words by MAXMILIAN WECHSLER
HIS Excellency Hazem Elsayed Badawy El Tahry began his term as ambassador to Thailand on March 30, 2015, as the latest step in a long and distinguished career in the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Before he even sat down for this recent interview at his official residence, Ambassador El Tahry said in a subdued voice, “I wish to extend my deep condolences to the people of the Kingdom of Thailand on the passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. I have been sincerely touched by the behaviour and reaction of the Thai people to this sad event. You can really feel how much the people love the King who did so many good things for them.
“I am also touched to see how closely the Thai people have come together regardless of their circumstances or religion. I have witnessed Muslims and Buddhists crying together over the loss of their King. There is a deep sadness over the country, but it is very encouraging to see the strong sense of community; it makes the country stronger when people come together like that.”
When asked how he has been able to survive in the diplomatic service of a country that has seen such profound change and turbulence, especially in recent years, Mr El Tahry replied, “This is a very important question which I really appreciate. It is not only me but all my colleagues at the MFA who are facing the same situation. We are all professionals, and this means our duty is to represent our country no matter what changes may come. Since the revolution of January 2011 the ruling regime has changed five times. Can you imagine it?
“We represent our country and we have to defend its interests, which should be the same regardless of who is president. We don’t belong to any political party and indeed we are not allowed to belong to a political party. We accept that this is the way it is and we understand why it is important to have this type of policy. In other countries, government employees are likely to lose their jobs when there is a change in government or an election is lost, but in Egypt that’s not the way it is,” said the ambassador.
He added, “After the upheavals of the past few years, Egypt is stable now. We have parliamentary and presidential elections and we have a new constitution in place.” Mr El Tahry said the normal term for ambassadors is four years, but diplomats can be moved from one mission to another at any time.
Ambassador El Tahry was born in Cairo in April 1964 and joined the MFA in 1989 after completing his university studies. He was 25 years old. “I joined because I came from a diplomatic and media orientated family. My father was a diplomat in the Arab League and my uncle was diplomat at the MFA. My mother was a journalist working in the field of political information.” Since entering the MFA he has served in Berlin, Algiers, Damascus, Moscow, Sofia, Ottawa and Dubai, and held a number of important positions in Cairo.
The ambassador is multilingual, and having a talent for languages is a definite plus in his line of work. “I studied at a French school in Cairo and my French is better than my English. I also speak Russian and Bulgarian. I can learn any language pretty easy, except Thai,” he said, laughing. “I have tried but without much success. The problem is the tones.”
Nevertheless, he sees the appointment to Thailand as a high point in his career and makes no secret that he’s delighted to be here. “I came to Thailand for the first time when I was appointed its ambassador. I had intended to visit the country before, especially when I was working in Dubai, and even made airline reservations, but something always came up. So when I finally came here as ambassador I was a little bit uneasy at first.
“Culturally, Thailand is quite different from Egypt, and really from anyplace I had ever been assigned. But after a short time – and this is the secret of Thailand – I was touched by the culture and especially by the people. So many Egyptian friends who used to come here every three months or so tried to explain this secret to me, but I couldn’t understand before I came myself. Now I know: the secret is the people of Thailand who are so very nice and warm.”
“There are few Egyptian companies in Thailand, and these are mainly tourist-orientated, as well as several Egyptian restaurants. We work with the Thai-Egypt Chamber of Commerce, which conducts meetings for private business people and we try to help Egyptian businesses. For example, a business might ask our help in working with the Thai government to change regulations that are hurting the business.
“Thailand of course is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world. About 40,000 Egyptian tourists visited Thailand in 2015. I really appreciate how Ms Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, the Minister of Tourism and Sports, runs the ministry. She has really good ideas and she is very successful in her work. Sometimes I joke with her and ask her when she will come to Egypt to cooperate and exchange experiences in the field of tourism.
“Egypt is also a very important tourist destination because of its fabulous history and archaeological jewels. I don’t have the exact number of Thai tourists for 2015, but it is less than the number of Egyptians who travelled to Thailand. We are issuing visas to Thais at the embassy,” said the ambassador.
