- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008


When the Egyptian ambassador came to Washington nine years ago, the world was much different.

“When people talked to you, they either asked about the pyramids or of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Then came 9/11,” Ambassador Nabil Fahmy told editors and reporters on a farewell visit to The Washington Times.

Americans suddenly demanded to know more about Islam and Arabs.

“They wanted to know, ‘Who are you?’” he said, adding that in a strange way the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks gave him and other Arab diplomats a chance to explain their culture and their governments’ political goals. Many also explained that their countries also had been targeted by Islamic extremists.

They also repeatedly tried to reassure Americans that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists. Of the 19 hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, 15 were Saudis but one of the leaders was an Egyptian, Mohamed Atta, who piloted the plane that hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Mr. Fahmy said that “in a strange way,” he and other Arab diplomats were able “to go out there and take advantage of the increased interest in the Middle East, even if that interest was in a negative direction.”

However, when he presented his diplomatic credentials to President Bush in October 1999, Washington was a different city and the technology that Americans took for granted was just starting to spread wildly.

The dot-com investment bubble had not burst. YouTube was only a year old, and the World Wide Web was only 10 years old. In 1999, about 150 million around the globe used the Web. Today, more than 1.4 billion are online.

“More and more we live in a global society. That affects public opinion and government response,” Mr. Fahmy said. “It’s important for policymakers in America to have a global outlook. I see more of it now than when I first came to Washington. It’s no longer a bipolar world.

“That’s really what changed. There is no other capital in the world like Washington, where every issue is important to someone.”

However, one thing has not changed: Foreign ambassadors still find difficulty getting attention.

“There’s so much news in Washington that we occasionally feel left out,” he said.

The 57-year-old career diplomat, who also has served as ambassador to Japan and as an envoy to Middle East peace talks, plans to return to Cairo by the end of August for a new assignment.


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