A diplomat’s tale

Former Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher tells David Robinson about Israel’s lies, the United States’ follies, and his country’s hopes for a democratic future.

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By  David Robinson Published  October 16, 2005

A diplomat’s tale |~|diplomat-200.jpg|~|OUTSPOKEN: Maher with President Bush. He has described the Bush administration as “a table of villains”. |~|VETERAN diplomat Ahmed Maher El Sayed’s best-known moment on the world stage came two years ago during the final months of his stint as Egyptian foreign minister. It’s a moment he probably wishes never happened. Maher was visiting the famous al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, following a day of meetings with Israeli leaders, when he was assaulted by scores of angry Palestinians. “Traitor! Collaborator!” they screamed at him, pelting him with shoes — considered a great Muslim insult — inside and outside the mosque before a cordon of security guards hustled the Egyptian politician to safety. Maher fell unconscious after the attack and had to be hospitalised. The next day, the foreign minister’s panic-stricken face, looking aghast in the middle of a surging, shoving crowd, was splashed across the world’s newspapers. The journey was one of many diplomatic missions Maher has made to Israel since the two countries made peace in late 1970s. As well as attempting to develop cordial relations with its former foe, Egypt has also sought to adopt the role of friend and protector to the Palestinians — sitting across the border from Gaza and the rest of the Occupied Territories. Straddling the middle ground, trying to placate both sides has proved a thorny task; its fraught dynamics capable of boiling over at any moment, as evidenced in the attack on Maher at the al-Aqsa mosque. “It’s a very complicated game Egypt is trying to play,” he admits. It could be argued that Maher’s 45-year diplomatic career has been spent straddling the middle ground between opposing forces. The grandson of a former prime minister, he has served his country with distinction in many of the world’s major cities. Maher was Egypt’s ambassador to Moscow during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and ambassador to Washington from 1992 until 1999. In addition, he has held a clutch of senior government positions, including the Foreign Minister’s job from 2001 until 2004. Yet despite the many years of loyal service to his country, he has maintained the reputation of an outsider. He is a man quick to speak his mind, even if it ruffles a few feathers. Since he retired from politics last year, Maher has made headlines by hitting out at many of the politicians he used to sit across from the negotiating table. An outspoken critic of US policy in the Middle East, he has described the Bush administration as “a table of villains”, a group of people so “blinded by abstract ideology” that are unable to grasp reality. Maher, now 70, was in Qatar last month participating in a televised debate, defending Arab governments against the accusation that they have failed the Palestinians. At times, he argues, the aims of Arab leaders, and Egypt in particular, have been misunderstood. “It may appear we are giving too much attention to certain issues... but we have always acted in the best possible interests of the Palestinians,” he assures. There are many who would disagree with this statement. But talking with him prior to recording, Maher, the consummate diplomat is courteous to a fault, deflecting criticism with good-natured humour. Yet his polished smile drops when discussing the United States’ attempts to spread democracy across the Arab world. “All the positions the US takes are so simplistic, and you can quote me on that,” he urges. “They’re hopeless.” On the subject of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial Gaza pullout, he is equally forthright. “The withdrawal from Gaza is not a sincere gesture by Mr Sharon. He is insisting on acting unilaterally because he is trying to escape his international responsibilities. He wants to act alone and in his own time, and that is dangerous,” he says. In Maher’s opinion, the Gaza withdrawal is nothing more that a clever ploy and the international community have fallen for it hook, line and sinker. Sharon, he says, has used his reputation as the settlers’ champion to deceive the world into thinking he has become a man of peace — when his real intention is to keep Gaza prisoner. “He wants to make Gaza a ghetto and strengthen Israel’s influence [in the Occupied Territories]. Gaza has never been important to the Israelis; therefore relinquishing it is not a concession. “It is a scheme designed to deceive the world.” In the middle of this game of bluff and intrigue sits Egypt, a noble foil in the opinion of Maher, trying to twist Israel’s Machiavellian schemes into something more viable. “At the end of the day, any withdrawal from Palestinian land is a good thing. Egypt is trying to make the disengagement a success. We are trying to make sure it’s not Gaza first and Gaza last and link it to the road map. It’s a big battle we are fighting,” he adds. ||**|||~||~||~|Egypt is trying to facilitate change from the inside, he says — whether encouraging the Palestinians, or negotiating with the Israelis — all its policies are part of one coherent strategy. “If you look at any individual action by Egypt, I hope you can look at it in this larger context,” Maher says. But the peace process’ constant state of impasse has led many observers to question how the two sides will ever reach anything resembling a mutually acceptable solution. For his part, Sharon has resolutely maintained that Israel’s borders should fall well within the Occupied Territories — he is, after all, building a large wall, snaring a chunk of the West Bank. Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is equally steadfast. The only resolution he could ever legitimately accept on behalf of his people is the establishment of a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders, including East Jerusalem. However, Maher rubbishes the notion that Israel is somehow an immovable force. He argues that history shows that time and again, the Jewish state can be made to back down. “The problem with the Arab world is that they seem to believe everything the Israelis say they are able to do,” he says. Maher points out that Israel vowed to never leave Sinai, and did. Moreover, it vowed to never leave Gaza, and has. “Many things the Israelis said they wouldn’t do they are now doing. They are very good at creating a smokescreen. “They try to get it into the minds of people that they are in full control of the situation, but they are not. [Egypt] does not take for granted anything the Israelis say, because previous examples prove they can be budged.” Last month, for the first time since the country achieved independence in 1953, Egyptians were able to vote for more than one candidate in a national election. Despite the fact that President Hosni Mubarak won a fifth six-year term with 80% of the vote — amid allegations of election irregularities — Maher argues that the process itself will prove an irreversible step forward. Indeed, in the weeks and months prior to the election, the country witnessed unprecedented criticism of Mubarak, his son, his policies and government in the media and on the street. “The door for reform has been kicked wide open,” Maher says. “People are interested again in politics again, they are demonstrating in the street. They have been empowered.” The regime, Maher argues, is moving in a new, more open direction. “Although everyone was convinced that President Mubarak would win because there was no serious opponent. The fact is he took the time to campaign and to present a clear programme. Most importantly, he won the election with a promise that he is bound by now, to go forward with more reforms,” he says. The loosening of restrictions may have led to a burst of new political parties arriving on the scene, challenging the ruling regime’s authority. But the fact remains that the only opposition group with broad public support, outlawed fundamentalist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, was not allowed to field any candidates. Maher dismisses claims that the group’s omission makes a mockery of the democratic process. He says allowing an avowedly theocratic organisation to participate in a democratic election represents nothing less that a bizarre contradiction in terms. “How can you allow people to enter into elections who seek to create a theocracy? The West, which is calling for democracy, is not exactly supportive of the Mullahs in Iran and Iraq.” In any case, Maher doubts the Muslim Brotherhood have enough popular support to assume control of the country. “Egyptians may be very religious people, but they like to enjoy life too much to just switch it off. [The Muslim Brotherhood] wants to turn the clock back to centuries ago. "Some of these Islamists want to control how people dress, they want to ban music, ban movies. They are not a force for progress. There are those who would tell you that everybody has a right to express their opinions. But what if your opinion is a negation of democracy? It’s a very difficult dilemma.” Balancing the difficult dilemmas inherent in representing the Arab world’s most populous nation is something Maher has a lot of experience in. He may have retired, and reached the age when many of his peers are reaching for their pipe and slippers. But he’s not going to stop pointing the finger, giving opinions, and setting the record straight any time in the near future. ||**||

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