Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1922 – 2016): Rock of Egyptian diplomacy

17-02-2016 02:07 PM

Mervat Ayoub






His name, Boutros, is literal for rock. He was a great, if not unique, figure in Egypt’s 20th century. Boutros Boutros-Ghali started off as a law professor at Cairo University, and went on to become Egypt’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1977 – 1991. From 1992 to 1996 he was Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was head of the International Organisation of La Francophonie in 1997 – 2002, and of the National Council for Human Rights in 2003 – 2012. He won numerous Egyptian and international medals and honours, and was also head of Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies in 1975, and editor-in-chief of the quarterly al-Siyassa al-Dawliya (International Politics) and Al-Ahram’s economics magazine, the weekly Al-Ahram al-Iqtissadi. He authored numerous books; the most important of which is Egypt’s Road to Jerusalem (1997) about the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty and Unvanquished: A U.S.-U.N. Saga (1999), about his time as Secretary-General at the U.N.

Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali passed away on Tuesday 16 February.

Egypt will pay him her last respects on Thursday 18 February; he will be given a military funeral to be followed with a funeral service at the church of St Peter and St Paul in Abbasiya, Cairo. The church was built by the Boutros-Ghali family at the outset of the 20th century and is known as al-Boutrossiya church; Boutros Boutros-Ghali will be buried with his ancestors in the Boutrossiya crypt. 


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Family history

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was born into a distinguished Coptic family which was among the elite landed gentry of Girga in the southern region of Sohag some 500km south of Cairo. The family doyen, Boutros Agha [Agha was a title given to high ranking State officials in the Ottoman Empire] was appointed governor of the district of Bardees by Egypt’s Viceroy Muhammad Ali, the founder of modern Egypt.

Muhammad Ali, who ruled from 1805 to 1849, put Muslims and Christians on equal footing despite the fact that Copts were then dhimmis, meaning they were non-Muslims who lived under Muslim rule and as such were not first-class citizens; they paid the jizya head tax and were deprived of serving in the army. Muhammad Ali, however, recognised that Christians were educated, hard working and faithful and, under his rule, Copts reached for the first time in many centuries the position of governor. Boutros Agha achieved great success in establishing law and order in Girga and remained in office till he died leaving a large family, vast land property and a flawless reputation.

The grandchildren of Boutros Agha were caring landowners and distinguished traders. They built on their estate in Girga a number of churches and schools; these included al-Baliana Bishopric and the neighbouring school which was called al-Boutrossiya before it was nationalised by the Egyptian government in the 1960s.

Over the years, grandchildren of Boutros Agha held several prominent positions in the Egyptian State. Most prominent among them was Boutros Ghali Pasha (1846 – 1910) who was Prime Minister of Egypt from 1908 to 1910. Into this family deep-seated in politics and economics, Boutros Boutros-Ghali was born on 14 November 1922.

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The law professor

The young Boutros Boutros-Ghali went to the Jesuit school in Cairo then studied law at Cairo University from which he obtained degree in 1946. In 1949, he earned a PhD in International Law from Paris University in addition to several diplomas in public law, economics and political science,. From 1949 to 1977, Dr Boutros-Ghali was Professor of International Law and International Relations at Cairo University where he headed the Political Science Department. In addition to his academic career, Dr Boutros-Ghali wrote more than 100 books and several articles in the fields of political science, international affairs and diplomacy.

Dr Boutros-Ghali was married to Leia Maria, née Nadler, an Egyptian Jew from a prominent family that owned the Nadler confectionary business before it was nationalised by the Egyptian government in the 1960s. He leaves no children.

One of his students, Samir Raafat, wrote in 1996 a fond memory of Dr Boutros-Ghali as a university professor, under the title “The Boutros Ghali we don’t all know” (The Jordan Star, September 26, 1996; Middle East Times, September 29, 1996). “I knew the man simply as ‘ya doktor’ which is how we addressed the incumbent Secretary-General of the United Nations when he taught international law during my Freshman year at Cairo University. These were the 1960s and Professor Boutros-Ghali’s mission was to acquaint us with the perplexities of political science. Yet, as far as I recall, his no-show record surpassed that of his most wayward students. We were ostensibly told ‘al doktor’ had other engagements so that more often than not his teaching assignments were delegated to a mu’eid, a teaching assistant.

