AFTER THREE European secretaries-general of the United Nations, one Asian and a South American, there are many who would agree with the new nominee, Egypt's Butros Butros Ghali, when he said: "It is at last time for an African."
Not everyone was happy with the choice. "He is not an African, he is an Arab," a disappointed Zimbabwean told Reuters after his candidate lost. The notion that Egypt and its antiquities are one with black Africa is more popular on American campuses than in black Africa.
Butros Butros Ghali -- he uses the double Butros, which mean Peter in Arabic -- seems more a product of the lost Durrellian world of the Alexandria Quartet than of Egypt or an Arab milieu.
French-educated -- and more fluent in English and French than in Arabic, he once told me -- Ghali is a Coptic Christian. Said to be Christendom's most ancient communion, the Copts were present centuries before the proselytes of the Prophet invested Egypt.
He is married to a Jew from Alexandria, once a multicultural Mediterranean melting pot, but a hard Muslim fundamentalist town today. He was also a Fulbright scholar at Columbia and thus has tasted the culture of the new Rome as well.
Yet, for all of that, Ghali is a man of Africa and a man of the south in the north-south dialogue, despite his cosmopolitan upbringing, and a man who could help foster peace in the Middle East as well.
Israelis were not overly pleased with Ghali's appointment, even though he is a representative of the only Arab country to have made peace with them. They were uncomfortable with him during the negotiations leading to Camp David. Afterward, Ghali used to scold them about hurting the peace by not addressing the Palestinian issue and by rampaging around Lebanon. He predicted this would lead to a "cold peace" -- and it did.
Yet he was an early and strong advocate of Camp David and peace with Israel. I have a vivid memory of him in those days and during a visit to Cairo in the summer of 1976. He spoke of the old, vanishing Cairo and said that it could have become like Paris, and Alexandria another Nice. Instead, both were sinking deeper and deeper into Third World poverty and decrepitude -- "like Calcutta," he said.
He regretted paths not taken and said that the two main causes of Egypt's woes were overpopulation and the quarrel with Israel. Both, he said, had sapped the energy and resources of Egypt and beggared a country that could have given so much to the region and the world.
"We are an African power, a Mediterranean power, not just a Middle Eastern power," he said, and he described how Egypt had only reluctantly joined the anti-Israeli cause in the 1940s and had lived to regret the obsessive Arab preoccupation with Israel.
This was three years after a fierce war with Israel, and such talk sounded close to treason. Yet I had been picking up similar flashes of resentment, regret and a new openness to change as I made my rounds of the Egyptian capital. There was nothing as definitive as Ghali's words, just a hint and a shrug to indicate that Egypt was becoming disenchanted with being the country that had served up the most men and lost the most territory in the anti-Zionist campaign.
I went on to Israel, where I was living at the time, and reported to my friends and sources that Egypt might be willing to make a deal.
I was cut to pieces for naivete. Didn't I know that what all Arabs wanted was to destroy Israel -- push it into the sea? Arabs always said one thing to foreigners and another among themselves, I was told. The very notion of a peace with Egypt was summarily dismissed, and Israel turned a deaf ear.
Yet, the following year, Anwar Sadat was on Israel's doorstep, and a peace ensued.
Today, too many Israelis are saying the same thing -- that Madrid was all a trick, that all Arabs are united in wishing to destroy the Jewish state.
Yet the same voices I heard in Cairo 15 years ago are growing throughout the Middle East, notably from the occupied territories. For Israelis, the hardest thing will be to hear them.
H.D.S. Greenway is senior editor for the Boston Globe.