Ahmed Maher: A diplomat and a gentleman
Five decades of diplomacy and now... well, a normal life
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Above: Ahmed Maher Pasha (centre); below: Ahmed Maher Pasha's swearing-in ceremony before King Farouk; the Mahers and the Clintons in Washington DC
There is something gentle and otherworldly about Ahmed Maher El-Sayid. He appears at first shy, but good company nonetheless. His mild-mannered nature accentuates his suave sophistication. Soon, though, you realise this shyness is nothing more than a form of detachment, the detachment necessary, perhaps, for a successful career diplomat. And it is as a career diplomat, with five decades of experience, that this grandson of a former prime minister has made his name.
He exudes an underlying warmth, tempered the almost hearty impersonality that I suppose must have been a hallmark of his professional relationships.
It took some time to locate the former foreign minister's Zamalek residence. We arrived a little late for our appointment but Maher received us courteously nonetheless. His Nubian valet welcomed us and escorted us into the overwhelmingly vermillion sitting room of his stylish Zamalek apartment. Memorabilia from his long career seems to occupy every niche, crevice and corner.
Perched on a chair in his sitting-room Maher looks every inch the statesman. Yet as he invites us to scrumptious Leventine sweets the personality projected is amiable and down to earth.
"Please do have some more cookies," he insists.
Any interview with Maher becomes a chat. He has a winning and laid-back ambiance. A conversationalist of brilliance, he is easily likeable and his diplomatic dexterity appears to be balanced by a gentleness and humility of spirit.
Four years ago, in May 2001, Maher was recalled from retirement to become Egypt's 71st foreign minister. He was sworn in as the new foreign minister before President Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, succeeding Amr Moussa.
The two men could not have been more different -- one colourful and charismatic, the other affable but a little high- profile. Not that Maher is in the least bit interested in popularity contests.
Today he writes and lectures and appears regularly on Pan-Arab satellite channels. He never suffered a trust problem because he said one thing and did another, not even when he was a minister. He always said what he meant. "Honesty is the best policy," he says.
Maher is enjoying his retirement. He travels extensively, goes to the cinema, catches up with old friends and reads the novels he never found the time to read. He is going through the motions of ordinary life. At the same time, out of office, he has become one of the freshest and most original political commentators in the Arab world. He freely expresses an increasingly outspoken antipathy towards American foreign policy, particularly towards the Middle East.
Maher is critical of Washington's heavy-handed handling of the Iraqi insurgency. He opposed American military aggression in Iraq in the first place, and remains critical of Washington's desire to replace Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein as leaders of the Palestinians and Iraq respectively. Changing a head of state, he says, with eloquent simplicity, is a domestic matter.
Maher speaks of his days as a young diplomat. Though he studied law, he early gravitated towards diplomacy and was clearly one of those people early marked for great things, quickly coming to the attention of diplomatic hierarchy. Among his mentors were ambassadors Mohamed Hazem El-Zayat and Naguib Quidry, though the decisive encounter of his life, he says, the one that would define his future path, was when he worked with Hafez Ismail, national security advisor, under whose guidance Maher was in a position to participate in the decision-making process at the time of the October 1973 War. That, he says, was an invaluable experience.
He delves further back in time, recalling his early childhood. He was born in the then affluent garden suburb of Helmiyat Al-Zaytoun, and raised in Heliopolis. He went to school at the French Lycée, and his fluency in French put him in good stead as far as his diplomatic career was concerned. He served in several Francophone and partially French- speaking countries -- Zaire (today's Democratic Republic of Congo), Canada, Switzerland and France. He is also fluent in English and has a working knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, serving as Egypt's ambassador to Portugal before moving to Brussels in 1982.
Maher combined diplomatic skills with ambition and a thirst for knowledge. You need not be much of a student of history to know that Maher's career coincided with a difficult period in Egypt's modern history. Hardly a decade passed without the outbreak of a major war, yet he looks back on that time almost wistfully, bemoaning the insularity and lack of standards he feels have befallen Egypt.
