Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book Review: Egypt's Road to Jerusalem.

At the height of the February uprising in Egypt I happened to come upon former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s book ‘Egypt’s road to Jerusalem’. I thought this was a good time to read his story and found a cautiously written tale about the inner workings of the negotiating teams of Egypt and Israel that led to the signing of the historic peace treaty between the two countries in March 1979.

The book starts with the rather sudden and unexpected appointment of Boutros-Ghali as a Minister of State in President Anwar al-Sadat’s cabinet before Sadat’s ground-breaking trip to Jerusalem in 1977. It details the various conferences and characters that populated the peace process after that visit till the time the peace treaty was eventually signed two years later.

The book’s strength is not so much the overall insider’s history as much as it is the countless anecdotes Boutros-Ghali provides about world leaders. It is surprisingly limited however in its portraiture of the main actors such as Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, Jimmy Carter, and most importantly Anwar al-Sadat. Of the personalities of these men, there are only glimpses.

The impression of Sadat I was left with through the vignettes was not a visionary of peace but more a secretive, unpredictable military man bent on winning back territory (Sinai Peninsula) through peace since he hadn’t been able to achieve it through war. That’s why the Israeli lack of sincerity in engaging on the question of Palestinian autonomy (something the Egyptians wanted to club with the return of the Sinai) didn’t eventually derail the peace treaty. Of course I could be horribly wrong.

Sadat was also strangely impervious to Arab, African and non-aligned countries’ criticism. Boutros-Ghali observes, “Sadat seemed ready to do with Egypt what Kemal Ataturk had done with Turkey – cut it loose from its most important historical, religious and cultural roots and become an integral part of the West.”

The Israeli side comes across as hard and unyielding. The Camp David Accords which led to the peace treaty were signed even as Israel launched its first invasion into Lebanon. A year later, Israel reversed a 1967 decision and started allowing Israelis to buy land in the West Bank and Gaza. Negotiations on Palestinian self-rule didn’t go anywhere and Begin successfully put pressure on Sadat to stop Boutros-Ghali from constantly raising the Palestinian question.

The best bits of the book however are Boutros-Ghali’s descriptions of his swing through Africa drumming up support for Egypt and Latin America requesting troops for a multinational peace-keeping force in the Sinai.

There is a great anecdote of his bizarre meeting with Ugandan leader Idi Amin. Amin took him on a boat to a place called Paradise Island, where he insisted on having the meeting in his bedroom without any aides.

Boutros-Ghali noticed that there were three doors designed to give Amin several escape routes in case of an assassination. Idi Amin saw everyone as a potential assassin. As if all that wasn’t weird enough, Amin suggested that Boutros-Ghali lie down on the bed to rest next to him. Hardly what you expect to happen when diplomats and world leaders meet!

The book’s final chapter is gripping in its description of the events of sixth October. The annual military parade is held on this day to commemorate the breaking of Israel’s Bar-Lev Line on the Sinai front during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As a Minister, Boutros-Ghali was expected to attend and would probably have been seated close to Anwar al-Sadat except he and his wife broke with protocol and decided to visit friends in Alexandria instead.

What is utterly fascinating is how Boutros-Ghali got to know of the attempt on Sadat’s life, especially because it is inconceivable in today’s well-connected world. As he relaxed on the beach, an old lady, recognising him, walked up to Boutros-Ghali and told him that she had heard reports on a foreign radio station about some trouble at the parade in Cairo. Boutros-Ghali gently told her not to believe the foreign press which he said was always fomenting trouble.

But she returned shortly afterwards for a second and a third time to say she had heard it on the BBC so he must investigate. Sure enough, when Boutros-Ghali went back home, he already had officials waiting to take him back to Cairo by train in a specially reserved coach.

Boutros-Ghali broke down and cried for Anwar al-Sadat had not survived his assassin’s bullets after a brief battle in hospital. Sinai had not yet officially been returned to Egypt and the architect of the peace treaty would not live to see the completion of his dream.

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