Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Obituary: Osama Al-Baz (1931-2013) A master politician

Al-Ahram Weekly

I awoke at dawn in Washington on Saturday 14 and, as always, started to catch up with the time lag between Egypt and Washington by reading news from Cairo, the Arab world and elsewhere. Amid all the headlines on Egypt and Syria my attention was caught by the obituaries of Dr Osama Al-Baz, usually described as a former first deputy minister of foreign affairs and political adviser to president Hosni Mubarak. I felt sorrow that I would not be able to attend his funeral and pay my respects to his family. I also felt guilty that I had not visited Al-Baz for several years. I only hope Egypt fully appreciates the value of this man at a time when the nation is being torn in many directions, rocked by the waves of a revolution that still has a long way ahead of it.

I once published an article in Al-Ahram urging the relevant authorities to award the Order of the Nile to three individuals. The Order of the Nile is Egypt’s highest state honour and is awarded for exceptional services to the nation. I do not remember the order of my recommendations but they included Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. In spite of many differences of opinion with Heikal I fully appreciated the service he performed the nation when, on 8 June 1967, he persuaded president Gamal Abdel-Nasser to appoint Zakaria Mohieddin instead of then minister of defence Shams Badran as his successor to the presidency after he stepped down. The course of history was altered as a result. It was altered a second time when Amin Howeidi, my second recommendation, convinced Nasser to eliminate the nest of rebellion that was spearheaded by General Abdel-Hakim Amer later in the summer of that ill-fated year. Had Nasser not taken this action the country would have been plunged into civil strife. On both occasions Egypt was spared disaster because it avoided wrong decisions.

My third recommendation was Osama Al-Baz, the man who gave the Egyptian state a new lease on the future, a service that surpassed those performed by a whole generation of Egyptian elites.

I nominated Al-Baz as he served as a midwife to the Camp David accords. Many Egyptians and Arabs do not like this agreement and some who recognise its worth would rather not speak about it. Very few realise that, even in light of what is happening today, this agreement led Egypt from hell to hope.

Let’s take a look at events in September 1978 when Anwar Al-Sadat launched his peace initiative with a visit to Israel. As subsequent developments unfolded it began to look like that first great step would lead nowhere. US president Jimmy Carter invited the parties to meet at Camp David. There the Carter administration had assembled its full battery of US expertise in intelligence, negotiation, law and treaty craftsmanship, and the same applied to prime minister Menachem Begin. But on Egypt’s side a majority of the Foreign Ministry delegation was opposed to the process. As a consequence Sadat lacked the expertise he needed at a critical time.

As Boutros Boutros Ghali relates in his memoirs, the credit for the success the Egyptian negotiating team achieved during the Camp David meetings is almost entirely due to the outstanding technical and legal skills of a single individual, Osama Al-Baz. Of course, the hero of the hour was president Sadat who masterminded the initiative and changed the course of history by pursuing a new direction that had eluded the rest of the Arab world. But political leaders do not work alone. Their generals in the field often play no less important a role. Regardless of how great a leader’s ideas may be or how far ahead they are of their times they always need people to put them into effect on the ground.

William Quandt, a Middle East specialist who served on the National Security Council in the Nixon and Carter administrations and who was an active participant in the Camp David negotiations, once told me how president Carter and Al-Baz would huddle together with dictionaries and reference works on international law and treaties and conventions. It was a familiar sight in those historic days. In brief, it was Al-Baz who shouldered the burdens of the moment in terms of knowledge and expertise in international law and the technicalities involved in drafting treaties. In the world of diplomacy he performed the work of an army of diplomats after its generals had decided to shirk their responsibilities because they had other opinions and felt that clinging to their own views at the crucial hour of battle was more important to their history — as opposed to the history of their country — than engagement.

Later Carter, his national security advisor Brzezinski and his secretary of state Vance, wrote about the stark contrast between the Israeli and Egyptian delegations; how, on one side, there was a complete army with its generals and other officers while, on the other, there was only a single general who had been appointed at the moment of confrontation, after the minister of foreign affairs resigned.

The controversy over Camp David will continue for a long time to come and there are certainly grounds for dispute. But the issue here is about men with a vision and with the courage to see that vision through to reality. Al-Baz was not much different from other Egyptian diplomats of his generation: he was just as influenced by the Nasserist and leftist legacies with regard to the Arab-Israeli struggle — portrayed as an existential conflict against an expansionist Israeli empire that, at the time, stretched from Qanaitra in the Golan to Qantara in the Sinai — as anyone else. But Al-Baz was also perspicacious and had the courage to question and rethink things. After he entered the diplomatic corps Sadat discovered his intelligence and talents. Al-Baz became the architect who turned the ideas of his leader — Sadat had little time for details — into a reality on the ground. He remained the maestro of Egyptian diplomacy, even if Sadat and Mubarak withheld from him the title of foreign minister. He was not just a diplomat but a politician of the first order.

One day in November 1997, shortly after the appalling terrorist attack in Luxor, I had the good fortune to meet Al-Baz at a luncheon hosted by the Italian ambassador to Cairo. Subsequently, he invited me to visit his office at the Foreign Ministry building in Tahrir Square. There I discovered he had neither a car nor a personal guard. He was ascetic in his habits. More importantly, in the course of three hours I learned more about the arts of politics than I had learned over many years. Eventually this acquaintance would evolve into friendship, affection and long and enjoyable chats about major issues of the day. When illness attacked he was forced to withdraw from the public field for years. But as we say of soldiers, they never die. They go elsewhere because their memory lives with us forever.

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