|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
13 - 19 September 2001
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The great communicator
Flexible enough to "always connect," he has remained unequivocal -- in his principles, and his conviction of the need to spell them out
Profile by Aziza Sami
illustration: Sherif Eleish
I first saw Tahsin Bashir in 1999, at a symposium on USAID in Egypt organised by Cairo University's Centre for the Study of Developing Countries. The director of USAID in Cairo then, Richard Brown, had just summarised over two decades of the agency's activities in Egypt. After the lecture, Bashir, who was in the audience, commented. He spoke assertively and criticised the programme. Specifically, he wondered whether, in delineating its priorities, it had brought, "value-added productivity" to the Egyptian economy. He cited the textile sector as one instance of a domain which has been overlooked consistently receiving little if any assistance despite its strategic importance. The interchange revealed how congressional politics have played a role in determining US overseas economic assistance programmes. More importantly for our present purpose, it placed the emphasis on Bashir's outspokenness, which seemed hardly typical of a diplomat -- or, a fortiori, of the spokesman for two presidents, Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat.
In the plush surroundings of the hotel on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road where he was recuperating from an operation undergone because of a chronic heart condition, Bashir was alert, his slightly slanted eyes giving him the expression of a wise and mischievous pixie. He was friendly and polite but firm, never broaching interruptions until he had finished what he wanted to say.
He was born in Alexandria in 1925, and did not follow in his father's footsteps to become a physician, graduating instead from the political science and economics department of Alexandria University's Faculty of Commerce. In 1951, he went to Princeton and, with the handful of compatriots enrolled in that bastion of Ivy League education at the time, founded an Arab club. In 1952, again with a few other Arab students, he participated in founding a pan-Arab organisation, the Arab Student Organisation for the Americas, headed first by Kamal El-Shaer, and later by Bashir himself. It was "a non-partisan, non-political organisation that depended on its own resources, until Arab governments intervened and stifled it in the mid-'50s." Early on, even in a foreign community, Bashir was uninhibited about speaking out strongly in any argument. He had his first experience at a public forum where he responded to a suggestion made at a lecture that Egypt return to Ottoman rule since it had "failed to defend itself against an upstart state like Israel in 1948." Bashir responded that, in that case, the United States should revert to its status as a British colony, since it had been routed during the Korean war.
Ironically, it was during his sojourn in the United States that Bashir "got to know much of the Arab world, and much of Egypt for that matter, first hand" -- the latter through a mentor and close friend: the prominent writer Louis Awad, to whom Bashir attributes "much of my understanding of the Egyptian left."
In 1955, three years after the revolution, the Arab Student Organisation held a conference "supporting the revolution, since it reflected the principles of our generation; but at the same time we spoke of the need for democracy, a free press, and the rule of law: not individual or personal rule, even by a great leader like Nasser."
As a result of this involvement, Bashir was not made a faculty member at Alexandria University, where he had been a lecturer. In 1955, having already gained acceptance at Harvard, he obtained his master of arts. Only then did he change the course of his life and join the foreign service, "instead of entering academia, as I had always wanted."
He was undeterred, however, from taking centre stage in politics. In the foreign service, because of his extensive knowledge of the US, he was appointed spokesman for the Egyptian delegation to the United Nations from 1956 to '59. Recalled to Cairo in 1959, he remembers discovering "total ignorance of how America operates at home. In the government, contact with America was made through the embassy and the CIA, neither of which reflected the full scope American life. Someone, for instance, had convinced Nasser that Zionist influence in the western part of the States was not as great as in the east, whereas in fact California, and specifically Los Angeles, is one of the strongest bases of Zionism."
Over the years, Bashir came to suspect that many mistakes made in foreign policy were the result of insufficient knowledge of the outside world. In Egypt-US relations, the field with which he is the most conversant, he feels more needs to be done on both sides to bridge the divide. "My view of the US has not been limited by how they treat us politically, because their treatment of the Arabs is politically highly skewed. The Arab world, in fact, does not exist in America, even today. Ancient Egypt is more alive in the education of young students in America than the contemporary Arab world, and our influence in Congress is weak. Contact remains superficial, even though many of the US's pro-Israeli stances have resulted from Congress's influence."
Between 1966 and '68, Bashir was director of the Palestine department at the Arab League. He headed the league bureau in London, and was deputy director of the New York bureau as well. In 1969, he was recalled by Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad to become Egypt's official spokesman -- in effect, spokesman for the president on foreign policy. He remained in this position after Nasser's death, and kept it until 1976 on the merit of his wide contacts and ability to interact with others, not to mention his knowledge of the West and the US specifically.
From 1976 to '79, he was Egypt's permanent representative at the Arab League, and served as ambassador to Canada from 1981 to 1985.
Appointed official spokesman for President Nasser, he accepted willingly, despite reservations about the workings of domestic policy. He saw the job as "a national duty," because of the importance of being able to address the outside world with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict -- a prerogative Israel had monopolised until then. "At the time, following the defeat of 1967, Nasser felt that Egypt had lost its contact with the world, and was thinking of how to bring it back from its isolation."
In the process, Bashir says, he witnessed the opening up of foreign policy under Nasser, as manifested in his acceptance of the Rogers plan. His function as spokesman was "fascinating, but never rewarding;" by definition, it was antithetical to the way "semi-totalitarian regimes operate, since a spokesman's job is not only to relay the official view, but also to tell the president what the outside world says and thinks of him -- which was not always easy, because of the restrictions on accessibility."
He was still the president's spokesman when Nasser died in 1970, having initiated a reconciliation summit that brought together all the Arab heads of state in the aftermath of Black September.
