x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Shrewd politician and lawyer who helped Egypt modernise

Ahmed Maher, a former Egyptian foreign minister and career diplomat, came from a family of distinguished diplomats and politicians of varying fortunes.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher addresses the UN General Assembly 58th Session at UN Headquarters in New York in September 2003.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher addresses the UN General Assembly 58th Session at UN Headquarters in New York in September 2003.

Ahmed Maher, a former Egyptian foreign minister and career diplomat, who has died aged 75, came from a family of distinguished diplomats and politicians of varying fortunes: his grandfather, Ahmed Maher Pasha, the Egyptian prime minister, was assassinated in 1945.

Raised in Heliopolis, Maher's schooling at the French Lycée and fluency in the language was invaluable for his postings in several Francophone countries, among others. Though he studied law at Cairo University, he had an obvious aptitude for diplomacy and was mentored by a number of older statesmen, including Hafez Ismail, the national security adviser, under whose guidance Maher played an invaluable part in the discussions preceding the October 1973 war.

He served in Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo), Canada, Switzerland and France. As ambassador to Moscow in the late 1980s he witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Washington, he won the admiration of Bill Clinton, who said "he is one of the shrewdest politicians I have ever met". He worked closely with Mr Clinton on the Tenet and Mitchell recommendations for conducting peace talks and fully supported the 1978 peace accord between Egypt and Israel, while remaining critical of the latter's position on Palestine.

His diplomatic career coincided with a testing period in Egypt's modern history, yet Maher considered the decades of disturbance to be, in some way, more appealing than the insularity and lack of standards that he believed had befallen Egypt in the early 21st century. In his retirement, he appeared on pan-Arab satellite channels expressing, often vehemently, his antipathy towards American foreign policy, particularly in regard to the Middle East. He opposed American military aggression in Iraq and criticized Washington's desire to oust Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and Iraq's Saddam Hussein from power. Changing a head of state, he insisted, was a domestic matter and intervention in Iraq was the last thing the region needed.

Recalled from retirement in 2001, he served as Egypt's foreign minister until 2004, replacing Amr Moussa, who became head of the Arab League. Where Mr Moussa is renowned for his anti-Israel rhetoric, the mild-mannered, softly-spoken Maher stood in sharp contrast. Maher made headlines in 2003 after praying outside the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Jostled by a group of angry Palestinians who were protesting against his visit to Israel, it was reported that he had been physically assaulted. Maher was careful to correct the impression that shoes had been thrown at him by the protestors, a grave insult in the Muslim world. In fact, he said, the shoes caught on camera were his own, held aloft by his bodyguard. He had removed them before entering the mosque and given them to his aide for fear that they might be stolen.

He is survived by his wife. Born September 14, 1935. Died September 27, 2010.