“Whatever the reasons for his absence, we never doubted their merit. Faculty remuneration in those days were modest and Dr Ghali whose attendance record was nonetheless better than most, had other professional interests. Yet, whenever we saw his Fiat coupé parked adjacent to the college building, we knew we could look forward to an absorbing two-hour lecture.”

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The Jerusalem visit

As a Christian, it was not possible for Dr Boutros-Ghali to be appointed Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs; President Anwar al-Sadat therefore appointed him [the less prestigious] Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in 1977; a position he held until 1991.

Following the 6 October War in 1973 during which the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and attained a foothold in the six-year-Israeli-occupied Sinai, there had been great hopes that Egypt would, through negotiation, regain Sinai in full and attain peace for Egypt and all Arabs. This, however, never materialised and, in November 1977, President Sadat announced his desire to visit Jerusalem and address the Knesset. Despite his original reservations towards Sadat’s intended trip, Dr Boutros-Ghali was asked by then Vice-President Hosni Mubarak to write the draft of the President’s Knesset address.

By a strange twist of fate, Dr Boutros-Ghali accompanied President Sadat on his historical trip to Jerusalem on 20 November 1977 as Acting Foreign Minister after Ismail Fahmi resigned in protest against the visit. The visit was a resounding success, however. It opened the way to arduous negotiations that two years later led to the Egyptian Israeli peace treaty, the Camp David agreement by which Egypt regained Sinai and attained peace.

Upon his return from Jerusalem, President Sadat delegated Dr Boutros-Ghali to arrange for the Mena House conference in which he was to invite the US, Israel and the Arab countries to pave the road for the peace treaty. The Arab countries declined the invitation and condemned the Egyptian Israeli negotiations; President Sadat retaliated by severing diplomatic ties with the Arab countries. He did not inform Dr Boutros-Ghali who was then faced with the challenge of having to use all his diplomatic skills to answer questions about a matter he had no part in.

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Dr Boutros-Ghali was a main negotiator in the Camp David Egyptian delegation, often considered its mastermind.

The accounts of the Camp David negotiations show that Dr Boutros-Ghali often disagreed with Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan who believed that Egypt was not entitled to negotiate on behalf of the Arabs; he was more comfortable dealing with Minister of Defence Ezer Weizman who was apparently more inclined to achieving peace. Israelis noticed that during the negotiations President Sadat would address Boutros-Ghali using the English equivalent of his name “Peter” whenever he was pleased with him.

Dr Boutros-Ghali staunchly opposed Israeli demands to becoming the sole buyer of Sinai’s oil. Among the most controversial articles of the peace treaty is Article 6 which stipulates that: “The Parties undertake not to enter into any obligation in conflict with this Treaty.” And “… in the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Parties under the present Treaty and any of their other obligations, the obligations under this Treaty will be binding and implemented”, especially given that this article hinders Egypt’s participation in the Treaty of Joint Defence and Economic Co-operation of the League of Arab States.

Some have considered the trip to Jerusalem as the major milestone in Dr Boutros-Ghali’s career; little did they know that the real accomplishment would come years later. On 7 June 1991, he was nominated by Egypt for the position of Secretary-General of the UN, the finest diplomatic post anyone could attain.

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Leading the UN

Dr Boutros-Ghali was a diplomatic figure well-known and respected among African and Francophone countries. Backed by strong French and African lobbying, in addition to the staunch support of members of the Non-Aligned Movement and China, he was elected as 6th Secretary-General of the UN for the term 1 January 1992 – 31 December 1996, much to the dislike of the United States and its allies.

Dr Boutros-Ghali believed that the increase in the number of the UN member States and the Post-Cold War era called for a reform programme to answer the needs of the new world order. He drafted his proposals in his Agenda for Peace which he presented in June 1992 and which focused on improving the UN’s ability to maintain world peace. This included forming special UN peacekeeping units that would also have a conflict prevention role. The reform also included measures to restructure the UN and reduce much of its bureaucracy. He also proposed that regional organisations such as the Organisation of African Unity would have a say in the UN’s decision-making. The UN peacekeeping forces got entangled in war conflicts in Bosnia, Cambodia, Somalia and Rwanda and Dr Boutros-Ghali was often blamed or used as a scape goat whenever things went wrong.

But the new role of the UN in peacekeeping and conflict prevention, in addition to Boutros-Ghali’s independent leadership, collided with US interests and diminished its role in international politics. He quickly went out of favor with the then US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright (later US Secretary of State) and the Clinton administration who campaigned against him and in 1996 vetoed his re-election for a second term.

