18 - 24 July 2002
Issue No. 595
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Mohamed Shaker:The twists and turns of a long career lead eventually to the think tank
A diplomat's diplomat
Throughout a long and distinguished diplomatic career Mohamed Shaker has shied away from the media, firmly keeping journalists and their ilk at arm's length. Not any longer, though, and certainly not since he was elected chairman of the board of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, (ECFA), an organisation founded three years ago by an independent group of diplomats, academics, professionals, military experts and businessmen. The chairmanship of the board is contested in annual elections and annually Shaker has attracted the highest number of votes.
Since assuming the post the once low-key diplomat has turned into an efficient exploiter of the media, missing no opportunity to promote the many activities of the council he now chairs. He has become something of a fixture on several television channels, delivering talks in French, English and Arabic. Nor is he averse to making use of the press to publicise ECFA, and actively encourages his fellow members to do the same.
Earlier this month he was in London, co- chairing the 8 July conference jointly organised by ECFA and The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House. The conference -- with the slightly unwieldy title "The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, from Peace Process to Peace Settlement: What Can Others Do" -- attracted many high-profile participants, including the former Russian Premier Primakov, former Secretary of the Arab League Esmat Abdel- Meguid and Prince Hassan of Jordan, along with representatives from the UN and the British foreign office. London was selected to host the conference because it has, says newly media- conscious Shaker, a high level of "media exposure".
Shaker, in addition to chairing ECFA, is also a co-founder of the organisation that was first mooted by Abdel-Raouf El-Reedy. Indeed, the diplomatic careers of both men have in many ways run in tandem. Both began their diplomatic careers in their 20s and both became junior members of the Egyptian delegation at the UN in New York in 1957. Both ended their careers as ambassadors to grade A embassies: El-Reedy's tenure as ambassador to Washington was extended to eight years while Shaker's term in London was extended to nine, making him the dean of the diplomatic corps.
El-Reedy conceived the ECFA with the US Council of Foreign Relations in mind. Its membership is drawn from a wide spectrum, with representatives from all professions, including the military. It is based on a simple premise, that foreign relations concern everyone. And the council has, its co-founders explain, exceeded all expectations. Beginning with 100 recruits, it now boasts a membership of 230, including former diplomats, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, academics and those working in the media.
El-Reedy's decision to ask Shaker to become involved as a co-founder was an easy one to take. "Not just because he is an old friend," says the diplomat, "and a colleague, but because he has an academic background, is an intellectual, and has established an amazing breadth of experience as a diplomat."
Both within his profession, and within wider society, Shaker commands an unusual degree of respect. He is, says El-Reedy, "a person whom people of all professions agree upon. He is not confrontational, he is a conciliatory person. He can hold people together. He is respected within Egyptian society, is very well-known abroad and is an excellent spokesman for the council, invariably making a positive impression wherever he represents it."
The low profile Shaker maintained throughout his years as a diplomat conceals a remarkably rich career. But his seemingly unflappable façade cloaks immense drive and considerable ambition. He is not one to boast about his achievements, and would be far happier passing them over. It takes a degree of coaxing to encourage him to speak, though once he does it emerges that of his many achievements he remains particularly proud of his PhD thesis.
"My dissertation was on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty -- its negotiation, interpretation and implementation. It was written with great conviction, and with the sure belief that we have to eliminate nuclear power from our planet or else it will destroy us."
Shaker spent four years researching his thesis while on study leave from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was affiliated to the Graduate Institute of International Studies at the University of Geneva, and his fellow alumni include UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Shaker's thesis was eventually picked up by an American publishing house and to this day remains a standard reference book.
When, in the 80s, Egypt was planning to establish a nuclear power station the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seconded Shaker as political and legal adviser to the delegation led by Engineer Maher Abaza, minister of electricity and power at the time. Abaza held the same portfolio for 20 years -- until the last cabinet -- and his quest for a nuclear power station took him and Shaker around the world for two years. It was, says Shaker, "a very profitable time in terms of establishing contact with a number of countries".
"Mohamed," says Abaza, "was my consultant. He was the only person in Egypt who had thoroughly researched the NPT, and is, furthermore, a lawyer. He was very active in concluding the agreements necessary for a power station and by 1986 we had reached the stage of drawing up an international tender. And then the Chernobyl disaster happened in Russia and all negotiations stopped." Abaza could not be more complementary about his former colleague. He holds Shaker in the highest regard. "He is thoroughly cultured," and, Abaza believes, "has an amazing impact in whatever endeavours he chooses to undertake."
