As Egyptian diplomacy shifts from the art of the possible to the farce of the improbable, Egypt bids farewell to perhaps its most capable and accomplished international diplomat.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, 93, whose long life included an illustrious academic career, long service in the Egyptian government and a stint as secretary-general of the United Nations, died in his hometown, Cairo, on Tuesday.
Born into a prominent aristocratic family in 1922, Boutros-Ghali was the grandson of Egypt’s first Coptic prime minister, Boutros Ghali, who was assassinated for his perceived pro-British stance.
Raised in a cosmopolitan environment at a time when Egypt was a more diverse country, Boutros-Ghali possessed an easy multiculturalism. This was reflected in his mastery of French and English, as well as his decades-long marriage to Leia Nadler, who was born into a wealthy Alexandrian Jewish family.
After gaining qualifications from Cairo and Paris, Boutros-Ghali became an eminent professor of international law and international relations at Cairo University. He departed academia, though he was to return regularly, to enter politics in the 1970s.
Egypt’s embattled president at the time, Anwar al-Sadat, took Boutros-Ghali on board to aid him in his controversial effort to forge peace with Israel. In Arab eyes, this was the darkest point in his long career.
Despite his public support for Sadat, Boutros-Ghali had many private misgivings about the peace process: Israel’s refusal to deal with the Palestinian question, Arab rejectionism, Sadat’s acquiescence to Menachem Begin’s demands, his cavalier attitude towards the Arab world and the president’s undermining of the Egyptian negotiating team.
Despite his public support for Sadat, Boutros-Ghali had many private misgivings about the peace process.
“Sadat had concluded that Egypt could not undertake a major effort to gain the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people as long as Egyptian territory lay under Israeli control,” the frustrated diplomat wrote in his diary. “I was convinced that no treaty of peace could endure unless it included measures for Palestinian rights.”
One can only imagine how different the Israeli-Palestinian context would have been today had Israel sought a peace deal with the Palestinians alongside Egypt, had the Arabs dropped their rejectionist posturing and joined Egypt to form a united front, and had Sadat courted the Arab world instead of berating it.
But the idea that Boutros-Ghali had sold out the Arab and African cause is an unfair one. He just pursued it in his own way, whether you agree with it or not, as his subsequent track record shows.
For example, he humbly never took public credit for one of his most significant achievements, both symbolically and politically, the secret talks he held to help negotiate the release of Nelson Mandela.
As the first African and Arab to become UN secretary general, in 1991, the mild-mannered, self-effacing, but tough Egyptian sought to transform the international body at a time when the world was taking new form after the end of the Cold War.
Against the backdrop of the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Boutros-Ghali quickly set to work, formulating an innovative Agenda for Peace which expanded the then focus on peacekeeping to embrace preventive diplomacy, and to encompass post-conflict peace-building.
But for the law-professor-turned-diplomat, the new world order would not be made by peace alone. To complete a complementary trinity of sorts, Boutros-Ghali formulated an Agenda for Development and an Agenda for Democratisation, which was his parting gift as he was being pushed out of office.
Barely two years after formulating his blueprint for preventing, making and keeping peace, the Rwandan genocide, in which up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were bludgeoned to death, occurred.
While an independent report found that Boutros-Ghali and his team had missed important signals that a genocide was imminent, the team apportioned most of the blame on the permanent members of the UN’s Security Council: their failure to provide peacekeepers with a mandate to use military force and their unwillingness to send troops once the mass killings began.
“We cannot solve every such outburst of civil strife or militant nationalism simply by sending in our forces,” the then US President Bill Clinton said dismissively, despite desperate UN appeals.
Frustrated by Western stalling, Boutros-Ghali turned to African heads of state.
“I begged them to send troops,” he disclosed at the time. “Unfortunately, let us say with great humility, I failed. It is a scandal.”
This inertia caused by individual member states, especially those seated on the Security Council, was what Boutros-Ghali had presciently attempted to shore up with his Agenda for Peace.
Although the document did not call for the rethinking of the Security Council, it did recommend the establishment of forces to prevent conflict and enforce the peace, a special peace fund and the right for the UN to levy taxes to finance operations.
But now that the United States had become the world’s sole superpower, it was in no mood for such multilateral reforms. Although Boutros-Ghali’s constant drive for reform and his relative prioritisation of Africa and developing countries endeared him to most member states, Washington was livid.
This said more about Pax Americana than it did about Boutros-Ghali. As Le Monde Diplomatique pointed out at the time, this scion of a wealthy Egyptian family was no “dangerous subversive” but an “enlightened conservative“.
And the experience of being booted out of the UN was enlightening for Boutros-Ghali.
“It would be some time before I fully realised that the United States sees little need for diplomacy; power is enough,” he wrote. “Diplomacy is perceived by an imperial power as a waste of time and prestige and a sign of weakness.”
Boutros-Ghali spent the rest of his years promoting, in his cautious, “enlightened conservative” kind of way, pluralism, multilateralism, and multiculturalism, which he viewed as “the essence of democracy“.
Among other things, he became secretary general of la Francophonie, the French equivalent of the British Commonwealth, and served as director of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights.
With the Middle East ablaze and the international community unable to cope with the spreading flames, one thing is clear: the world needs to appoint another reformer to lead the UN and to empower him or her to reinvent it.
Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, writer and blogger. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He blogs at www.chronikler.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.