Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, former ambassador, and former Egyptian minister of foreign affairs, talks to AUC Press about his book Egypt’s Foreign Policy in Times of Crisis: My Testimony (AUC Press, 2020), the second volume of his memoirs. The first volume is Witness to War and Peace: Egypt, the October War, and Beyond (AUC Press, 2018).
How were the Arabic editions of your memoirs received and were there any subsequent questions from readers that intrigued you?
I think they were quite well received. I was extremely satisfied by the prominent coverage they elicited, especially in the Arab press and media, as well in various academic circles and think tanks, and of course within Egypt itself. You have to remember that my second memoir, Egypt’s Foreign Policy in Times of Crisis: My Testimony, was first published at a time when Egypt and other countries in the region were undergoing either a major transition or serious crisis, and there was thus an added interest in understanding the tenets and foundational principles of Egypt’s foreign policy during the latter years of President Mubarak’s tenure.
There must be countless significant moments in your impressive career as an Egyptian civil servant. Can you describe one that was most unforgettable and the circumstances around it?
To be honest there were multiple milestones and events that I consider will remain truly significant during my decades of service to Egypt. Perhaps the most important was on the 6th of October in 1973, the day President Sadat took Egypt to war to reclaim the Sinai and restore Egypt’s military honor. I delve extensively into my experiences on that day in my first memoir. They will remain forever ingrained in my memory. But there were of course other defining moments or events of major significance, such as the 9/11 attacks in the United States, when I was serving as Egypt’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, and I quickly realized the immensity of the challenges that would await us in addressing this event and its regional and global ramifications.
You once said that there are many foreign diplomats, writers, and journalists “who do not know how Egyptian foreign policy is planned, conducted, how operations are done, and how we coordinate action.” Could one say there are characteristics specific to Egypt’s foreign policy?
Egypt has been, and will always remain, a pivotal state in its region. It has also always been a state with a strong leadership, whether under Nasser or Sadat or Mubarak, and with strong institutions that serve its foreign policy objectives. It is always easy for an outsider to judge the foreign policy decisions of any government, but this judgment is neither fully fair nor accurate, since the outsider is never privy to the decision-making process itself or to the factors that lead to the formulation of any policy. But I think it is fair to say that Egypt’s foreign policy has always been characterized as principled, balanced, and steadfast and firmly grounded in serving the wider immediate and long-term national interests of the state and its people.
Does Egypt’s strategic geography dictate much of the country’s foreign policy?
Geography has always been a determinant factor in defining Egypt’s foreign policy throughout its history. These are factors that no country can escape, and they have offered Egypt countless opportunities as well as successive challenges. They have led Egypt to assume its leadership role in the Arab world and region at large, made Africa, and in particular the countries of the Nile river basin, a priority focus for any Egyptian government, and compelled Egypt to serve as a bridge between its region and Europe. But Egypt is a large and important country, and its foreign policy is defined by interests and objectives that most certainly transcend its geography and span beyond its region.
You describe this second volume of your memoirs—also packed with facts and personal accounts—as being “more philosophical.” You reflect on the different stages of your career, Egypt’s place on the international stage, its relations with its allies, its role within the Arab world, and the various challenges for its foreign policy. Which part was the most difficult to write?
I think the biggest challenge was deciding how much information I wanted to divulge, and how much information I felt compelled to withhold, not only in the national security interest of Egypt but also out of respect to numerous other interlocutors with whom I conducted diplomacy. I did mention in my memoirs that it is an almost complete account of my tenure as foreign minister, but there are issues that I, correctly I believe, decided not to make public. I think it was also important to be especially attentive and careful when writing about our foreign policy with other Arab states given the sensitivities of these issues and the fact that many of the leaders and counterparts I worked with were still in office at the time when my memoirs were published.
What was it really like to be such a close witness and a direct player in the making of history of the Middle East during such critical years?
It was, first and foremost, the highest honor to serve my country, and be intricately involved in safeguarding its interests and promoting its objectives. The Middle East has always been a region of strategic importance and to be engaged in formulating and then implementing the foreign policy of Egypt—as the largest actor in the region—vis-à-vis the Middle East was both an immense responsibility and an equally fulfilling achievement.
Throughout much of your career you would methodically document your observations and testimony to events—such as, as you call it “the humiliation of Egypt in 1967”—extracts of which are included in your memoirs that read at times like meticulous military diaries. You once said that “you felt it was an obligation” for you to write your memoirs. Why is that?
I did feel it was an obligation. And I felt that it was my responsibility to shed light on those facets of Egyptian decision-making, especially in the run-up to the October War and the subsequent conduct of both military operations and diplomacy which were not yet made public, at least from my vantage point at the time. I also wanted to set the record straight vis-à-vis some issues that were either incorrectly documented in the prevailing accounts at the time, or ignored by historians and academics on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
How would you describe your rapport with the late Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak? You write “I admit that it was a difficult relationship in the beginning,” that when you were nominated Egypt’s foreign minister, months had passed before you met with him, and that you felt he “was becoming politically isolated” and “that the president had been absent from important international summits. How did your relationship affect your job?
