Interview with Boutros Boutros-Ghali: "I Support the Algerian Government"
by Daniel Pipes
THE PEACE PROCESS
Middle East Quarterly: In 1975 you wrote an important article entitled "Palestine in the Year 2000" in which you examined the possibility of peace with Israel and proposed that the "State of the Hebrews" should become the Hong Kong of the Middle East: a demilitarized state subordinate to the wishes of its neighbors.1 As we approach the year 2000, could you reflect on this article and its role?
Boutros Boutros-Ghali: You must not take this article out of context. The first contact with Israelis took place at Al-Ahram's Center for Political and Strategic Studies in the 1970s under the sponsorship of the quarterly As-Siyasa ad-Dawliya. Israelis of double nationality, Palestinians, and Egyptians discussed at two Ahram Center symposia the idea of co-existence between Israel and the Arab world, as well as between Israel and the Palestinian state. We were considering the principle of coexistence without going too much into the details.
This is why you'll find the belief among Palestinian and Israeli scholars that I inspired the visit of Sadat. Arab rejectionists considered me the mastermind of this initiative. I would have been very proud if it had been so but it was not.
MEQ: But didn't your writings have an impact on Sadat?
Boutros-Ghali: Both President Sadat and Prime Minister Mamduh Salim mentioned that they had been interested in my articles published in the daily Al-Ahram and in As-Siyasa ad-Dawliya.
MEQ: So there was no specific article that influenced Sadat?
MEQ: Was the goal of your thinking in 1975 to destroy Israel through non-violent means by creating an Israel that has no military power, like Hong Kong?
Boutros-Ghali: By no means. Our goal was not to destroy Israel. Hong Kong was one of the many scenarios we discussed, including an Israel-Palestinian-Jordanian confederation.
The most important fact was that the Egyptian government permitted us to hold these meetings at Al-Ahram in the first place. Years before the visit to Jerusalem, in other words, we were discussing the importance of co-existence, of a dialogue. In retrospect, what was important was that practically the first semi-official, peaceful contacts took place under the auspices of the Ahram Center.
MEQ: And the symposium was published?
Boutros-Ghali: No, it never was.
MEQ: What was its precise topic?
Boutros-Ghali: Everybody says it would be invaluable if I could describe the details of that symposium. Unfortunately, I don't even remember who the Palestinian and Israeli participants were, except for Stephen Cohen, the Canadian professor, much less what we discussed.
MEQ: You have been criticized by both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Just before your selection as secretary-general, an Iranian paper charged that you might "further Zionist influence at the United Nations." And a few years ago Yossi Beilin complained about your "biased and unbalanced" criticism of Israel's policy in Lebanon.2 What do you say in response to these rather strong criticisms?
Boutros-Ghali: In a public position, criticism is a fact of life.
MEQ: In your memoir of the years 1977-81, you displayed much ambivalence about Sadat's decisions. Indeed, you wrote that at one point you and other aides were afraid that he would make "concessions beyond our worst fears."3 Yet already in 1982, you wrote that the "success of the Camp David Accords is bound to have a 'snowball effect'" and cause other Arab states to join the peace process.4 In retrospect, do you now think that Sadat had a vision that was greater than that of his critics, including yourself?
Boutros-Ghali: Yes, certainly. Sadat was right and we were wrong. He insisted the Arabs would sooner or later follow Egypt's lead. At the time we, the staff, were not at all sure of this but were very much afraid that the Israelis would decide not to withdraw and the whole process would collapse.
MEQ: But Sadat himself was not worried?
Boutros-Ghali: He never showed us that he was worried. He never paid attention to the outside world. As Hermann Eilts, the American ambassador in Egypt, says on the back cover of my book, persuading the African and non-aligned states that the Camp David accords were not a sellout of the Arab position was "not made easier by Sadat's somewhat cavalier attitude about foreign support." In retrospect, though, maybe this was a testimony to his great vision.
In contrast, in my position, I was confronted every day by the problem of the non-aligned movement, of the African countries, the U.N. General Assembly, and the Arab League. We were kicked out of the Islamic Conference. All these groups were telling us: "What you have done is wrong." The Europeans were saying exactly the same thing, and so was Tito. Even in Latin America we were hearing exactly the same comments.
MEQ: You suggest in your memoirs that Sadat sought to do for Egypt what Atatürk had done in Turkey fifty years earlier, to cut it from its Islamic roots and make it a part of the West. Was that a wise decision on Sadat's part?
