unmitigated evil—much as the French had been seen by the FLN in Algeria—an alien, corrosive, Western colonial encroachment upon the Arab East. If this was a half-truth or a quarter-truth, it nevertheless convinced many at the time because it was not entirely false.

Before he started negotiating with the Israeli establishment, he would tell foreign visitors that Israel was a foreign body—the Israelis were “Polish,” “German,” “colonialist,” and imbued, in his view, with the mentality of white settlers. They refused to become Arabs. Integration with such people was impossible. They were a thoroughly alien presence in a Middle East which, in Boutros-Ghali’s eyes, ought in justice to be a monolith, not necessarily one of religious faith but of Arab nationality, Arab culture, and Arab language: one chosen people. Everything non-Arab was marginal, subsidiary, and possibly corrosive. (All this from a Copt—a member of a minority much discriminated against, as he laments in his book. Such contradictions are not unprecedented. Some of the most ardent nationalists in nineteenth-century Germany had been Jews.)

Sadat’s assassination was a disaster for Boutros-Ghali’s more recent policies. On the day of the shooting, he was in Alexandria, vacationing on the Mediterranean beach. “Sadat was killed by the same kind of fanatic who killed my grandfather,” he writes, apparently quoting his diary. “The whole edifice we had built so painstakingly threatened to fall apart.” Would the Israelis retreat from Sinai now that Sadat had disappeared? They had always suspected that Sadat did not convincingly represent Egypt. Boutros-Ghali had spent months telling them their fears were unfounded. And would Sadat’s successors carry on his work? Arriving in Cairo a few hours after the assassination, he was told that it had been part of a nationwide plot. His name had been next on the assassins’ list.

In the years after Sadat’s death, especially during the Lebanon war, he grew bitter. For a time he pinned his hopes on the Labor Party winning the elections in Israel. Such hopes were dashed in 1984 and 1988. Begin’s extensive plans for settlement on the West Bank angered and offended him. I last talked to him in 1983. “Begin cheated! Begin cheated!” he yelled at one point. Why did he say that? I asked. “Begin never concealed his annexationist designs in the occupied West Bank. You were fully aware of them.” “Yes,” he said, “but we were also given to understand that this was only Begin’s public stance, it was only tactical.” I asked what reasons he had to believe that this was in fact so. He said that Ezer Weizman, then Begin’s defense minister, had assured them that this was the case. “How very odd,” I said. It was common knowledge in Israel that Weizman was assuring Begin that Sadat’s public position on the Palestinians was also merely a tactic. “All he needs is a fig leaf from us,” Weizman used to tell Begin. “Let’s throw him one.” In the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty the sides had obviously cheated each other—and themselves.

Boutros-Ghali carried on as Mubarak’s acting foreign minister for another decade. The Israelis were like French colons in Algeria, he used to say. When they were making concessions it was always too little, or too late. His detractors in Israel dismissed these notions as the dogmatic assertions of a third world intellectual. They also belittled him personally, claiming he was never more than a tool, in effect an “attendant lord, one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two,/Advise the prince;… Deferential, glad to be of use….” They should have been more attentive. The fast-declining prospects for peace in the region confirm Boutros-Ghali’s basic concerns and the warnings that are the leitmotif of his book. He had no precise solutions for Palestinian “self-determination” but he perceived that it was the main issue that had to be negotiated, and with the Palestinians themselves. At a time when Sadat and Begin were mouthing the common clichés of politicians prematurely rewarded with Nobel Peace Prizes, Boutros-Ghali’s sober foresight was remarkable. His warnings, which he repeated ad nauseam to Egyptians and Israelis alike, that peace between them would never really mature if they ignored the root cause of the wars—the Palestinian issue—proved prophetic and tragically correct.

Wardani! Wardani!
Illi ‘atal al Nusrani!
(Wardani! Wardani! Who slew the Christian!)

This Issue

June 26, 1997