Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
17 - 23 May 2001
Issue No.534
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Not a popularity contest

In a presidential republic, a change of foreign ministers may not imply a change of foreign policy. But what of style?

Ahmed Maher
Ahmed Maher walks into the ministry for the first time as the top diplomat
Of all the diplomats, and other high-ranking state officials who were rumoured to be candidates for the foreign minister's job that became vacant with the nomination of Amr Moussa as Arab League secretary-general, it was Ahmed Maher who got the least attention. President Hosni Mubarak's choice of Maher for the post,which was revealed only as the new foreign minister was heading to Sharm Al-Sheikh for the swearing-in ceremony, confounded weeks of speculation.

Nearing his 66th birthday, Maher is two years older than Moussa and five years older than his brother Ali Maher, Egypt's ambassador in Paris -- who got the highest votes during the past three months in the nationwide guessing game on the potential foreign minister. Ahmed Maher is six years older than Ahmed Abu El-Gheit, Egypt's permanent representative to the UN in New York, the post that frequently spawned Egyptian foreign ministers. He, too, had been frequently mentioned as a likely successor of Moussa.

Ahmed Maher's last diplomatic post, before his retirement in the autumn of 1999, was as Egypt's ambassador in Washington. His previous post was that of Egypt's ambassador in Moscow. The two high-profile postings seem to underline the solid nature of Maher's standing within the ministry to which he was destined to return.

With such a vigorous diplomatic career behind him, Maher was not content to slip into restful retirement. Instead, he worked as a consultant to Mahfouz Al-Anssari, the editor-in-chief of the official news agency MENA. A year later, he was recruited to head an Arab League affiliated fund for cooperation with African countries. A few months later, he became Egyptian Foreign Minister.

Those who know Maher well say that for him to get the top job in the Egyptian foreign service is the realisation of a lifetime dream. Once Moussa was nominated as Arab League secretary-general on 15 February, said one close acquaintance, Maher started wondering whether or not he would be Egypt's new foreign minister, or even minister of state for foreign affairs if the job was to be split. "But he never held his hopes very high," the source added.

During the following weeks, Maher stuck to his routine: go to the office, attend seminars, give interviews and visit friends in the foreign ministry.

"But when did you know that you were chosen for the job? Everybody thought it would be Ali Maher?" the new foreign minister was asked, rather bluntly, during his first meeting with the diplomatic correspondents in the foreign ministry on Tuesday afternoon. Maher laughed.

Informed sources suggest that he was given a hint some two weeks ago but received confirmation only a few days ago.

The more obvious questions now, however, are why and not when Maher was chosen and what kind of imprint will he leave on Egypt's foreign policy. Moreover, people are bound to compare Maher with Moussa, whose popularity on the Egyptian and Arab streets was unique. Maher, one source acknowledged, "may not have Moussa's style, and certainly not his charisma," but these are not necessary requirements for filling the post.

Moussa, who went to the foreign ministry on Tuesday, hours after Maher's swearing-in ceremony, to wish his successor good luck, described Maher as "a careful" choice of President Mubarak.

Cautioning against reading too much into the choice of Maher as Egypt's top diplomat, one source, who is close to decision-making circles, suggested that "Maher is a mild-natured man, and choosing him seems to indicate that Cairo would perhaps like to adopt a milder tone in the coming period."

During his term of service as Egypt's ambassador in Washington, Maher, according to a colleague, madea point of avoiding confrontation in his dealings with the Americans: "not with the administration and not with the Senate."

This, according to the same source, was not Moussa's style. "When Moussa was unimpressed [with something the Americans had to say] he did not hide it" -- not even when he was talking with his US counterparts or top US Senate members. For Moussa the US was an international power but Egypt was also a regional power and it should act and be treated as such.

Maher, for his part, expressed his take on Egypt-US relations in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly upon the end of his assignment in the US capital. It was, he said, a relationship between "friends and not necessarily allies".

The difference in style between the two diplomats may be illustrated by their response to the persistent US and Israeli complaints regarding Egypt's cold peace with Israel. It is the Israelis, Moussa would argue, who are making their peace with Egypt cold: "You are making it such by your continuous violations of Arab rights. There is no way Egyptians will warm up to you when they see Israeli soldiers beating Palestinian children on TV every night," Moussa said in Tel Aviv a few years ago.

Maher would put the matter a little differently: "I always tell American friends who bring up this matter that it is not right to keep following someone with a thermometer and try to take their temperature every hour," he said in one interview with the Weekly.

Only time will tell what impact this difference in diplomatic style will have on Egypt's foreign policy.

Ahmed Maher
at a glance

Born in Cairo on 14 September 1935
Received a Bachelor of Arts in law from Cairo University in 1956
Foreign languages: French, English and Portuguese
Joined the Foreign Service in 1957 as a diplomatic attaché
Overseas missions:
Zurich: 9 February 1959 -- 31 August 1963
Kinshasa: 5 May 1967 -- 24 May 1971
Paris: 8 August 1974 -- 30 September 1977
Egypt's ambassador to:
Lisbon: 5 September 1980 -- 8 November 1982
Brussels: 8 November 1982 -- 9 December 1984
Moscow: 1 October 1988 -- 19 June 1992
Washington: 7 July 1992 -- 14 September 1999

Other posts:
Chief of the cabinet of the foreign minister
Director of the political planning department
Director of the legal department
Director of the Arab Fund for Technical Assistance for African Countries in the League of Arab States


 

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