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Arab conflict

His years as Secretary General of the UN witnessed many conflicts in the Arab region. After the end of the 1991 Gulf war and the implementation of sanctions on Iraq by the UN Security Council (UNSC), the Oil-for-Food programme was established by the UN in 1995 to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people. However, the programme was plagued with corruption and the Iraqi regime was accused of seizing some USD11 billion of its profits, despite UN supervision.

The 1988 Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am 103 brought on, in face of US insistence, the UNSC adopted Resolution 748 in March 1992 imposing sanctions and civil aviation and arms embargo on Libya. Dr Boutros-Ghali later said that he had repeatedly tried to mediate between the two sides in an attempt to reach a compromise but to no avail.

Arab Israeli conflict peaked in 1996 after Israeli troops shelled a UN peacekeeping compound in the Lebanese town of Qana where women and children had taken refuge, claiming the lives of 106 civilians. The UN-conducted report dismissed the possibility that the bombing of the UN base was due to technical or procedural error, clearly condemning the Israeli State. The report angered Israel who insisted on acquitting its soldiers and was backed by the usual US absolute support. In a heated session, the UNSC endorsed the report indicting Israel and considering that the massacre was a flagrant violation of international laws for the protection of civilians during wartime. This course of events further widened the gap between Boutros-Ghali and the Clinton administration and was an additional reason for vetoing his election for a second term.




The River Nile

After leaving the UN, Dr Boutros Ghali was elected the first Secretary-General of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie which consists of French-speaking member States who work on promoting French language and cooperating in the fields of culture, science, economy, justice and peace. He held this post from 1997 to 2002.

Even though Dr Boutros-Ghali was no longer on the official front during his last years, people went to him for advice on many perplexing issues. His experience and insight were legendary. In a 2014 interview with Watani, he talked about Egyptian fears that the Grand Renaissance Dam Ethiopia is building would curtail Egypt’s Nile water rights, the Nile being practically the sole source of water in Egypt. “As a general rule,” he said, “I believe in settling international disagreements and disputes through negotiation. Even though this may take years on end, it is always worth the time and effort. I had tried for more than 20 years to get the Egyptian public to focus on the importance of African relations and the Nile waters but failed because the public was engrossed in the Palestinian cause.

“Now that the problem of the Nile River has caught up with us, I think we need to look at the situations in other countries which had the same problem and learn how they dealt with it. In Asia for instance, an international commission was founded to supervise the Mekong River which runs through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam; in partnership with China and Myanmar. The commission aims to ‘promote and co-ordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being’. I hope we can establish an international organisation that supervises building dams, transport and its means, irrigation systems and producing and distributing electricity.”


On controversial issues

Anba Pakhoum, Bishop of Akhmim, once talked to Dr Boutros-Ghali about a church the congregation needed to build but for which they could get no permit. “The problem,” Dr Boutros-Ghali remarked, “lies with the childish mentality of villagers on this issue. There is relentless competition, and Muslims simply do not accept that Copts would ‘outdo’ them on a religious front. The Copts build a church; the Muslims quickly erect a mosque in front of it. No church spire can be allowed to rise higher than a mosque minaret. The police’s attitude is to almost categorically deny permits for any works related to churches. They know that the mere presence of a church antagonises fanatic Muslims; this places and added burden to the already overburdened police force, so they simply reject church or church-related construction.”

Among the frequently-discussed issues on the Egyptian front, Dr Boutros-Ghali talked democracy and human rights. “The concept of democracy differs from one country to another according to the norms and values of the different communities. Each country has its own cultural intricacies, and there is no rigid form of democracy that fits all. In many African countries democracy is applied through the representation of all tribes in parliament. There is no general rule that applies to all.

“On the other hand, I have frequently been asked which comes first, democracy or development? I believe that in case of Egypt, development must be given priority to achieve a minimum level of stability. I also have to point out that there is a strong connection between democracy, development and stability. Openness to the outside world is also a very important factor that must be taken into account. What I am talking about here is openness in its broad and comprehensive sense that includes opening up to new ideas and the unending technological innovations from the four corners of the world.

“We are currently in a state of war, a real battle against terrorism. And at times of war it is very difficult to rigidly apply democracy.

“According to my experience, I can affirm that the military institution plays an important role in many countries. This is very obvious in Latin America, Africa and Asia and is not peculiar to Egypt. The Egyptian Armed Forces is a national power which we applaud and to which we resort at times of trouble.”


Watani International

17 February 2016






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