Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, former ambassador, and former Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, is the author of a two-volume memoir, Egypt’s Foreign Policy in Times of Crisis: My Testimony (AUC Press, 2020) and Witness to War and Peace: Egypt, the October War, and Beyond (AUC Press, 2018).
Aboul Gheit took the time to reflect on his past career gave us a glimpse into its inner workings, from the 1973 war to 9/11. He shared with us significant milestones as well as insight into Egyptian foreign policy.
Describe to us an unforgettable moment from your illustrious career and the circumstances around it?
To be honest there were multiple milestones and events that I consider 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, 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.
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.