|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 September 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
An inseparable part of the continent, this country still looks to the Mediterranean; but he is turned resolutely south
Profile by Gamal Nkrumah
Ambassador Haggag proudly stands at the entrance of the African Society
(photos: Randa Shaath)
Old-fashioned diplomacy still works -- and ambassador Ahmed Haggag, secretary-general of the African Society in Cairo and member of the board of Cairo University's Institute of African Studies, is living proof of that. His frank and unsentimental handling of often delicate matters has stood him in good stead with peers and colleagues from around the continent.
Haggag is acutely aware of the "illustrious and historic" role played by the African Society, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-affiliated organisation he now runs. When it was established in the 1950s, the environment was "very different" from today, as Haggag says in a somewhat detached and passionless tone.
"I remember it as it was. That was the heyday of the African revolution, with liberation movements struggling to overthrow colonial rule. Egypt under the leadership of late President Gamal Abdel- Nasser pursued an active policy of assisting anti- colonial liberation movements in Africa in the aftermath of the 23 July Revolution," Haggag remembers. It was also around the time when he entered the Foreign Ministry, which first introduced entry exams in 1955 -- the same year Haggag graduated from Cairo University, where he had majored in economics and political science.
His first job after graduation was with the League of Arab States, since the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time didn't accept newcomers younger than 20. The League was housed in the Bustan Palace, in downtown Cairo, now demolished. A garage and shopping mall stand in its place.
Old landmarks disappear fast. By the time Haggag had begun work at the ministry in 1957, the floodgates were open. He was among the second batch of young diplomats to undergo the new qualifying test. Before the Revolution, most of the Egyptian diplomatic missions abroad were found in Europe. After 1952, Egypt opened new embassies in various Arab countries, and across Africa and Asia as well.
The policy shift amounted to a watershed. "I owe it to Nasser and the Revolution, which allowed young men from all segments of society to join the foreign service. Before the 1952 Revolution, to join the diplomatic service you had to hail from an extremely wealthy, and preferably aristocratic, family. You were expected to contribute financially to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs." Furthermore, Egyptian diplomats stationed in Europe at the time spent many working hours covering the sybaritic gossip European royalty generated so freely.
The overthrow of the monarchy in Egypt rang a distant, discordant bell for the ancien regime diplomats. A major revamping of the ministry was soon underway. "Before 23 July, almost all of Egypt's diplomatic missions were concentrated in Europe," Haggag explains. "Don't get me wrong. There were a few brilliant individual diplomats who served the country well." But the focus of pre-Revolution Egyptian diplomacy was almost suffocatingly European-centred. There was only one mission in Africa, in Addis Ababa, the then newly-established capital of the eremetical Ethiopian empire.
"Nasser himself had laid out the parameters of new Egyptian foreign policy in his book, The Philosophy of the Revolution, where he spoke of the African circle as one of the three main cornerstones of Egyptian foreign policy -- the other two being the Islamic and the Arab. It was in this context that many leaders of the African liberation movements came to Cairo, widely seen as a safe haven from which to work. Leaders such as the late South African Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo, Kenya's Tom Mboya, Zimbabwe's Joshua Nkomo, Namibian President Sam Njoma and many others all had offices at 5 Ahmed Hishmat Street in Zamalek.
The African Society as an institution has earned an exalted place in Egypt's history. Its setting has not fared so well. Today, the building stands in a sorry state of disrepair, although it is not yet ramshackle. Since Haggag began running the society a couple of months ago, however, work has begun to regenerate the venerable institution. Haggag is intensifying efforts to renovate and refurbish the old building. He intends to enlarge the currently modest collection of African artefacts on display at the entrance. He has already contacted African embassies in Cairo as well as friends and former colleagues around the continent. He also has a considerable personal collection of African art in his beautiful country home in Fayoum, 100kms southwest of Cairo.
Even though Haggag now describes himself as an Africanist, his introduction to Africa came almost by chance. He specialised in Middle Eastern and Israeli affairs before becoming an ardent Africanist. His first diplomatic overseas posting, in 1959, was to the then German federal capital of Bonn. He took a sabbatical leave to study at the Diplomatic Institute in Vienna. German was the language of instruction, and Haggag's first European language. He studied Hebrew and authored several books on Israel and the Palestinians. Haggag turns suddenly to photographer Randa Shaath: "Incidentally, one of the first books I wrote was a study on the Israeli economy, coauthored by your father [Nabil Shaath, currently Palestinian Authority Minister of International Cooperation]. We worked together on that project," he says, a mischievous sparkle in his eye.