I have seen him at several African Union summit meetings -- in Sirte, Lusaka and Maputo. He always seemed far more relaxed at AU meetings than at Arab League gatherings. "African summits are less formal," he explains. "Arab leaders tend to be more formal when dealing with each other. African leaders, on the other hand, are more down-to-earth and spontaneous."
Maher served as ambassador to Moscow at an especially abstruse historical period, 1988-1999, and witnessed the unceremonial collapse of the Soviet Union. He admires Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the disintegration. "He tried to salvage the Soviet Empire and present Communism with a human face. He failed because the rot had already set in."
His very first post abroad was in Zurich, Switzerland. After Zurich he returned to Egypt where he met his wife, Hoda El-Aguizi. Theirs was a whirlwind romance, and she has been his closest companion ever since. She was also of great help in his diplomatic endeavours, he tells me.
"The wife of a senior diplomat can be of tremendous support, especially if she interacts freely with members of the host community, socialises easily and takes an interest in her husband's work," he confides.
His wife, he says, was an invaluable support, particularly in the US. "America is a continent, not a country. There is a large Egyptian immigrant community in the US, and there are five Egyptian consulates in the country.
There is also a powerful Jewish lobby and part of our official duty was to engage with both the pro- Israeli lobby and the Arab- American and Muslim communities in the US," he recalls.
"There are often petty rivalries and divisions among the immigrant Egyptian communities of America. The Coptic Christian community in the US is large and dynamic, for example, but certain sections of it are vehemently anti-Egypt. They foment trouble, but they are a small minority who are nevertheless very loud and vocal. The vast majority of Copts in America are supportive of Egypt. They have Egypt's best interest at heart."
Maher quickly reminds me that the same goes for the Muslim community. "Only a tiny fraction of which is anti-Egypt," he says, referring to militant Islamists.
"Our mission was to get Egyptians in America, both Muslims and Christians to play a positive part in cementing ties between Egypt and America. They bridge the cultural gap," he stresses.
Bill Clinton, says Maher, is one of the shrewdest politicians he has ever come across.
"I have met him on numerous occasions and he exudes charms and charisma. He gives you the impression of being an exceptionally intense and engaging person who gives you his full attention."
Then came a stint at the Arab League. As director of the Arab Fund for Technical Assistance to African States Maher has first hand knowledge of the challenges facing the African continent.
He was, I suggest, one of the most eloquent Arab voices in the international arena. He was the acceptable face of Arab diplomacy, not only transmitting a liberal vision of the Arab world but embodying that vision in person.
Maher gives an elfin grin, as is flattered by the thought.
"A diplomat is not a politician," he says, "though a diplomat has to be well acquainted with politics, and especially with the political agenda of his government and the history and culture of his country."
Leafing through books and papers, he happens on a photograph of his grandfather Ahmed Maher Pasha, the pre-World War II prime minister who was assassinated in parliament on 24 February 1945.
"I was 10 years old when my grandfather was assassinated," he muses. As a child, Maher was very close to his maternal grandfather.
"My mother named me after him. He had no sons and my mother wanted his name to live on. I was therefore given the compound name, Ahmed Maher, of my grandfather. Compound names were common, especially among the titled elites of the day," he explains.
"My mother was devastated by the gruesome assassination of her father. It was a profound shock to us all."
Maher's father was an eminent physician, a cultured man who took a keen interest in politics. He had a huge study, with a library containing a large collection of rare books. Maher spent many of his formative years in his father's study poring over these books.
Early in his career Maher learned a great deal from the likes of Mahmoud Riyadh and Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel, two former distinguished foreign ministers.
"The most important characteristic of a good diplomat is familiarity with his country's history and foreign policy. A deep understanding of the cultural context and milieu in which a diplomat operates is especially important," he notes.
"It is often said that a diplomat is paid to lie for his country. This is absolutely not true." He arches his brow. "The diplomat must have credibility."
He cocks his head and reflects. "The diplomat must not necessarily reveal all the truth, but the conscientious and clever diplomat must divulge at least part of the truth."