Boutros-Ghali: It was not so much a decision but a vision. Sadat liked Western civilization. This explains his success with the American and European media; he liked them and they liked him.
Look at the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and you see that the majority of Arab leaders, except for the fundamentalists, wanted to become a part of Europe. The Khedive Isma'il5 said: "My country is no longer in Africa, it is in Europe." My grandfather6 contributed to the introduction of French civil and criminal law in Egypt and thus to the Westernization of the country.
Sadat was the first to return to the old Egyptian tradition of rapproachment with the Western world. He had a premonition that the cold war would end.
MEQ: Was his vision of joining the West the reason for his assassination?
Boutros-Ghali: No, I believe the main cause of his assassination was his signing a peace treaty with Israel.
MEQ: Domestic politics were not important to the fundamentalists?
Boutros-Ghali: They were important because the fundamentalists' main goal was changing the political system of the country.
MEQ: They found Sadat's foreign policies more objectionable than his domestic policies?
Boutros-Ghali: No, I cannot say that. For them, both were interconnected.
MEQ: He had a vision 180 degrees different from theirs?
MEQ: It included cultural, political, and religious dimensions?
Boutros-Ghali: His vision did not include any religous change because he was a very religious man, and he believed deeply in the basic principles of Islam. For him, fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood distort the religion.
MEQ: Your overall assessment of Sadat?
Boutros-Ghali: An original personality, a courageous man, someone with great political imagination.
MEQ: Please comment on Fouad Ajami's comment, in reviewing your memoir, that Sadat launched you on your political career in 1977 because he saw in you "a sure bet, a minister who would do his bidding, who would neither dare resign on him, nor want to do so."7
Boutros-Ghali: It is absolutely wrong, it doesn't correspond to reality. I often differed with Sadat, as you can see from my book.
MEQ: Leaving history and turning to current politics, are the sanctions on Libya an effective means to respond to the continued presence in that country of those accused of bombing the Pan Am and UTA planes?
Boutros-Ghali: Sanctions represent three dangers. One, the poorest suffer the most from them. Two, governments under sanctions become stronger because sanctions give the population a common enemy. Three, neighboring countries often suffer from the sanctions. On this last point: five countries are currently under U.N. sanctions, among them Libya, Iraq, Serbia, and Haiti. Supposing each of them has five neighbors, then twenty-five countries, a huge number, are handicapped in their development.
Sanctions create a contradiction because the U.N. Charter permits sanctions as a tool that can be used by the Security Council, while at the same time, economic development is the U.N. goal. This basic contradiction ought to be resolved.
MEQ: In your personal opinion, what should be done in the case of Iraq and Libya?
Boutros-Ghali: We can obtain certain results through negotiations with these countries and by offering them incentives.
MEQ: The sanctions now underway contain just the stick and you would like to see a carrot as well?
Boutros-Ghali: I can't speak about the last five months since I am no longer secretary-general, but when I was secretary-general I paid a lot of attention to maintaining dialogue with the countries under sanctions. Dialogue produces flexibility and creates a readiness to accept a change of attitude. Through talks I convinced the Iraqis to accept U.N. Resolution 986, although they did not accept it in the beginning. Through dialogue I won Libyan agreement to give us all the information about arms traffic to Ireland.
MEQ: You then support sanctions on condition they are in the context of continuing negotiations?
Boutros-Ghali: Yes, but sanctions must aim only at obtaining what is mentioned in the resolution and not at overthrowing the government. If sanctions aim at a change of regime, the government has no reason to cooperate.
MEQ: A number of times in your memoir you express apprehension about fundamentalist Islam. Please explain what danger you see it posing.
Boutros-Ghali: Their goals are no secret. Just as Adolf Hitler wrote about his ambitions in Mein Kampf, the fundamentalists make clear what they want to do.
I fear that a new fundamentalist country might appear in some other part of the Muslim world. But the fundamentalists are dangerous not only for Algeria, Tunisia, or Gaza; they represent a real danger for Western Europe.
MEQ: How so?
Boutros-Ghali: Because their coming to power will cause destabilization. The West would also suffer a lot considering the very large number of Muslims living in it.
MEQ: Do fundamentalists endanger the minorities in the Muslim world?
Boutros-Ghali: You are asking about the Copts? Look, the Copts are an integral part of Egypt, so if they are in danger, Egypt itself is in danger. But I am not worried, for the minorities are integrated geographically, socially, and institutionally. You'll find Christian generals in the Egyptian army, for example. And that's the case not only in Egypt, but also in Syria and other countries.
