Question: Ambassador Dr. Galal, your professional life has spanned the fields of academia and government service. How did your career as a scholar-diplomat begin?
Answer: When I graduated in June 1965 from the Political Science Department in the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, I had a strong interest in pursuing a PhD. I had hoped to be the first of my cohort to be able to join the academic staff. But because I came third in my batch and the college would appoint only one person, I had to temporarily set aside my academic pursuits. However, fortuitously, the Foreign Ministry sent one of its human resources staff to recruit the top graduates from the faculty.
Answer: My career as a diplomat got off to an interesting start. When the Foreign Ministry sent us our letters of appointment, naïvely, we thought that we would be appointed as ambassadors straight away. But we discovered that the Ministry is a bureaucracy and that we were at the bottom of the hierarchy. That was our first shock. The second shock occurred on the following day when the Ministry fired us! They hadn’t even the physical space to accommodate us.
The senior diplomatic officer whom we met agreed to employ two of our young female colleagues but sent the rest of us to the Personnel Department, where we were told to return home. Suddenly, it seemed as though our dreams had evaporated. Yet, flush with enthusiasm and determination, we refused to give up. Instead, we threatened to file suit against the bureaucracy. Ultimately, they allowed us to interview with the Deputy Foreign Minister, who issued instructions that we be reassigned ― to the Legal Department!
Soon thereafter we discovered that we had not been recruited as diplomats after all but rather as staff on temporary assignment. The Ministry personnel told us that we would have to pass an exam in order to be appointed as Administrative Officers and then another exam to be accepted as Diplomatic Attachés. After passing these exams, my career as a diplomat finally began.
Question: During your career as an Egyptian diplomat, where in Asia did you serve?
Answer: I had the good fortune to serve in a number of Asian countries, including India, Pakistan, China. I also visited Japan a number of times but did not have the opportunity to serve there.
Question: Had you been interested in Asia prior to having been assigned there as a diplomat? And if so, what sparked your interest?
Answer: As for my interest in Asia, when I joined the Foreign Ministry as a Diplomatic Attaché, I embarked on a two-year full-time course of at the Diplomatic Institute. We had lectures on many subjects, ranging from politics, economics, culture and society to Foreign Service work. One of our lecturers was a Counselor fluent in Chinese and a great admirer of Chinese Civilization. His knowledge and passion for the subject was infectious.
In order to graduate from the Diplomatic Institute, I had to complete a research thesis. The year was 1968, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution was in full swing … I chose the Cultural Revolution as the subject of my thesis. This led me to immerse myself on China’s history ― reading many books in Arabic and translated into Arabic from Chinese, as well as some books in English and others in French. Thereafter, I joined the Master’s program in Political Science at Cairo University where I took courses on Chinese and Indian political systems.
Question: So, in fact, your work as a diplomat and academic pursuits went hand-in-hand?
Answer: Yes. I pursued my studies at the Master’s degree level while continuing to work as a diplomat. After completing the MA coursework, I wrote my thesis on the “Cultural Revolution and Political Change in China.” Then, after earning the MA degree, I entered the doctoral program at Cairo University, where my dissertation examined Sino-Japanese relations, focusing on the non- official interactions between the two countries from 1949-1972.
Question: After earning your PhD in 1980, what was your next assignment as an Egyptian diplomat?
Answer: I was appointed Counselor to the Egyptian Embassy in New Delhi, India, which gave me the chance to study Indian history, culture, politics, and economics. Reflecting on that country’s experiences, I came to recognize the pivotal importance of the quality of Indian leadership before and immediately after independence. India was lucky to have Mahatma Gandhi leading its struggle against British imperialism and lucky also to have Jawaharlal Nehru leading it along the road to democracy.
