Ahmed Fakhr: A man for all seasons
Whether guiding missiles, negotiating peace or overseeing a think-tank precise timing is crucial
Profile by Mursi Saad El-Din
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'A most important principle of the new centre is to combat rising extremism, armed violence and terrorism. I don't mean violence in the region only, but that which has now become apparent in the family, the neigbourhood, and daily life, which can later develop into the use of arms'
I have known Ahmed Fakhr for over 50 years. This is why I was hesitant to accept the task of writing his profile. I've often thought that being a close acquaintance of a person makes it difficult to write about him.
On the other hand, it is well known that biographers -- and profiles are a kind of mini- biography -- most often choose to explore the lives of people they like. And there is no doubt that I like and respect Fakhr, or to give him his full title, General Ahmed Fakhr.
Prior to meeting him for this article, I had prepared a number of questions which, I thought, would produce the right material. But as we sat together, sipping our coffee, with Fakhr talking and I listening, I realised that I did not need my questions. General Fakhr began to unfold the story of his life, falling into a kind of reverie, as if he was watching an imaginary film of a life filled with action and adventure. I sat in a kind of trance, listening to his soft, calm voice telling the story of his life. His voice is completely suited to his modesty. Not once did Fakhr blow his own trumpet -- though he has every reason to do so.
The role Fakhr has played in both the military and political fields has been recognised at the highest levels, in Egypt, in the Arab world, and in the West. He has acted as a catalyst in almost every key political negotiation and conference, and in his job as adviser to the prime minister on American assistance, he was part of the state's decision-making apparatus. In this capacity, he has won the respect and admiration of all those who had dealings with him.
When I arrived at his house, he started by introducing himself as General Ahmed Fakhr.
Then, shrugging off this formality, his face suddenly lit up, and he began to speak. "I'm a son of the Nile and of the sands of Sinai, Because my father was an irrigation engineer, we always lived close to the river. We lived for many years in the Sudan -- in Khartoum, Omdurman, Juba... In fact, in every Sudanese town there is what is called an "irrigation resthouse", which was the permanent residence of the engineers, who were British at first, then later were replaced by Egyptians."
During the time that he lived in the Sudan, he was able to watch the Nile -- calm at times, at other times raging, during the torrential rains over the Abbyssinian mountains. When Fakhr's father was transferred to Egypt, he served in many different cities. This gave his son a unique opportunity to get to know intimately towns as various as Assiut, Fayoum, Cairo, Kafr Al-Dawar, Tanta and Alexandria. This diversity of places influenced the formation of his character and has left indelible marks on his life and culture.
As for the sands of Sinai -- well, that is a rather different story. Fakhr joined the Military College in 1948 and graduated as a combatant officer in 1950. He served in Arish, Rafah, Gaza, east of Al-Qantara, and in other military centres in the peninsula. This brought him into close contact with the desert and its Bedouin inhabitants, and introduced him to the communal life of the army. Again, all this contributed to the formation of his personality. "I regard myself as an Egyptian whom God has given the chance to know the local communities of Egypt," he tells me.
Upon graduation he was attached to the air defence unit. "What affected me most in this capacity was the struggle between the gun, the missile and the plane," says Fakhr. "All of this involves a decision that has to be taken and carried out in a few seconds. Timing here is vital. And precise timing has always preoccupied my mind."
In 1976 Fakhr joined the National Defence College in Cairo. "This meant that I was transferred from a 'combatant' to a 'strategic planner'." The move presented him with the opportunity to increase his military and strategic knowledge. An M A in military science was followed by fellowships at the National Defence College in Egypt and the Royal College of Military Studies in London. Finally, he also obtained his diploma in National Security from the University of National Defense, Washington.
Prior to that, Fakhr had been part of the first group of officers who attended courses in the former Soviet Union on the Sam 2 land/air missiles. His studies gave him the opportunity to absorb many diverse cultures, while the armed forces endowed him with the ability to learn and mix Egyptian, Russian, English and American military disciplines.
Fakhr played an active role in four wars: the Tripartite Aggression of 1956, the Arab- Israeli Six-Day War of 1967, the subsequent reconstruction of the Egyptian armed forces, known as the War of Attrition, and, finally, the October 1973 War with Israel.
He received the republic's Military Medal for his role in the 1973 War and the Republic Medal in recognition of his services in the Armed Forces. Prior to that, in 1962, he had already received the Order of Merit for his role in forming the fourth air defence force. In 1981 he moved from active service in the army to planning and strategy, when he was appointed director of the National Defence College and the Nasser High Military Academy, a post which he held until 1985.