A further point. Were fundamentalists to reach power, this would cause as great a danger to moderate Muslims as to the minorities, for Muslims far outnumber the minority elements.
MEQ: Do you worry about state support for the fundamentalists?
Boutros-Ghali: Yes, but mainly because Western countries accept too easily co-existing with them. The West until recently has had a very ambiguous policy concerning fundamentalists, for all Western states allow them freedom of activity within their own borders or maintain contact with fundamentalists abroad. The result is clear: Muslim fundamentalists receive practical support from the Western world.
MEQ: What policy should the government of Egypt pursue vis-à-vis its fundamentalists?
Boutros-Ghali: The very strong policy its has adopted.
MEQ: Do you approve of the Algerian government's actions?
Boutros-Ghali: I certainly support the government of Algeria.
MEQ: In 1958 you edited a book about the Suez Canal in which you justified Gamal Abdel Nasser's July 1956 decision to nationalize the canal as an act "conforming with international law and compatible with the goals and principles of the United Nation."8 Does that remain your view today?
Boutros-Ghali: Yes, it does. The symbolic value of the nationalization of the Suez Canal was more important than the economic value or the consequences that followed. The 1956 nationalization in a way was a follow-up from the Bandung Conference of 1955; it had great importance to Third World countries.
MEQ: The nationalization itself was legal?
Boutros-Ghali: The canal belonged to the Egyptian territory. The Treaty of Constantinople designates it as an international waterway, but it belongs to Egypt.
MEQ: You have made dramatic statements about the importance of water in the Middle East. In the early 1980s you said that "The next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile,"9 and in 1991 you declared that "The next war will be over water, not politics."10 Years later, do you still feel the same way?
Boutros-Ghali: Yes, I do; and, by the way, I am not the only one. In a long discussion with Moshe Dayan he told me that the real problem is not the land of the West Bank, but the underground waters. And Sadat had the idea to export Nile water to Israel in exchange for solving the Palestinian problem.
I've concentrated my efforts on the Nile. Egypt lacks rain, so the habitable area of the country is limited to three percent of the territory, and it contains some 60 million people. If we want to cultivate the desert, we need more water.
MEQ: But why should the next war be over water? Why the waters of the Nile, Euphrates, or Tigris?
Boutros-Ghali: There could be a problem on the Nile if upstream countries attempt to increase agriculture through irrigation instead of rain, for that would reduce Egypt's water resources. For the time being, this is not happening, but it will probably begin within the next decades.
To help remedy this situation, I spent over ten years trying to create an organization like the Mekong River Organization, called the Undougou group, including Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and Zaire. I chose a Swahili name for the group (Undougou meaning fraternity) so as not to be accused of neo-colonialism. We met every year. However, I was not successful.
Other waterways have similar problems.
MEQ: What do you see as the United Nation's greatest successes on Middle East issues and its greatest failures?
Boutros-Ghali: The United Nations contributed to Israel's creation and to the decolonization of all territories. But it failed to contribute to the decolonization of the Palestinians or to manage the Arab-Israeli dispute. In short, it has not been able to solve the region's problems.
MEQ: This November marks the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations vote to create the State of Israel. Might you play a role in events around that commemoration?
Boutros-Ghali: I have no objection to participating in programs to celebrate this event. The important thing now is to reinforce the position of those Israelis who accept the Oslo pact. I see the same extremists on the two sides and note the objective alliance between them. If celebrating the fiftieth anniversary reinforces the position of the moderates, I will do so without hesitation. But if the present situation persists, I certainly will not do so.
MEQ: You made an interesting comment in your book about Kurt Waldheim, that his "primary concern was that no solution to the Middle East crisis be pursued without the United Nations."11 Have things changed since then?
Boutros-Ghali: The Palestinian and Egyptian diplomats wanted negotiations to take place within the framework of the United Nations; we felt more secure having the support of the international community in the United Nations. In contrast, their Israeli and American counterparts wished to avoid the U.N.
MEQ: I take it you don't wish to comment on the statement about Kurt Waldheim.
Boutros-Ghali: I have no objection to doing so. During his time, the United Nations did not have that much to do. I had the opposite problem. During my tenure member states called on the United Nations to solve this problem and that. Then, after I was on the job for two years, I discovered we lacked the money to carry out those many tasks, and the member states suffered from fatigue. When you are overloaded by problems, you are not so keen to get involved.