Once bitten by the African bug, however, there was no turning back. Among Haggag's mentors was the late Egyptian foreign minister, and later Arab League secretary-general, Mahmoud Riad, who did not believe Egyptian diplomats should restrict their knowledge to specialised geographical areas. Riad insisted that all Egyptian diplomats spend some time in Africa. Moreover, he believed that the major Egyptian diplomatic missions abroad -- in Washington DC, New York, London and Paris -- should have resident African specialists. This wise move first introduced Haggag to Africa.
All the theoretical knowledge in the world, however, could not have prepared him for some of the more unexpected -- and retrospectively amusing -- trials he has had to face. Diplomats are often tested by the unexpected, and Haggag has faced potential protocol disasters with aplomb. When he was Egypt's ambassador to Kenya, for instance, he received a call from the president's office late one night, informing him that he was requested to present his credentials early the following morning in Nakuru, 200kms west of Nairobi. "The accreditation letter, however, was in a safe and I didn't have the combination, which was known only to my predecessor. Unfortunately, he had left the country." Haggag presented President Moi with a blank paper for the benefit of the cameras. The Kenyan authorities were very cooperative, and let the incident pass without further ado.
After a stint at the Egyptian mission to the United Nations, Haggag was better able to evaluate the Organisation of African Unity's contribution to the international political arena. "The OAU member states at the UN formed the biggest regional or continental group. None of the major UN resolutions could have been adopted without the consent and approval of the African group at the UN," he asserts. At the UN in the chilliest days of the Cold War, he watched as the two superpowers courted the African countries. But what was most remarkable, as far as Haggag was concerned, was the manner in which the African group at the UN played one superpower off against the other to push the OAU agenda forward. "The African group led the campaign against apartheid South Africa and scored a major victory when the apartheid regime was expelled from the UN General Assembly and South Africa's membership of the UN was suspended," he remembers. The president of the General Assembly at the time was Algerian President Abdel- Aziz Bouteflika.
Haggag emphasises that the OAU as a body represents North Africa as much as it does Africa south of the Sahara. He cautions against attempts to draw a dividing line between the two. In this respect, then, Haggag's job at the UN paved the way for his work at the OAU.
Haggag's modulated tones drop into a tough drawl. "What I discovered was that the OAU was misunderstood. Many people, in Africa and around the world, believed it was doing very little for Africa. I came to the conclusion that publicity and disseminating information about the organisation's role and activities should be one of its priorities. The people of Africa have a right know about the positive work their continental organisation is doing," he explains.
Haggag had ample opportunity to publicise the cause of Africa when he was appointed director of African affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and secretary-general of the Egyptian Fund for Technical Cooperation with Africa from 1986 to '87. He grew intimately preoccupied with the continent's development concerns. "Egypt is a developing country and is not able to compete with the rich and influential international donor countries of the North," he explains. However, this country sends out hundreds of technical experts in a wide variety of fields ranging from agriculture to mining, civil service, medicine, engineering and academia. Egyptian professionals play an important role in some African countries. "Moreover, Egypt organises regular training programmes for African students and professionals: teacher training courses, and others in topics as varied as rice farming and nursing," he explains.
Ambassador Haggag, who was assistant OAU secretary-general for three consecutive four-year terms, describes the election process as an "eye- opening" introduction to African politics. "We were five assistants from the five different regions of the continent: north, east, west, central and south. Theoretically, each region had only one post. But in practice, several candidates were often from the same region. Elections usually took place by a secret ballot; heads of state voted behind closed doors. Candidates were not permitted into the hall where the elections took place."
Continental solidarity remains the basis for strategic cooperation, but is sometimes dismissed by many observers as just diplomatic talk. Many black Africans resident in Egypt today complain bitterly about racism. His face briefly hardening into a cold stare, Haggag nods in agreement. He is aware of certain prejudices against black Africans in Egypt today, but puts these down to ignorance rather than deeply ingrained racism. Sadly, the media often seems uncomfortable with such complex matters. Far from being blasé or close-mouthed, however, he is not disinclined to elaborate on the topic. The former OAU assistant secretary-general believes that the continental body, or rather its successor -- the African Union (AU) -- should utilise the new technologies currently available for reaching out and broadcasting its activities.
