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Present and Tense: Immortal no more

This week, Nabil Shawkat is a know-it-all arms dealer with a fiendish, yet meticulous, interest in the world of fashion. The scene of the crash looked almost idyllic. A nearly intact fuselage, the twisted metal of the passenger cabin, and pieces of luggage were strewn across a 200-yard radius in the fields just north of …


This week, Nabil Shawkat is a know-it-all arms dealer with a fiendish, yet meticulous, interest in the world of fashion.

The scene of the crash looked almost idyllic. A nearly intact fuselage, the twisted metal of the passenger cabin, and pieces of luggage were strewn across a 200-yard radius in the fields just north of Kinshasa. Forensic experts were still busy at the site on Monday morning, gathering evidence about the accident that took the life of the world’s best known arms dealer. So far, the Congolese authorities are dismissing foul play. In a brief statement to reporters, Yohe Lubake, the interior ministry spokesman, said that three army senior officers and the entire crew died in the crash along with Shant Baklawi.

The man who brought peace to the Middle East seven years ago is no more. Baklawi’s plane went down in severe weather conditions as he was trying to broker another peace deal, this time between the Congo and Rwanda. Baklawi, who was 79, won the Nobel Prize five years ago for successfully negotiating an unorthodox peace treaty between Israel and its neighbors. The man who once claimed to be “nearly immortal was pronounced dead at the Kinshasa University Hospital at 04.43 on Sunday, October 12, 2027.

Baklawi’s life was fraught with contradictions and turnabouts. Many would remember him for his philanthropic work in Africa, where he set up various medical and teaching facilities over the past two decades. But it was through arms deals that he made at least a significant portion of his immense wealth. He started out selling arms door-to-door in Beirut in the late 1970s, but soon made it into the big time during the Afghan conflict of the 1980s.

When a considerable proportion of American weapons used in Afghanistan kept surfacing in Africa in the early 2000’s, international investigators traced the source to Baklawi, but he was never detained. His services were deemed “too invaluable to major powers that an Interpol warrant against him in 2004 remained “a slap on the wrist , according to unnamed US sources.

“He sold arms with one hand and built hospitals with the other. This made him the wild card in the deck. He inhabited a world where favors and felonies overlap, said Jeremy Mbuyu of the Dartmouth School of Economics.

By 2006, Baklawi started building a media empire that stretched from Ouagadougou to Islamabad. And he used it to promote his unorthodox views on Middle East politics. Ahmad Morsi, author of The Peace Dragons, has been analyzing Baklawi’s ties with the underworld for the past 15 years.

“Baklawi was being approached by many people, from Europe and the Middle East, people who wanted a new voice in the media scene. He used his empire to create an alternative Islamic voice, one that is less intense and more business-like. Was he a front for intelligence services? He made deals right and left. But at the end of the day, he had his own ideas, Morsi said.

From an arms dealer with an interest in fashion, Baklawi reinvented himself into another Rupert Murdoch, albeit with more influence. In summer 2006, Baklawi’s career turned a corner. That was when Nellie Hagobian, once the top strategist of the Bush administration, moved to Cairo and started working for Baklawi.

“Nellie was a very exceptional woman, and once she had Baklawi’s power behind her, things started to turn around in the Middle East. The seven-country solution that we have today is only one of the many ideas the two came up with. At first, Baklawi didn’t take Nellie very seriously. He only wanted to use her for publicity. But soon enough, the two hit it off, and the ideas they came up with were too practical to be ignored. Eventually, the Americans got over their resentment and started cooperating with the Armenian pair. That’s how they called them: the Armenian pair. Of course Hagobian was half Armenian, but Baklawi wasn’t, despite his first name, Morsi said.

In his book, Morsi describes a scene from a private reception aboard Delmar, Baklawi’s private yacht. “Baklawi didn’t work the room, and yet everything seemed to revolve around him. He went straight to his table at the back of the boat and didn’t move again. From then onwards, the mood changed. People kept milling around, hoping to get a furtive glimpse of his table. Everyone wanted to know who he was talking to, and for how long, but this wasn’t a topic of conversation. It was merely an assumption, as if this was the whole purpose of the night. It was like a scene from the godfather. Top diplomats, hopeful politicians, business tycoons all kept throwing furtive looks in his direction. Every a few minutes or so, a top aide would signal one or two guests and escort them to Baklawi’s table. The rest of us kept our distance. It was one thing to be invited to the reception, and quite another to be allowed into the man’s inner sanctum, Morsi wrote.

Topics: Gamma Islamiya

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