UK-Egypt ties repaired in 1998 trip by Tony Blair to meet Hosni Mubarak

British officials moved to end rift after new PM failed to call the Egyptian leader, government papers show

Prime Minister Tony Blair receives Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at 10 Downing Street, London, in 2002. PA
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A visit by Tony Blair to Egypt in early 1998 helped to ease concerns among officials that the new prime minister had inadvertently alienated a key Middle East state when he came to power almost a year earlier.

Newly released British government documents show Mr Blair was made aware of the need to repair relations with Egypt after then president Hosni Mubarak felt snubbed when he called to offer his congratulations on the 1997 UK election landslide.

Foreign Office officials warned that the failure to set up a call with the Egyptian president was having a “corrosive effect” on relations between the two countries later in 1997.

It was only when Mr Blair travelled to Egypt after the Luxor bombings that the UK’s ambassador in Cairo said a corner had been turned. The exchanges were reported to have been “excellent: our stock has risen sharply”.

After assurances on the UK's policy towards extremists accused of crimes in Egypt, Mubarak only briefly mentioned the issue at a briefing.

“On bilateral affairs, the most notable feature was Mubarak’s glancing reference in private to extremists in Britain, and his assertion in the press conference that this was not a major issue,” said the UK’s ambassador in a memo.

Weeks earlier, officials pressed for overtures towards Mubarak, who was a key player in the Middle East peace process and someone who could help to put Libyans on trial over the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

“The lack of a response so far to Mubarak’s attempted telephone call of congratulations seems to have had a corrosive effect on our relations with Egypt,” a senior official in the Foreign Office wrote in a memo on November 6, 1997.

“We are therefore keen to ensure that any bad feeling is quickly squashed. The best way to do this would be through a phone call to Mubarak.”

Mr Blair raised the prospect of stopping off in Egypt on the way to Japan for trade talks in January 1998 to soothe Egypt’s long-term leader.

“Why did this happen?” he wrote in the margins of the memo. “Speak to me. Is Egypt on the way to Japan?”

The government files, covering the years 1998 to 2000 and released today by the UK’s National Archives, showed that the two leaders spoke by telephone 11 days later after the Luxor terrorist attack in Egypt when 62 people, mainly European tourists, were killed.

John Holmes, the prime minister’s private secretary, wrote that Mr Blair offered his sympathies and suggested that the pair meet soon, a suggestion that was said to have been enthusiastically received by Mubarak.

“The conversation was somewhat rushed … but at least the ice has been broken, and hopefully any remaining Egyptian offence at failure to speak after the election removed,” Mr Holmes wrote.

But the UK later learnt of a “public tirade” by Mubarak in which he blamed extremists in the UK for playing a role in the Luxor attack. Egypt had released a list of 14 wanted terrorists, including three it said were in the UK.

The government considered sending a further message but was concerned that it would be seen as an attempt to “fob off” Mubarak.

Mr Blair visited Egypt in April 1998 and was warned in a briefing note from the embassy in Cairo that Mubarak was “neuralgic” about extremists in the UK.

The note said that of the three extremists alleged by Egypt to be in the UK, one had claimed asylum, one had leave to stay in the UK and the other was not thought to be in the country.

One, Yasser Al Sirri, has remained a running sore in relations between the two countries after the UK refused repeated Egyptian extradition requests.

Mr Al Sirri was sentenced to death in Egypt for his alleged role in a 1994 bomb plot against the country’s prime minister. He remains in Britain after fighting for 27 years to stay in the country as a refugee.

Another of the three, Adel Abdel Bari, was later extradited to the US where he pleaded guilty in 2014 to his role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

“He [Mubarak] has asked his officials for a full brief and he will give the Prime Minister [politely] a hard time,” said the note preparing Mr Blair for the visit.

“He is especially indignant that people found guilty here of trying to kill senior politicians can operate and speak freely in Britain.

“Mr Blair can … point to intelligence co-operation, and the newly agreed package of counter-terrorist training worth over £1 million over two years.”

“The Egyptians were tending to feel that we were not interested,” the ambassador wrote after the trip. “They have been delighted to find this is not so."

Updated: December 30, 2021, 12:33 AM