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Cairo's man in Washington
The Middle East / October 1997

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON -- In 1945, the prime minister of Egypt, Ahmed Maher, was gunned down in Parliament by a nationalist lawyer outraged that Maher would oppose Nazi Germany and support the British -- Egypt's colonial occupiers -- during World War II.

That assassination left a deep scar on the consciousness of Maher's 6-year-old grandson, Ahmed Maher El-Sayed, who decided while still a teenager to become a diplomat.

"I was always interested in politics because of my grandfather," he said. "Egypt under Nasser was just starting to play an international role, and it was very exciting to be part of this support of movements of liberation in Africa and the Arab world. For a young man, this was a very exciting and exhiliarating time."

Today, El-Sayed, 58, is Egypt's ambassador to the United States. This is, perhaps, the most prestigious posting in Washington any Middle Eastern diplomat could hope for, given Egypt's status as the largest of 22 Arab nations in terms of population, and the world's second-biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel.

In fact, Egypt receives $2.1 billion a year from the United States, of which $815 million is economic assistance and the rest, military aid.

"It's a close, mature relationship," the diplomat said during a recent interview at the new Egyptian Embassy in northwest Washington. "We share many values and many goals, but we also sometimes disagree. Because of the fact that this is a superpower, history makes us look at the same thing from different angles. We have been very careful not to allow these disagreements interfere with our relationship."

For El-Sayed, the road from his native Cairo to Washington was a long one. A 1956 graduate of Cairo University's Faculty of Law, the young diplomat joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1957 and served at Egyptian missions in Zurich, Paris and Kinshasa. From 1972 to 1974 -- a period that encompassed Egypt's 1973 war with Israel -- he advised the president on national security affairs, later becoming chief of the ministry's cabinet and participating in the Camp David peace talks and settlement of the Taba border dispute between Egypt and Israel.

In 1980, the year before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated, El-Sayed was named Egypt's ambassador to Portugal. Two years later, Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, sent him to Belgium and then the USSR. He served in Moscow for four years before arriving in Washington just days before the 1992 presidential elections.

"I saw the Soviet Union crumble and become what it is now," El-Sayed said. "After Camp David, the Russians did not approve of Egypt's policies and relations became cold. But with the advent of Gorbachev and the realization of the importance Egypt plays in the Middle East, we re-established the relationship on a different basis."

One of the few diplomats who's represented his country in the capitals of both superpowers, El-Sayed says Moscow and Washington couldn't have been more different. "There, you had to deal with one source of power. Here, it's a day-to-day effort, and there are surprises every day. In Moscow, you did not have any surprises."

He adds: "The role that the legislative branch plays in relations with foreign countries in the United States is totally different from that of Europe. In European countries, the political parties are very structured, whereas here, you have to keep close contact with individual members of Congress, the administration, members of the press and charitable organizations eager to have an ambassador participate in their activities."

Without a doubt, the issue that takes up most of El-Sayed's time these days is the rapidly decaying Arab-Israeli peace process.

"Egypt, being the initiator of peace between the Arab world and Israel, feels a very strong responsibility for this peace process to expand and go forward," explained el-Sayed, referring to the 1979 Camp David peace accords that ended 30 years of war between the two enemies. "This is, I think, the substantive part of my job."

Yet when asked for his opinion of Israel's leader -- now embroiled in domestic scandal and facing possible indictment -- El-Sayed didn't hesitate.

"Netanyahu is a riddle. When he meets with Arab leaders, he's very understand-ing. But then when he comes back to his constituency, he takes an ideologically extremist stance. He seems to be hesitating between two tendencies. He has not made up his mind to go one way or another," he says. "Yitzhak Rabin was a very courageous man, Peres had very generous ideas. It seems Mr. Netanyahu does not share these lofty principles."

Interestingly, the Israeli Embassy, on International Drive, is within view of El-Sayed's office. But relations between El-Sayed and Israeli Ambassador Eliyahu Elissar -- who was also envoy to Egypt -- are as cold as the peace between their respective countries.

"I had a very close friendship with [former Israeli Ambassador] Itamar Rabinovich. Even after he returned to Israel, we stayed in touch," says El-Sayed. "With the new Israeli ambassador whom I have known since he was in Cairo, I have correct, though not friendly, relations. Sometimes, he's even more extremist than his government."

Despite the problems, El-Sayed claims his embassy has "an excellent relationship" with the American Jewish community.

"This community, in my opinion, is not as monolithic as it used to be. In the past, it was Israel right or wrong," he said. "Now, because they feel Israel is more secure, there's more leeway for different opinions expressed within the Jewish community. We find a lot of understanding of the position Egypt takes, despite the attempts by some other sectors to misrepresent Egypt. There are still people who accuse Egypt of trying to prevent the agreement between Israel and the PLO on Hebron. This is total nonsense. The majority of the Jewish community realize Egypt has one goal: peace. We have an inherent interest in peace. It is illogical to think we don't."

Asked about persistent complaints of anti-Semitic cartoons in the Egyptian press, El-Sayed says this is "nonsense" too.

"Israelis are angry because Jews are drawn with big noses. But you cannot have it both ways. If you want to have a free press, you have to accept the risk," he points out, adding that "the ordinary Egyptian is deeply religious, and recognizes Jews as people of the book. It is the actions of the Israeli government that create antagonism towards Israel."

Even so, the fact that Egypt is no longer in a state of war with Israel means it can spend less on weaponry and more on improving the lives of its people. El-Sayed concedes that overpopulation is one of Egypt's biggest problems, even though population growth has dropped from 3% to 2.1% a year through family planning.

Also on the positive side, Egypt's economy is booming. Last year, the country enjoyed a 5.1% jump in its Gross Domestic Product, and is shooting for 8% annual growth by 2000. The Mubarak government is rapidly privatizing bankrupt state companies, while U.S. multinationals from Microsoft Corp. to McDonald's are investing heavily in a country that only a few years ago had a monstrous budget deficit, rampant inflation and almost non-existent foreign reserves. With a drop in domestic terrorism, tourism is also booming; over 50,000 hotel rooms are now under construction, including a Sheraton and a Hyatt Regency along Egypt's Red Sea coast.

"Tourists are much safer than before," says El-Sayed. "It's much safer to walk in Cairo's streets in the middle of the night than in Washington. Tourists understand and realize things can happen anywhere. There is no group in Egypt that can change the fact that Egypt is a safe country."

Still, he adds, "the average American does not know much about the world. They know about the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the Pharoahs, but not much about modern Egypt. If you go in the "wilderness" especially outside New York and Washington, their knowledge is not very deep. Maybe this is our fault. As ambassador, I try to meet as many Americans as I can who are not in official capacities. I also go to grade schools to talk about Egypt."

As for El-Sayed's own future, the diplomat says he'll probably serve one more year in Washington and then return to Egypt with his wife, Hoda. But he'll take some cherished memories -- and lessons -- with him back to Cairo.

"The turning point in my life was probably my participation in the Camp David negotiations in 1978, and the realization that you can achieve your national goals through negotiations if you are steadfast enough," he says. "Diplomacy is all about negotiations."

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