I found India to be a fascinating country ― one of great diversity and sharp contrasts. It encompasses a large territory, has a huge population, and faces many challenges, including tackling poverty. At the same time, let us also acknowledge that India is growing, modernizing, and is active and successful economically beyond its borders. Examples of Indian business acumen, skills and hard work can be seen in the construction sector in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Question: You also served in Pakistan, did you not?
Answer: Yes, I was appointed Ambassador to Pakistan in 1995 and served in that capacity for three years. The Pakistani people are very goodhearted and very hospitable and friendly towards Egyptians. I enjoyed my post and made many friends while in Pakistan. However, one thing that struck me is that the Pakistani people have faced difficult circumstances, including corruption and mismanagement. Complicating these internal problems is the fact that Pakistan is sandwiched between three powers with differing interests and agendas: India, Iran, and the seemingly omnipresent United States.
Question: Following your tenure as Ambassador to Pakistan, you were posted to China. In a sense, the two aspects of your professional life ― as a scholar and as a diplomat ― came together. How did your experience in China shape
Answer: I was assigned as Ambassador to China, where I spent three and a half years. This period of my life and career was very rewarding. I studied Mandarin Chinese during my tenure as Ambassador, though I could not master the language due to the fact that I was extremely busy with diplomatic work. And this work, itself, proved to be very gratifying. I managed to promote relations between Egypt and China to the point where many Egyptians and Chinese I came to know referred to me as “Mr. China.”
While posted to China, I also had opportunities to deepen my knowledge of and develop personal and professional relationships in other East Asian countries. I visited and wrote about Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. I also visited Japan for the first time (in 1999) and found it to be a beautiful country. What impressed me greatly was the country’s level of development and even more its disciplined and hard working people. I found Japan’s post-WWII recovery and achievements to be quite remarkable.
Question: Since retiring from the Egyptian Foreign Service, have you remained engaged in Asian affairs, particularly with respect to China?
Answer: After leaving the Foreign Ministry, I rejoined the world of academia. I spent a year teaching and writing at Bahrain University. I then moved to the Bahrain Center for Research and Studies for eight years, where I served as Senior Advisor for International Strategic Studies and Dialogue of Civilizations. During this period and afterwards, I have maintained a very busy schedule of research, writing, conference participation and media appearances ― much of this activity focused on China and Arab-Chinese affairs.
I am a member of the China Cultural Forum in Beijing and of the Chinese Forum of International Scholars of Chinese Studies in Shanghai Social Sciences Academy. And these days, I am still “on the road” a great deal, attending many Arab and international conferences on China-related issues.
Question: Against the backdrop of your own career experiences and what you see unfolding in Asia and in the Arab World, what are your thoughts about the future of Egypt’s relations with Asian countries?
Answer: First, let’s look at Egypt ― a great country, an ancient civilization and a pioneer in mathematics, engineering, and other fields. Egypt has been both blessed and cursed by the fact of its geostrategic location. The quality of the leaders who emerge in the “new Egypt” will be critically important in determining whether the country will be able to steer its way through various international challenges and recover its role as a peace-loving, tolerant nation that contributes to the further development of human civilization.
Egypt is physically connected to Asia via the Sinai Peninsula. However, it is important to emphasize that Egypt is also linked to the Arab and Muslim worlds by culture, language and religion; tied to Africa by population and the River Nile; and part of the Mediterranean Basin geographically, historically, and philosophically (through Hellenistic civilization). Egypt therefore lies at an important geostrategic crossroad. Its “natural” strategic orientation is multifaceted; therefore, Egypt does not lean toward Asia or, for that matter, towards any other neighboring region.
To be sure, Asia is the home of great civilizations. It is also the continent of rising powers, dynamic economies, and nearly half of the world’s population. For these reasons, it only makes sense that Egypt continues seeking ways to expand its ties with Asian countries. It will take imaginative Egyptian leadership to accomplish this objective and, more broadly, to capitalize on the country’s location and to help unleash its people’s creative energy.
This interview was conducted by MAP Director Dr. John Calabrese.