“Our embassy looks after Egyptian citizens here and helps if they have any problems. Not many Egyptians are permanent residents here, but as I’ve said there are always lots of Egyptian tourists. Thailand is a popular destination for honeymooners. Many of them go to Phuket. The embassy also promotes Egyptian cultural events in Thailand. For example, we bring Egyptian folk dancing groups from time to time.”
Thailand and Egypt established diplomatic relations in 1954 and the embassies in Cairo and Bangkok were opened the same year. In the intervening 62 years our relations have always been good. In September of 2016 we started bilateral political consultations in Cairo. I think that in the near future we will have a bilateral committee at the MFA level in Bangkok, but as this is a special time for Thailand we don’t know when exactly this will happen.
“The Egyptian embassy in Bangkok has about 20 staff members, half of them Thai. Some have been with us for many years. The embassy driver has been with the embassy for 16 years and the servant at the residence 20 years. He remembers six ambassadors.
“I am also the Egyptian ambassador for Cambodia and I go there often. In 2016 Cambodia opened its only embassy on the whole African continent in Cairo. This is a very good development which is due to the efforts of my team and me and those of the ambassador before me,” said Mr El Tahry.
“Thailand and Egypt have good cooperation and strong ties in many areas. For example, direct flights by Egypt Air between Cairo and Bangkok facilitate the transport of people and goods. I am keen to increase the trade between our countries. Currently the volume of trade is about US $1.2 billion both ways. I think this is not enough and we should make more of an effort.
“Egypt exports to Thailand mainly spare parts for motor vehicles, seafood like tuna, clothing, electronics and pharmaceuticals. We have been producing pharmaceuticals in Egypt for a long time.
The ambassador said that every year his government provides around 80 agricultural scholarships to Thai students and the two countries also exchange agricultural experts. Altogether there are about 3,500 Thais studying in different universities in Cairo.
“That’s why I am now pushing for an Arabic language institute in Thailand. Usually Thai students who go to Egypt take about one year to learn Arabic. I believe if the students learn here before going to study in Egypt it will greatly benefit them. The institute would be not only for Muslims but for anyone wishing to learn Arabic, including Thai Buddhists and citizens of other countries.”
As the Egyptian ambassador Mr El Tahri plays a big role in helping supply Egyptian teachers for Thai religious schools. “Egypt is one of the biggest and most important Islamic countries in the world, so we have a responsibility to teach Muslims everywhere, including in Thailand. But we exercise this responsibility in coordination with the government here,” said the ambassador. He added that he’s discussed Thailand in meetings with Grand Imam Sheik al-Azhar, who is an Egyptian and considered by some to be the highest authority of the Sunni Islamic tradition. Al-Azhar University in Cairo was founded more than 1,000 years ago and it is one of the oldest universities in the world. The university is home to distinguished faculties of engineering, medicine, languages and religion.
“The Grand Imam is very interested in Thailand. There are 17 Egyptian sheikhs throughout Thailand who teach religion, languages and other subjects. Before I came here I found out that the majority of them were living in Bangkok. They were happy to be in Bangkok because it’s a good city, but this is not their purpose. Therefore, I sent more than half to the South because that’s where the majority of Thai Muslims are, and I also sent some to Chiang Mai. Some of course are still living and teaching in Bangkok.
“When a Muslim school in Thailand asks for an Egyptian sheikh to come teach, we first look at how many students the school has. I won’t send a sheikh to a school with 10 students, but a school with 600 or 2,000 students has a good chance. Their salaries are paid by the Egyptian government and we ask the schools to find them a nice place to live. They teach mainly Arabic and religious studies.”
The ambassador said that Egypt is culturally diverse, which is a reflection of its geographic location. “Egypt is African because we are on the continent of Africa. We are also Arabic and we are Mediterranean. We are Asian as well because Sinai is a part of Asia. We are a predominantly Islamic country but five to ten percent of the population is Christian.
“Different countries and groups have their own interpretations of Islam, but in fact there is only one Islam. Like other world religions, Islam is intended to bring peace. I don’t believe that any true religion would ask people to kill. When people hijack Islam and commit bad deeds this is politics, not religion. Sometimes when the economic or social situation is not so good and people feel alone and they don’t have anyone to lead them, someone with a wrong interpretation of Islam may sway them to go this way or the other.