He immediately left for the US, but was recalled by President Sadat, and held his position for six more years. He was spokesman and member of the Egyptian delegation at the first peace conference in Geneva in December 1973, where Arab and Israeli delegations met in public for the first time. His job as spokesman ended when, encouraged by Sadat's apparent tolerance and willingness to listen to opposing views, he expressed misgivings to the president regarding "the corruption of some of those close to him, who were abusing that proximity."
He was dismissed from the post on the spot and with few regrets. His experience had brought him to the intricate heart of domestic politics, leaving him with "very little reverence of those who hold top political positions, and whose language changes as soon as they become close to power. Some are excellent, but they are the exceptions." In the Arab world, Bashir goes on, and "with perhaps a small exception in Lebanon, we suffer a major weakness: the public does not speak out, and the educated classes are worst of all. If we make gods of our leaders, it is not because they want it but because of the way we bring up our children, the children of the fellahin, who are dominated from above. You can see the result at student conferences, where the speeches are canned and repeated like a broken record. Until the public -- men, women, children, old and young -- learns how to speak -- not public demonstrations and chaos, but speaking out in public -- we will remain limited and weak as nations."
On 3 September 1992, Bashir wrote an article in the form of an open letter to President Mubarak, published in the opposition newspaper Al-Wafd and titled: "I support you, but do not pledge allegiance." The missive charted the course of what he described as a transition to a comprehensive, gradual and democratic reform of the system. Bashir recommended that a committee be formed to draft a constitution, representing all the social forces and "dealing directly with the dichotomy between the Islamists and the government."
Bashir also wrote of the need to revise education, arguing that a system essential for the preparation of new elites is producing quantity, not quality, at all levels from school to university. "The new elites are not of the same educational level as those who graduated in 1952, for instance. Take the current cabinet's economic group: it may contain good elements, but you will not find among them individuals as competent as [economist] Ali El-Giritli, or [former economy minister] Abdel-Moneim El-Qaissouni. Since the men of '52 are dead or about to die, those who talk about Egypt now have to face the new Egypt, and, along with it, the new world."
A man who has lived through the vicissitudes of the Arab-Israeli conflict and represented the Arab perspective on Palestine at the UN and the Arab League has been criticised in the press for being pro-normalisation. Bashir responds calmly. "I was recently asked if I was a member of the Copenhagen group. No, I am not. I remain non-partisan, even in this endeavour. The 'pro-peace group' was formed by the government, contrary to what many people think: by the Foreign Ministry, as a matter of fact, which chose [former ambassador] Salah Bassiouni and the others. I was never asked to join, because they know that I am critical." Yet, he says "I called for peace and believed in it, as a student, before Sadat did." He had no reservations about addressing the Israelis face to face, "lecturing at almost every university in Israel on the need for Palestinian self-determination, and an end to the occupation."
He first experienced the Arab-Israeli conflict personally and traumatically. Ever since, he says, his concern with the issue has deepened and intensified. "In 1948, when I was a student at university, my elder brother Taysir, who had just graduated from the military academy, was called to Palestine, one of the first officers to fight. We had a tea party on the eve of his departure. My sisters and mother though this was not a war, but a fight with some gangs which would be quickly overcome. Taysir and the three other officers who were with him were the first Egyptian soldiers to be killed in the Palestine war."
Bashir studied "Judaism, Israelism and Arabism" and says he believes that "right now there is no solution, since Israel cannot dominate the Palestinians, and they, in turn, cannot overcome Israel." Yet, he argues, there must be a compromise, "a common ground that both will accept reluctantly, but cannot refuse, providing the basis on which to build a new Israel -- not belligerent or aggressive -- and a Palestine that grants its people self-determination."
The Palestinians, Bashir believes, "have already made great sacrifices by accepting to have a state on what remained after 1967." He also sees in the Intifada a lesson for the world in how "a seemingly docile people have under extreme pressure turned into fighters with a fantastic willingness to sacrifice themselves." Still, he has his reservations: the uprising, despite its merits, is in the end "a heavy price to pay, when what you want to do is build a country, a state, not break it."
According to Bashir, what "Sadat provided at Camp David was tantamount to a frame of reference for a solution. Had the Palestinians accepted then, they would have been in a better position. Israeli settlements have increased a thousand fold since Oslo. The number of settlers then was 20,000; today, there are over 200,000 living in the territories occupied in '67."
Nevertheless, he empathises with the predicament of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who "did not develop a good exit strategy from Camp David II [in the summer of 2000] and who then received an offer from Barak that had not been presented by any other Israeli prime minister." Such a strategy, Bashir believes, would have entailed "arguing for the principle of a peaceful settlement, which would need two or three years to develop, without having to [pay the heavy price of the Intifada]."
Since 1985, he has continued to operate in what he describes as "numerous channels that have nothing to do with the government." His negotiations with American Jews, for instance, "facilitated the acceptance of Yasser Arafat at the United Nations."
As a fellow of the Harvard Center for International Affairs and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, his affiliations have spanned the extremes of liberalism and conservatism. He is also a senior fellow of the Peace Institute in Washington, and currently a member of the President Carter negotiating team affiliated to the Carter Center in Atlanta. He acts as advisor to a research group entitled "In Search of Common Ground" and lectures periodically on the Middle East and Islam at Johns Hopkins University.
He does not sleep much; in bed at two, he is up at six, so his days are long. He travels extensively: the day he was taken to hospital he was on his way to Liechtenstein, to attend a conference on "the sons of Abraham and the search for peace." Throughout his life, he has been sufficiently flexible enough to listen carefully, while remaining unequivocal in his thoughts, and in his conviction that it is necessary to communicate them clearly. "Many have considered this continuous criticism negative, but you could call it my 'Aristotelian way' -- of learning about life, and about people."
photo Randa Shaath
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