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THE WORLD

Egypt Names New Foreign Minister

Mideast: Ahmed Maher, former ambassador to U.S., steps in as nation is seeking a more active role in brokering peace.

May 16, 2001|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — As Egypt seeks to play a more active role in calming the Middle East conflict, President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday named as foreign minister a seasoned diplomat with strong U.S. ties.

Ahmed Maher, who served from 1992 to 1999 as ambassador to the U.S., takes on one of the highest-profile diplomatic roles in the region, serving as the Arab world's point man in efforts to end the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Maher took the oath of office in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheik and said his goal is to restore "peace and security in the area."

Though he is widely respected for his experience and straightforward style, the 65-year-old Maher is already being judged in terms of how he will compare with his popular predecessor. Amr Moussa was so well regarded by the Egyptian people that he was immortalized in a hit song that declared: "I hate Israel" and "I love Amr Moussa."

The outgoing foreign minister, who held the post for 10 years, was widely admired on the street for his open and frequent criticism of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. When Mubarak announced that Moussa was leaving the post to take over as secretary-general of the 22-member Arab League, there was great speculation that the president pushed him out--either under pressure from the U.S. or for fear that Moussa was becoming so popular he might eclipse Mubarak.

Government officials, however, said Moussa was the only candidate with enough prestige to guarantee that Egypt retained the league's top post with the retirement of Ahmad Esmat Abdel Meguid, also a former foreign minister. Officials said they hope that Moussa energizes and unites the league.

"Amr Moussa was capable of addressing himself not only to the Egyptian public but the larger Arab public opinion," said Salama Ahmed Salama, a columnist with the semiofficial newspaper Al Ahram. "Mr. Maher may not have the same high rhetoric as Moussa, but we have to wait and see how he does."

Those who know Maher described him Tuesday as a serious and well-organized diplomat, if less charismatic than Moussa and at times abrasive in his personal style. "He is not an easygoing person," said Mustafa Fikky, a former diplomat who described himself as a close friend of Maher's. "He is admired for his intelligence and is very well connected with the U.S. administration."

The new foreign minister hails from a political dynasty. His grandfather, Prime Minister Ahmed Maher Pasha, was assassinated in 1945. His younger brother, Ali, is ambassador to France.

Ahmed Maher began his diplomatic career in 1957 and was appointed ambassador to Portugal in 1980. He also served as ambassador to Belgium and Russia before being sent to the U.S. In 1978, he was a member of Egypt's delegation at the Camp David peace talks.

Maher takes over at a time when Cairo has been promoting a joint Egyptian-Jordanian peace initiative aimed at stopping the violence and restarting peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The initiative has been well received but has done little to stem the violence.

"I think he is in a very good position to navigate in this very difficult crisis," said Mohammed Shaker, chairman of the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs and a friend of Maher's. "Having served in the U.S. for eight years, he has built up excellent connections with everyone there. He will have a very good judgment."

*

Aline Kazandjian of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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