My relationship with President Mubarak was always professional, fully respectful, and indeed very cordial throughout the years I served as his foreign minister. He was the President of the Republic, and my task was to implement Egypt’s foreign policy under his directives. But I also had the duty to offer him my candid opinion and advice, which I think were for the most part well-received and never the cause of any friction or disagreement. I also had an excellent working relationship with all his senior aides at the presidency and this enabled me to conduct our affairs with the utmost ease. Yes, there were times when President Mubarak, especially in his latter years, decided not to engage on issues that I deemed needed to be addressed personally by him and at the highest of levels, for example when it came to participating in African Summits, or embarking on foreign visits to Latin America, or galvanizing international support for an Egyptian candidate to an important international position. But I appreciated the underlying rationale that underpinned his reticence and equally accepted his decisions at the end of the day, as long as he allowed me to offer him my insight and advice.
In the chapter on “Challenges and Responses: The United States,” you describe, at various occasions, the tools the US used to put pressure on Egypt’s policymaking. Given the deep level of collaboration between Egypt and the United States at the military and diplomatic levels, is there anything about the Egypt–US relationship that you would wish to see changed or moderated?
The relationship between Egypt and the United States, under any administration, is both strategic and multi-dimensional. It is equally important for both sides and serves both their interests. But it is also complex, and managing this relationship, with the world’s sole superpower, will always have its challenges. The partnership is deeply rooted and anchored in a plethora of interconnected interests, yet it is only natural for differences of opinion to arise, whether they relate to matters of an internal nature, or regional issues in the Middle East, or broader international policies. But Egypt has always made it clear to the United States and all its other partners that it has a sovereign foreign policy and that it rejects any interference in its internal affairs. As long as these tenets are respected, the Egyptian–US partnership will remain crucial for both countries and will serve the cause of peace and stability in the wider region.
What is really in the way of a true and lasting Palestinian–Israeli settlement?
The Palestinian question will not disappear. Nor will the Palestinian people. And no people can accept to remain in permanent subjugation and relinquish their right to freedom. The path towards resolving this decades-old conflict lies in ending the Israeli occupation. That is the sole basis for ending the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. Israel must realize, or be compelled to realize, that its continued occupation of the Palestinian territory, in defiance of international law and global public opinion, is neither permissible nor sustainable. And there will be no sustainable settlement, let alone durable peace, without the establishment of an independent and fully sovereign Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living side by side with Israel.
You conclude your memoirs with mention of “the failure of comprehensive development in Egypt”—suggesting that “for decades, the president concentrated on statistics of electricity and cement production,” adding “while insufficient attention was paid to building Egypt’s human capital through education, fighting corruption, the rule of law, and community participation in governance.” Do you see these as priorities for Egypt?
Egypt was and still is a developing country beset by extraordinary socioeconomic challenges. This was the case under President Mubarak, and remains the case today. Egypt under Mubarak made tremendous strides in addressing these challenges, but there were also failures or shortcomings that I think we all acknowledge, and which I did not shy away from referring to in my second book [Egypt’s Foreign Policy in Times of Crisis]. But one has to also look at the specific characteristics that define the Egyptian condition and judge any progress accordingly. In all cases, the judgment that matters is that of the Egyptian people, not that of any outside actor. Egypt today is still beset by these structural challenges, but the Egyptian state is embarking on a determined, ambitious, and multipronged path to literally modernize the entire country, to both meet the immediate needs of all Egyptians and also invest in their future.
Today you head the League of Arab States. What are the main challenges that face the Arab world and how does your experience as Egypt’s former foreign minister help you to navigate those waters?
The situation in the Arab world today is obviously very different, and essentially much more complex than it was when I was foreign minister. The region has since then undergone significant transformations, fragmentation, and polarization, and there are conflicts that have caused untold destruction and suffering affecting millions and destabilizing the entire region. The Arab world has also become a theater for increasing external and regional interventions in the internal affairs of its countries. These dynamics have only amplified the challenges all our Arab countries face. The League of Arab States, despite the limitations or shortcomings it may have, remains the indispensable pan-Arab organization that serves the collective interests of its member states. Being Secretary General of the Arab League certainly has its challenges, especially during these uniquely daunting circumstances, but once again I am honored to serve what I consider to be the greater Arab cause and to safeguard the interests of our member states and their peoples. And I am certainly privileged to benefit from the experiences and relationships I accumulated as foreign minister to better serve the organization.
The author signing copies of the first volume of his memoirs, Egypt’s Foreign Policy in Times of Crisis: My Testimony (AUC Press, 2020), during the book launch at AUC Tahrir, on 18 March 2019.
The author, Egypt’s representative at the United Nations (left), President Yasser Arafat (center) with Secretary-General of the Arab League of Nations Esmat Abdel Meguid (right of Arafat), and Hussein Hassouna, representative of the Arab League of Nations in New York (right), 1999.
The author with his wife, at the Egyptian embassy in Rome, 1995.