“Islam has been the dominant religion in Egypt for more than one thousand years, but we are tolerant of other religions, including Christianity. Christians have been in Egypt even longer than Muslims, and if they were persecuted they couldn’t have survived so long. Of course, there are some problems, but I don’t believe Christians are abused. There are 80 Christian members of Parliament and about the same number of women. Our country belongs to all the people. This is what I really believe.”
Life in Thailand
Mr El Tahri has made it a point to see a lot of the country in the relatively short time he’s been here. “I have travelled all across Thailand. I have been to Phuket, Chiang Mai and Pattaya among other places. I have visited Royal Development Projects in the North.
“I appreciate that the MFA from time to time arranges trips for diplomats to get to know Thailand. They take us to places in the province like factories so we can learn about local products. This is something special. I am very happy with how the Thai MFA deals with the diplomatic missions. We have good cooperation with them, but I have to say they are very strict in matters of protocol. I have served in many countries but here it is completely different, especially when it comes to presenting diplomatic credentials.
“The diplomatic community in Thailand is very close. The Dean of the Diplomatic Corps is currently Ambassador Javier Becker of Chile. He has helped the diplomatic corps to know the protocol during the mourning period and so on. He is a very experienced diplomat and his wife is also very nice. I personally have many friends among the heads of diplomatic missions. However, I think some regions could be better represented. For example, the Arab world consists of 22 countries and only 10 are represented here. And there are only six African countries with embassies here: Egypt, Algeria, Kenya, Libya, Morocco and South Africa. This is not enough. I have heard that Mozambique will open a mission here.”
In his free time Mr El Tahri’s favourite pastime is watching football, especially Arsenal FC. For exercise he likes going to the gym for a good workout and swimming in the sea. He enjoys his life and travels in Thailand and sometimes posts photos on Facebook so that friends around the world can see how lucky he is.
One aspect of Thailand he likes most is the food. “We have many Thai restaurants in Egypt but I didn’t go too often before coming here. But since I have arrived I have become a huge fan. It is so delicious but very spicy for us non-natives,” said Mr El Thari, who is also very fond of his two-year-old, blue-eyed male Persian cat named Martin. The friendly feline quietly observed us during our conversation.
At the close of the interview the ambassador said, “I must express once again my deep condolences to the people of Thailand. I am very appreciative of the way Thais accept diversity and live in peace. As for the problems in the South, I don’t want to interfere. I know that the Thai government is trying hard to find the right way and I wish them success.
“It is very important for Thai people to accept each other regardless of race or religion. I have found that communities in Thailand are strong and united. I wish Thailand prosperity and stability for the future and I believe that relations between Thailand and Egypt will continue to strengthen, especially after the bilateral commission in Bangkok becomes a reality.”
CV H.E. HAZEM EL TAHRI
• 2012-present: Deputy Assistant Minister for Parliamentary Affairs
• January 2014: Director of Egyptian Diplomatic Club
• October 2013: Emissary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responsible for submitting proposed amendments to the Constituent Assembly that drafted the current constitution of Egypt
• October 2012: Member of Foreign Ministry delegation to the Constituent Assembly
• July 2011: Deputy Director Department of Policy Planning and Crisis Management
• January 2011: Representative of Foreign Ministry to the Crisis Management Working Group organized by the Egyptian army during 2011
• 2005-2009: Consul of Egypt in Dubai and Northern Emirates (UAE)
• 2003-2005: Bureau Chief Assistant Minister for Consular, Immigration, Refugees and People’s Assembly Affairs
• 2002-2003: First secretary and Deputy Chief of Mission Egyptian Embassy in Ottawa
• 2001-2002: Bureau Chief-Assistant Minister for Asian Affairs
• 1999-2001: First Secretary Egyptian Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria
• 1997-1999: Second Secretary Egyptian Embassy in Moscow
• 1996-1997: Second Secretary (Charge d’ affaires) European and Security Organization Division
• 1992-1995: Third Secretary Egyptian Embassy in Damascus
• 1991-1992: Attaché Egyptian Embassy in Algiers
• 1989-1991: Attaché Arab Division Foreign Ministry
• 1990: Graduated from DSE Institute for junior diplomats in Berlin
• 1990: Graduated from Egyptian Diplomatic Institute