"My dissertation was on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty -- its negotiation, interpretation and implementation. It was written with great conviction, and with the sure belief that we have to eliminate nuclear power from our planet or else it will destroy us"
Shaker's diplomatic career had been long on the cards. At the age of 10 he was, like many youngsters, interested in warfare, and followed the news of the battles as World War II raged. By the age of 12 he was following the fortunes of the newly-established United Nations, and dreamed of the time he would one day sit at the rostrum representing Egypt. He joined the faculty of law, at the time a conventional route into the diplomatic service, much to the consternation of his father, Engineer Mahmoud Shaker Pasha, who for 16 years presided over the Railway Department and hoped that his son would follow him.
Shaker's first posting, at the age of 23, was to the UN, and this in 1956, the year of the Tripartite Aggression. A year later he was to become a fully-fledged member of the Egyptian Delegation to the UN in New York. "It was," he recalls, "a dream come true and an experience of a lifetime."
Seating at the UN was arranged alphabetically and Egypt, as the United Arab Republic, was placed between the USSR and the United Kingdom. It was an enviable vantage point. Among the many incidents Shaker witnessed was the occasion Khrushchev removed a shoe and banged it on the desk in front of him. The incident, Shaker remembers, was triggered by something said by the Philippines delegation. "Where is this Philippine?" a disgruntled Khrushchev asked. "I cannot find it on the map."
Shaker's diplomatic career encompassed some seminal phases in Egypt's modern history. "During the crucial years of the Camp David negotiations with Israel I was deputy to Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal," he recalls. And while Ghorbal was part of the Egyptian delegation, Shaker took charge of the embassy in his stead.
"However, I did spend two days at Camp David visiting my cousin and brother-in-law, then Foreign Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel." It was during this visit that Shaker learned his cousin had tendered his resignation over objections to the treaty.
Shaker joined the Egyptian delegation during the signing of the treaty on the lawn of the White House. The absence of the Egyptian foreign minister could hardly be ignored and Sadat, despite having promised not to make Kamel's resignation public until his return to Cairo, had to give an account of his absence to the US secretary of state.
Shaker's career within the foreign service was punctuated by occasional secondment to outside agencies. From among 40 candidates he was selected as Egypt's representative to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, which is based in Vienna. Its mandate includes the regulation of nuclear power stations, ensuring that they are used only for peaceful purposes. Yet within 15 months of assuming the post he was recalled to Cairo, only to be told that he had been appointed Egypt's deputy representative at the Security Council in the UN. Three years later he was transferred back to Vienna, this time as ambassador, in which post he remained for 14 months. Again he was recalled, this time to be told that he would be heading the Egyptian Embassy in the United Kingdom.
Shaker's successful career has gone hand in hand with a successful marriage. His wife, Mona El-Kouni, could not have been better prepared for her role as a diplomatic wife: she is the daughter of the late career diplomat Mohamed Awad El-Kouni. Indeed, Mona and Shaker celebrated their wedding at the Egyptian Embassy in Moscow, where her father was then serving.
Shaker encouraged Mona to pursue her studies and, along with raising a family and carrying out her diplomatic duties, she obtained a PhD from the University of Maryland. Following Shaker's retirement and the family's return to Cairo she further followed her interests and is now an assistant professor in the English Department at Cairo University.
They have two children and six grandchildren, the latter assuming a prominent position in the family's affections. And the family resemblances are striking: Shaker, though 68, looks much younger, with the kind of figure that is often described as well-preserved. He is invariably well- dressed, impeccably turned out in a conventional, diplomatic kind of way.
His office at the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs seems to embody the tastes of the man: it is a vast room with sofa and armchairs upholstered in dark brown leather. Racks along one side of the wall hold neat piles of selected international magazines. Next door is a large auditorium designed for conferences or lectures. The ECFA, in providing a forum through which "political and intellectual streams of thought concerning regional and international issues" can freely be discussed, often hosts distinguished foreign visitors and foreign expatriates, and discussions are a regular event.
The ECFA has already hosted a wide-range of seminars on, among other topics, the impact of Israel's internal system on its foreign policy; Jerusalem; managing Egypt's relation with Europe; intervention and state sovereignty and the future of Egyptian labour in the Arab States.
After such a long and distinguished career what, one wonders, would Shaker like to achieve that he has not already? The answer is quick to come. He would like to see ECFA established as a leading think tank, as an independent institution providing major policy inputs. It is a role, Shaker believes, that would neatly complement El- Reedy's own vision of the organisation as one that provides a non-governmental platform promoting communication between Egypt and the international community.
And despite the initial impression of humility, and of discretion, few would doubt that Shaker possesses the determination and drive to achieve this.
Letter from the Editor
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