"In my opinion," he continues, "a diplomat must try to bridge the cultural and political gap between his or her country and that of the host nation."
He recounts the highlights of his experience as Egypt's ambassador to the US between 1992 and 1999, a post he found as rewarding and fulfilling as it was physically gruelling and psychologically taxing.
"One did not just deal with government officials but with business communities in different states across the sprawling country, with think tanks, academics and rival lobby groups," he explains.
As a former Egyptian ambassador to the US Maher speaks with authority on the prickly subject of Egyptian- American relations.
Money is power in contemporary global politics, but so are arms and a fighting spirit. America is the land of the powerful and the super rich. And America is the sole global superpower. Yet he is trenchant over American concern about the proliferation of criticism of US Middle Eastern policy in the Egyptian and Arab media.
"The problem is that you can't have a democratic system and then muzzle the press because you don't like its criticism of the US."
He applauds the tentative steps taken in Egypt and several other Arab countries to democratise and politically reform.
"We are trying to build a more democratic society. One of the most important tenets of a democratic society is freedom of expression."
But it is a process that cannot be short- circuited. Maher remains critical of the Iraqi elections which he believes might "end up isolating an important segment of the population to impose the domination of the majority, some of whom are bent on vengeance which could have destructive consequences that extend throughout the region".
The Arabs, he argues, could not recognise the legitimacy of the US- appointed Interim Governing Council in Iraq, and in recent months he has published several commentaries on the subject. "I don't think there is hatred of the US in the Arab world but there is criticism, and very sharp criticism sometimes," he emphasises.
That said, he is acutely conscious of the special ties that bind Egypt and the US. Egypt, after all, is one of Washington's key allies in the Arab world and the recipient of some $2 billion a year in US aid.
As Egypt's ambassador in Washington at the tail end of George Bush Senior's presidency and throughout the duration of the Clinton administration, Maher witnessed several critical turning points in Washington's Middle East policy. He worked hard with Clinton administration officials towards the implementation of the Tenet and Mitchell recommendations, and fully supports the 1978 peace accord between Egypt and Israel. At the same time he is fiercely critical of Israel's current reluctance to bring the Arab-Israeli conflict to a speedy and conclusive end. He especially condemns Israel's pussyfooting over granting Palestinian statehood and often accuses Israel of "obstructing peace and stability in the region".
At the beginning of the interview I had thought it wise not to mention the headline-hitting incident at Al-Aqsa Mosque when Maher was jostled by a group of Palestinians.
But yes, he says, he is still somewhat shaken by that experience, though he recalls it without bitterness or rancour.
His assailants, ostensibly an obscure militant Islamist group called Hizb Al-Tahrir, Liberation Party, said menacingly that he was not welcome in Palestine.
The incident was caught live on television cameras, and Maher appeared ashen-faced and panic-stricken. It appeared he had been heckled and pelted with shoes. But, he explains, he was not physically assaulted. His bodyguards were holding his shoes aloft -- he had removed them before entering the mosque, fearing they might be stolen.
Some of his Palestinian hosts, he recalls, wanted him to stay on and pray with them at Al-Aqsa while others wanted to smuggle him out to safety. He was literally bounced to and fro.
Maher complained at the time of shortness of breath and tightness of the chest. He gasped for air. He was promptly escorted away by his bodyguards, both Palestinian and Egyptian, who whisked him out of the mosque. He was physically lifted off his feet and rushed to Jerusalem's Hadassah Medical Centre where he was promptly given an electrocardiogram.
The incident occurred after Maher had met senior Israeli officials -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President Moshe Katsav, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and opposition leader Shimon Peres -- to discuss the implementation of the US-sponsored roadmap during his first official visit to Israel in two years. Back in Cairo, Maher dismissed the incident as "just a piece of foolish behaviour".
Towards the end of the interview Maher returns to a subject that has obviously been on his mind. He is working on a book.
"No, memoirs are too self-centred," he explains. "I have never kept a diary. The book I have in mind is a collection of essays -- reflections."
The finishing line is in sight, albeit not for a few years.