More generally, Haggag "would like Egyptians to have access to accurate information about Africa. Even today, they rely essentially on information emanating from Western news agencies," he explains. "Unfortunately, most of this information is negative and highly sensational, focusing on catastrophes, wars and conflicts, natural disasters, famines, floods, and the resultant stream of refugees and epidemic diseases -- especially HIV/AIDS," he adds.
These challenges do not convey a complete picture of what is happening in Africa today, Haggag argues. "Of course, these serious matters must be reported, but so must the positive achievements in Africa over the past few years." Focusing on the negative, he warns, will deter Egyptian businessmen who would like to invest in Africa. "Egyptians must be made aware of the efforts currently being made to improve the economic climate and to increase trade, especially among African countries," Haggag insists. He points out that the general public can only gain heightened awareness of the literary achievements of a new generation of budding African writers, or the emancipation of African women and their contribution to economic and social well-being, if the media disseminates news of such positive developments more widely.
Haggag, however, is also taking matters into his own hands, organising a two-week series of seminars on Africa commencing at the end of October. The seminar specifically targets Egyptian journalists reporting on African affairs or keen to learn more about the continent, and will tackle a wide range of topics -- cultural, economic, political and social. Prominent Egyptian academics and experts with extensive knowledge of African affairs will direct the seminars, designed "to encourage young Egyptians working in the media to learn about the continent's rich and diversified cultural heritage, contemporary political and social issues as well as economic opportunities and challenges in the post- Cold War period."
Haggag has other, no less inventive, plans afoot for the enhancement of mutual understanding between Egyptians and their fellow Africans. In particular, he is targeting the large African student community in Egypt. Haggag is working on a programme that will enable the students to stay with Egyptian families as guests for short periods -- a week or so. Similarly, day trips and outings will allow Egyptians and Africans to get to know one another and engage in cultural exchange. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 African students are in Egypt, some on scholarships and most with little knowledge of the society in which they find themselves. Haggag feels Egypt has an obligation to teach them skills that will help them later in life. Computer science courses are especially popular: a course in computer science organised by the African Society, in conjunction with the National Centre for Research, has trained over 800 Africans in the past decade.
In return, "Egyptians generally do not know much about the cultures of Africans south of the Sahara. There are linguistic and cultural barriers that must be surmounted," Haggag explains. He advocates more structured and institutionalised forms of cultural exchange, yet confesses: "Tall order, perhaps."
That is why wishful thinking should not cloud the judgement of those hoping for continental harmony, warns Haggag. That is also why he sees both government and non-governmental organisations playing an instrumental role in strengthening ties between Egypt and other African countries. He warms to the theme; displaying the savvy of a seasoned diplomat, he assiduously advocates the African cause in Egypt today, in a reversal of his career's lifelong course. "My intention is not to provide a testimonial on behalf of Africans, who can do this perfectly well for themselves. It is to correct the tarnished image of the continent," he says.
These serious matters are punctuated by a good deal of genial reminiscence. Born to relative wealth and privilege, Haggag was the first in his family to enter the foreign service. As a boy in Roda Island, Haggag used to go and watch the water levels rising in late August and September at the Nilometer. His father, a civil servant, instilled in him a passion for books at an early age. "My family was among the first to settle in Roda Island. There is even a street in Manial today that bears our name. There were only villas and bungalows at the time, for the law prohibited the construction of apartment blocks. We used to live in a big house. Space was plentiful in those days."
The eldest of several brothers and sisters, Haggag was raised in a society that was traditionally deferential towards authority, including parental supremacy. But times have changed and Haggag with them; he allowed his sons to choose their careers freely. They were drawn at first to the excitement and glamour of the business world.
Haggag gave his sons a piece of simple advice, and left it at that. "You can make much more money outside the foreign service," he told them; "and then you can achieve something for yourself and your country. There is a great deal of job satisfaction," he added. Haggag's sons are no strangers to Africa south of the Sahara. They had a taste of East Africa when he served as ambassador to Kenya between 1982 and 1986 and relish the memory. Today, both Karim and Walid are diplomats. And Walid, in his father's footsteps, is an Africanist to boot.
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