Friday,27 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Friday,27 April, 2018
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A foreign relations encyclopaedia

Al-Sayed Amin Shalaby, From Diplomatic Memory, Cairo: Supreme Cultural Council, 2017

Ambassador Al-Sayed Amin Shalaby
Ambassador Al-Sayed Amin Shalaby

In this memoirs, Ambassador Al-Sayed Amin Shalaby reviews his experience as a diplomat in eastern Europe, Moscow, Washington and Norway during the conclusion of the Oslo Agreement.

In the introduction, he notes, “I wrote this book as I was approaching my eighties. At that age, one has the will to recall the regional and international transformations that one witnessed in addition to the Egyptian and international persons that one worked with.”

The author dedicates his book, which details his career from the moment he joined the diplomatic corps in 1961 till 1996,  to “the new generations” and to Egyptian diplomacy.

His experience started in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia –two Eastern European Countries that were a part of the socialist camp under the leadership of the Soviet Union. In the first chapter, “My Early Years in Diplomacy”, he describes how, in Prague in 1963-66, he witnessed the beginnings of the political and cultural movement that was led by men of culture like Vaclav Havel (who in the late 1980s would become president) and pave the way to the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of 1968.

After his return from Prague, Shalaby took part in establishing the Diplomatic Institute that is helping to training Egyptian, Arab and African diplomats to this day. Yugoslavia in 1970-72 was Shalaby’s second post abroad. He recalls how Yugoslavia under President Josip Tito was a very close ally to Egypt. Shalaby’s years in Prague and Belgrade brought him closer to Soviet ideology and paved the way to his post in Moscow in 1972, to which he dedicates a detailed chapter, “Moscow: Years of Negotiations”.

He recounts how he arrived in Moscow only a few weeks after President Sadat decided to expel the Soviet experts from Egypt, coinciding with the start of the Soviet-American détente – shifting mutual relations from confrontation to dialogue and cooperation. The same year saw the first American-Soviet summit. During Shalaby’s time in Moscow four Moscow-Washington summits were held through which a wide range of agreements were concluded including the declaration of principles which set the basis for relations between the two powers. However, the détente did not make a positive impact on the Palestinian question because, although the two powers agreed on the importance of a peaceful settlement, they failed to take steps to reach it.

The other major event that Shalaby witnessed during his post in Moscow was the October 1973 War, during which the Soviet leadership supported Egypt and Syria. “What is taking place in the Middle East is a battle between Israel, the aggressor, and Egypt and Syria,  the victims of the aggression... It is natural that all our feelings are with the victims,” Shalaby quotes Brezhnev on 7 October.

The Soviets established an air bridge to supply Egypt and Syria with weapons.  However, when things seemed to be going out of control, the two superpowers tried to contain the situation. The US national advisor Henry Kissinger visited Moscow on 20 October and the two states managed to produce a draft resolution to the Security Council calling for a ceasefire. Resolution 308 was adopted and Egypt approved the ceasefire. When Israel violated the ceasefire, Egypt asked both Washington and Moscow to send observers to monitor it.

Shalaby argues that although the two superpowers tried to show their willingness to cooperate during the October War, their different stands on the war were obvious, which increased concern about the future of relations between them  and doubts about whether the détente has a sound basis. He concludes the chapter by noting that, while he arrived in Moscow while the two powers sought a rapprochement of some kind, he left while this tendency was on the wane.

Shalaby recalls the two important years in his life that he spent on a scholarship at the University of Oxford in the mid-1970s. He writes that he made full use of that period in attending lectures by the most renowned professors in international relations, spending hours reading in the library and collecting the material needed for his PhD on the American-Soviet détente.

In 1976, he was posted to Kotoko, then the capital of Nigeria. He remembers that Nigeria was a major African power and that his years there gave him the chance to attend various African summits discussing various pressing issues. He also witnessed a unique democratic experience through which the military ruler General Oba Sango transferred power peacefully to a civil president and held parliamentary and local elections.

In a chapter entitled “My Years in Washington: Preludes to an End to the Cold War”, Shalaby gives a detailed description of his post to Washington (1982-86), which he regarded as the most important place for Egyptian diplomacy. He worked in Washington with two of the most professional ambassadors who filled that post: Ashraf Ghorbal and Abdel Raouf Al-Reidi. Shalaby’s years in Washington, as he recalls,  coincided with Donald Reagan’s presidency, which started with an ideological and military confrontation with the Soviet Union. As a result, relations between the two superpowers deteriorated.

However, Reagan’s second term saw Mikhail Gorbachev putting forward the notion of perestroika, and so changing the basis of Soviet domestic and foreign policy. Four summits were held between the two leaders and Reagan visited to Moscow. Shalaby discusses the debate bout whether Reagan’s policies were instrumental in the Soviet collapse, or whether it was entirely due to internal failures and contradictions. Shalaby’s post in Washington also coincided with a change in the US policy towards the Palestinian issue calling for negotiations as the only means to guarantee the Palestinians’ legitimate rights and Israel’s security. Reagan issued an initiative for peace in the Middle East. However, “as it lacked any strategy for implementation, it failed to make an achievement. Thus, the 1980s had become a period of wasted time regarding Palestinian-Israeli peace and it ended with the Palestinian Intifada.”

Shalaby’s post in Norway, which started in 1990, coincided with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and, more importantly, the Oslo accords. The Oslo story, as Shalaby elaborates, started when a group of Norwegian scholars who were members of FAFO, an institute that belong to the Norwegian trade union, went to study the economic and social conditions of the Palestinians for two years. They established close relations with Palestinian and Israeli politicians, which led them to conclude that Norway could play a role in bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together. Norway’s role, as Shalaby explains in the book, was to facilitate and provide the right environment for the negotiations. It was never a third party in them.

However, at the end of that chapter, Shalaby ascribes the failure of Oslo accords to the rise of violence and extremism in Israel, which regarded Oslo as an obstacle on the way to its dream of Greater Israel. “That hatred and extremism was vented by the killing of Yitzhak Rabin who was regarded as responsible for the Oslo accords. That current was further ignited by the advent of Netanyahu and reached its climax under Ariel Sharon who ended every hope for peace. Thus, the area is living in the era of Israeli extremism.”

Shalaby dedicates one chapter to important Egyptian figure like former foreign ministers from post 1952 revolution foreign minister Mahmoud Fawzi to Esmat Abdel-Meguid, Boutros Ghali, Amr Moussa, Ahmed Abul-Gheit, Mohamed Al-Orabi, Mohamed Kamel Amr, Nabil Al-Arabi, Nabil Fahmi and the present Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.

In another chapter he writes of influential foreign figures like UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, Henry Kissinger, the architect of Oslo Agreement Johan Holst, Barack Obama and Samuel Huntington.                

After his retirement, Shalaby worked as the Executive Director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. “The success of the council can be ascribed mostly to Ambassador Shalaby who made full use of his academic and diplomatic skills to improve the performance of that council,” writes former Foreign Minister Abul-Gheit in the introduction.

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