Ambassador Hermann F. Eilts is not being immodest when he says, “I know President Sadat better than any other American.” Eilts, 55, the U.S. envoy in Cairo, normally meets with the Egyptian leader six or seven times a month. It was five times in one week as Eilts helped arrange Sadat’s history-making trip to Israel.
Eilts’ role as the Cairo connection in the matchmaking diplomacy was fitting for the man hand-picked by Secretary of State Kissinger to reestablish diplomatic ties with a city once dubbed “Moscow on the Nile.” “From education, hard work and experience,” says a State Department colleague, “Eilts has become the country’s top expert on the Middle East.”
A 30-year veteran of the Foreign Service who has been posted to Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Aden, Yemen and Libya, he is among the few American diplomats who can speak Arabic. Eilts (pronounced “aisle” with a “ts”) still remembers in particular those “stirring days” (his understatement) when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967. He was ambassador to Saudi Arabia and first persuaded King Faisal to stay out of the fighting—and then Washington to leave U.S. dependents in the country because he had Faisal’s promise they would be safe. Eilts holds the rank of “career minister,” the Foreign Service equivalent of a three-star general.
He is a naturalized citizen who emigrated from Germany to Scranton, Pa. with his family at the age of 4. Before World War II (an Army officer, he was wounded twice in Europe) Eilts graduated from Ursinus College. After the war he attended the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, where he met Helen Brew. They earned master’s degrees in 1947 and married a year later.
Eilts cruises around Cairo in a bulletproof limo. “I’d like to be out there with the people,” he says, but the threat of terrorist attack makes that impossible. He is genuinely fond of his hosts: “Egyptians have a capacity to laugh at themselves, which I’ve always thought of as a sign of character.” A formal man whose leisure tastes run to reading, hiking and stamp and coin collecting, no one would accuse him of gregariousness. Yet Eilts says of Sadat, “I would certainly hope we can call each other friends.” That, on both sides of the Suez, is crucial. “What’s necessary here,” Eilts says, “is a heavy dose of American involvement. My belief is that we’re moving on the peace process now.”