In 1985, Fakhr retired from the army, and switched to civilian work. He became the first editor-in-chief of the magazine Al-Difaa (Defence), and was appointed as adviser to the prime minister for the American assistance programme. This gave him the chance to deal directly with the American administration and Congress. Having competently served in these capacities, Fakhr next took up party political work. He was selected as a member of the General Secretariat for Foreign and Arab Relations of the National Democratic Party, which at the time was headed by Mustafa Khalil.
In 1992, he shifted gear again, standing successfully for election as president of the Local Council for the Cairo Governorate -- a post which he still holds.
But as if that was not enough, Fakhr wears yet more hats. As if apologetically, he begins to talk about what I might call his academic activities. For a number of years he was chairman of the National Centre of Middle Eastern Studies, and more recently he was chosen to chair a new think tank, the International Centre For Future and Strategic Studies (ICFS).
Before quizzing him on the details of this newly established organisation, I asked him about his motivation for moving into civil society activities.
In keeping with the belief that armed conflicts do not solve political problems, Fakhr tells me that in the long run all solutions depends upon "dialogue, discussion and negotiation". No wonder, then, that he was chosen as a member of the Madrid Peace Conference, and subsequently sat on the Arms Control and Regional Security Committee which emanated from the conference. For five years, the committee carried out negotiations between the Arab States on the one hand and Israel on the other.
Fakhr believes that we are now entering a phase in which civil society, and the research and studies centres associated with it, will have a crucial role to play. Egypt has a number of such distinguished centres, which belong either to governorates, ministries or press organisations. But recently a group of socially-aware businessmen have recognised the important role of think tanks in supplying both the state and the private sector with free and independent opinions away, unbiased by any official stance or personal interests. These businessmen realised that while the existing centres provide excellent analytical and critical studies, they are weak when it comes to proposing alternative solutions.
Hence the need for a free and independent think tank which can study the problems and present alternatives to assist both public and private partners.
That was the philosophy behind the establishment of the ICFS of which Fakhr is chairman. The centre is equipped with all the latest modern technology: Internet, multimedia, and satellite communications, which facilitate its work. "We are living in an age where the event is not what took place, but what is taking place at this very moment," says Fakhr. Hence his insistence on the absolute necessity of getting the timing right.
The centre selects its research subjects, on the basis of staff proposals, issues covered in the print and visual media, or requests by official state departments. The centre gives opinions which are free of any control, either by the state or by private interests. Its work focusses on Egypt first, then the states which have a direct bearing on Egyptian national security, such as the Sudan and the Nile Basin states, Israel and Palestine. It also studies countries that have faced similar problems to ours and have managed to solve them through non-traditional means -- which may be the countries of South East Asia, China, or certain European countries which have to manage a diversity of religious communities.
The centre held its first seminar on 21 December, when the subject was "Towards an effective role for research centres and think tanks in formulating policies in Egypt". The inaugural speech was given by Fakhr in his capacity as chairman. Other speakers included such well- known figures as Mona Makram Ebeid, Alieddin Hilal, Mohamed El-Sayed Said, and Osama El- Baz.
The centre has a publications programme which includes the Peace Concepts series, which is intended to develop the culture of peace yet further in Egypt. Fakhr comments, "it is clear that public opinion in Egypt is well aware of the problems of peace, but does not know of any satisfactory solutions."
The centre is also offering scholarships to young people, both from Egypt and from other countries with similar experiences, principally in South East Asia and China. The aim of this programme is to help train a new generation of scientific and research cadres.
According to Fakhr, one of the most important principles of the centre is to combat the rising wave of extremism, armed violence and terrorism. "I don't mean violence in the region only," Fakhr explains, "but that which is now apparent in the family, the neigbourhood, and in daily life, which can later develop into the use of arms."
Ahmed is married to Bahiga Bahgat, the sister of the important poet and artist Salah Jahin. He has two sons, Hossam who is now working for the UN in New York, and Hatem, who has remained in Egypt, and is pursuing a corporate career.
But his public achievements are not the whole man, all-embracing as they may seem. Another side of Fakhr, known only to those close to him, is his literary talent. This is reflected in the style of his political analyses and reports. But I have the feeling that at some stage he has also tried his hand at more purely literary writing.
His son Hossam seems to have inherited this interest from his father. His latest effort is an elegantly produced book entitled Images from New York. In spite of the fact that Hossam has been living in America for 20 years, and speaks perfect English, the book is in Arabic.
As I sat listening to Fakhr recounting his life story and expressing his frank opinions, what I felt most was his confidence and belief in our country. So long as we have people like Ahmed, I thought, we can be assured that the interests of Egypt are in good hands.