It seemed quite unfair not to say a few words about the passing of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the first African to serve as the United Nations (UN) Secretary General. Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the first Egyptian, and the first African to serve in such a position from 1 Jan 1992 to 31 Dec 1996. True, he only served one term, and was faced with the wrath of the US because of his refusal to support NATO’s bombing in Bosnia, and the UN lame response during the genocide in Rwanda.
His five years in office were clouded by controversy, especially about perceived UN inaction over the 1994Rwandan Genocide and Angolan Civil War of the 1990s. He served at a time of crises in Somalia, Rwanda, the Middle East, and the former Yugoslavia. To some, he was an effective diplomat who was caught in a rift between the UN and the United States. Others, most notably in Washington, saw him as a symbol of all that was wrong with the United Nations. Boutros-Ghali wrote in his memoir, Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga (1999), about his tenure at the UN, and the disappointments he suffered there.
According to many, his biggest diplomatic accomplishment pre-dates his time as UN Secretary General, when he served as Egypt’s foreign minister under President Anwar El Sadat, and played a key role in negotiating the Camp David agreement brokered by the US president Jimmy Carter. The Guardian published a nice piece on Boutros Boutros-Ghali‘s life and legacy. So long to this son of Egypt.
With this week’s event in Egypt, I thought that a trip down memory lane would be more than appropriate! One of the greatest political figures of modern Arab history and third world politics is the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser was a pure political genius, and had great love and vision for his country, the Arab world, and developing countries in general. He was a strong player in the battle against imperialism in Africa, and in the Arab world. It was in Egypt that Um Nyobe and the UPC sought refuge to keep on working on Cameroon’s independence (this will be a story for another day).
He was the first to negotiate the ownership/nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egyptians themselves. At its construction, as in most African countries, it belonged to the British since Egypt had been a British colony. Heled the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 which overthrew the monarchy of Egypt and Sudan, and started a new period of modernization and socialist reforms. He was determined to wean Egypt of its dependency on Western Economies. He was one of the few leaders in the world to declare his neutrality in the Cold War, which was considered very ‘gutsy‘. He moved Egypt toward a socialist economic system and instituted huge land, education and health reforms. As president, he was determined to modernize and improve Egyptians’ standard of living.
After the humiliating Egyptian defeat during the Six-Day war against Israel, Nasser took responsibility for the debacle and resigned from the presidency (but thousands took to the street to demand that he returns to power). In his resignation speech he said: “I have taken a decision with which I need your help. I have decided to withdraw totally and for good from any official post or political role, and to return to the ranks of the masses, performing my duty in their midst, like any other citizen. This is a time for action, not grief…. My whole heart is with you, and let your hearts be with me. May God be with us—hope, light and guidance in our hearts.” You can read the entire speech on Al-Ahram Weekly. He died a couple of years later from a heart attack… many believe that the Six-day war defeat was a precursor. More than 5 million people attended his funeral. Nasser always wanted the best for his people!
I wish more presidents, like Hosni Moubarak, in Africa could have the guts to resign from power, and could love their people so much as to want them to have the best. During an assassination attempt on Nasser’s life at a rally in Alexandria during the celebration of the British withdrawal from the Suez Canal, Nasser proclaimed: “If Abdel Nasser dies… Each of you is Gamal Abdel Nasser… Gamal Abdel Nasser is of you and from you and he is willing to sacrifice his life for the nation.” Moubarak today should learn from the past… like Dr. Zahi Hawass (world-renowned director of Egyptian Antiquities) said in a recent interview to BBC: “What will stay here after many years is Egypt… People will die, but Egypt will stay!” Moubarak should thus ask: “What would I be remembered by: those past few days of protests, or the love for my country?” If his answer is the second one, then he knows that he needs to pack his bags, and uphold Egypt’s liberty!