MEQ: Were there any experiences connected to the Middle East during your five years as secretary-general that stand out?
Boutros-Ghali: There are several: I spent many hours with the Iraqi delegation in the oil-for-food talks connected to Resolution 986; I spent hours with the Libyan delegates to solve their problem; hours with President 'Abd al-'Aziz of the Sahara to arrange for direct, behind the scenes contact with the Moroccans; hours working on the little known dispute between Yemen and Eritrea about three islands; and many hours on the war between the south and north of Yemen. I was involved in the problem of the south of the Sudan. I've seen Yasir Arafat I don't know how many times. I met the Israeli leaders-Shimon [Peres], [Yitzhak] Rabin, Yossi Beilin-publicly and privately.
Activities connected to the Middle East took a lot of my time. But if I was very much involved in all the problems of the Middle East, unfortunately, I could not solve them.
MEQ: Is it true that you are at least in part the model for Nissim Hosnani, a leading character in Lawrence Durrell's renowned 1961 novel, The Alexandria Quartet?12
Boutros-Ghali: It is not true, but the folklore is there.
MEQ: Did you know Durrell?
MEQ: In February 1910, twelve years before you were born, your grandfather Boutros Pasha Ghali was murdered by an Egyptian nationalist. Has the memory of this event affected your own career?
Boutros-Ghali: The memory of my grandfather affected my own career but I was also affected by my uncle Wasif. He was condemned to death shortly after World War I by a British military tribunal for his connection to the Wafd government. He became a national hero and later was named the first minister of foreign affairs in the Wafd government of Sa'd Zaghlul. He also published The Arab Chivalric Tradition,13 trying to explain the Arab world to Westerners. I republished it in 1996, when I was secretary-general.14
I belong to a family of politicians and writers. My maternal grandfather, Mikha'il Sharubim published Al-Kafi, a history of several hundred pages.15 I also published one of his books in 1992, when I was secretary-general.16 My cousin Mirrit wrote an important book, A Policy of Tomorrow,17 Agricultural Reform,18 and (in English) Tradition for the Future.19
When you live in this atmosphere, you are encouraged to get involved. As a small kid, I would be asked what I want to do and I replied, "I want to become a politician." "Do you know what it means to be a politican?" "No," I replied. Why did I enter the Faculty of Law? Because I knew all politicians have a law degree. At the same time, I have two brothers who are not at all interested in politics.
MEQ: But your nephew Youssef is Egypt's current minister of state for international co-operation.20
Boutros-Ghali: Yes, he is. We have the same disease.
MEQ: He's very effective.
Boutros-Ghali: The disease is effective.
MEQ: When did your political career begin?
Boutros-Ghali: In 1975, when I was elected a member of the political bureau of the Arab Socialist Union, Egypt's only political party and a very powerful organization. The Egyptian system was inspired by the Communist one: being a member of the political bureau was as important as being a member of the government and also had the trappings of power. I supervised foreign relations for the party and in that capacity, concluded agreements with the Congress Party of India and the Gaullist party in France. I also contributed to the creation of the Inter-African Socialist Movement, bringing together all the social democratic movements of the continent.
MEQ: In other words, you were not new to politics when you entered the government in 1977.
Boutros-Ghali: Not at all. I was very much involved in politics.
MEQ: You alluded in your book several times to your Christian faith as a factor in why you never became foreign minister. Why was that a factor?
Boutros-Ghali: It was a minor factor.
MEQ: In September 1996, on return from your summer break, you satirized the American fear of a United Nations conspiracy by saying that "It's great to be back from vacation. Frankly I get bored on vacation. It's much more fun to be at work here, blocking reform, flying my black helicopters, imposing global taxes."21 On the eve of your retirement a few months later, you more soberly ascribed the American veto of your second term in part to the black helicopter issue. Do you still see the matter this way?
Boutros-Ghali: Oh, certainly, yes. Robert Dole gave a campaign speech in which he announced that when he is elected president of the United States, he would not take commands from "Boooutros Boooutros-Ghali." I was not unpopular among Americans but this helicopter nonsense and the ferocious claims about my being unable to reform the U.N. changed my image in Washington.
1 In As-Siyasa ad-Dawliya.
20 After this interview, Youssef Boutros Ghali was promoted to economy minister, an appointment the Financial Times, July 9, 1997, characterized as appearing to seal "Egypt's path to economic liberalisation."
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