After years of the silence that was partially the choice of a man who always kept his cards close to his chest and partially the result of an illness that was possibly affecting the memories of a man who had lived through much but said very little, the senior Egyptian diplomat Osama Al-Baz, a man who had managed to reach the summit of the country’s diplomatic service, passed away recently, making a final solemn exit from Egyptian life.
His last public appearance occurred over two years ago during the uprising against the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, when Al-Baz, a man who hated fuss and formality, visited Cairo’s Tahrir Square in an action that was widely noticed at the time. Al-Baz, though a significant player under the Mubarak regime, was never very closely associated with it.
A career diplomat born in the early decades of the 20th century into a conservative family with progressive ideas, Al-Baz was perceived by his colleagues as a shrewd negotiator and a humorous man who loved life and was not afraid to live it to the full, even as he was always careful to observe an otherwise diplomatic style.
Whereas younger and less prominent diplomats would spend hours worrying about the choice of their tie, Al-Baz could be found walking through the streets of Cairo, perhaps stopping for a bite at an ordinary sandwich store before finding his way onto the underground that would take him to the Foreign Ministry offices in the centre of the city.
At the Foreign Ministry, Al-Baz made his name for two things; his firm association with the peace process, right from its start on the unilateral Egypt-Israel track under the rule of the late president Anwar Al-Sadat, and his policy coaching of none other than former president Mubarak himself upon the latter’s appointment as vice-president by Sadat in 1975.
Al-Baz was present each time Egyptian-Israeli, and later Arab-Israeli, relations were discussed, as he was at almost all discussions of the country’s foreign policy until the late 1990s and beyond. It was at this time that he started to take a somewhat lower profile, becoming a rarer presence at ceremonial events or political meetings.
Stories of the circumstances of Al-Baz’s exit from the political scene vary, some suggesting that it was because of illness, his having survived cancer some years before, and others saying that he had chosen to withdraw from politics in order to spend more time with his family.
Few suggested that Al-Baz had had a fall-out with Mubarak over the decision of the later ousted president to give an implicit nod of approval to the political ambitions of his younger son Gamal, though many thought that Al-Baz considered that this was unlikely to be accepted by Egyptians.
Al-Baz himself never spoke about the reasons for his departure from public life, and he declined TV or press interviews in the same way that he declined offers by domestic and foreign publishers to share his memories of the hidden pages of Egyptian diplomacy. Those journalists and publishers who did manage to speak to him all said one thing: Osama Al-Baz does not wish to talk and he does not have anything he wishes to share with the wider public.
It was as if by choice that this man who had seen it all and knew it all throughout the years of Sadat and Mubarak sank into a sort of soft forgetfulness that eventually caused him to retire from his otherwise very active life until he died recently at the Cairo hospital to which he had been taken during the last phase of his illness.
Al-Baz never wanted to be foreign minister, although he was often asked to accept the post, and he never wanted to attract attention even as the political adviser to the president. He died peacefully, leaving a son and a daughter behind him, as well as a rich store of memories that surely detail a good part of the history of the Arab-Israeli struggle and some tough and not-so-tough moments in Egyptian diplomacy.
In a rare note, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement this week to lament the loss of this “prominent diplomat who was dedicated to serving the best interests of his nation and who was always loved and appreciated by his colleagues and friends”.
Al-Baz was married to Egyptian TV presenter Omayma Kamel and was the brother of the prominent scientist Farouk Al-Baz. His death closes off yet another potential source of secrets from the Mubarak era after the death of Mubarak’s former chief of General Intelligence Omar Suleiman last year.