I am proud to have known and worked with George Joffe. George was on my Africa committee at the Labour Party in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. He brought me into Chatham House to re-establish the Africa research programme. He was fun, erudite and always generous with his time and advice.
This obituary is from the Times.
Professor George Joffé obituary
Middle East expert whose advice to Tony Blair on the Iraq war was ignored
Wednesday July 13 2022, 12.01am BST, The Times
In November 2002, a few months before the opening “shock and awe” salvo of the Iraq war, six academics trooped into Tony Blair’s office in Downing Street. One of them, George Joffé, a tall, blue-eyed expert on Iraq, was keen to impress upon the prime minister how complex and volatile a country Iraq was. “What has happened in Iraq was predictable and was predicted,” he later recalled. “Also in the room [that day] was Jack Straw, Jonathan Powell and Sir David Manning, and nobody made any comment on anything except Blair. We had been told we could not discuss the legality of the war, only the possible aftermath.”
Blair listened carefully but responded only by saying that Saddam was “an evil man” and should be removed. The Iraqis, moreover, would be grateful if Britain helped to eliminate the evil at their helm. “At this point, we realised our input meant nothing to him,” said Joffé. Little by little the others “fell silent”, realising that there was no point in continuing the discussion. Only Joffé, sitting opposite Blair, continued to speak. “Iraq is an extremely complicated state,” he argued, “and simply removing Saddam will not solve the problem.”
Joffé discussed the meeting afterwards with two of the other experts present. “And the first thing anyone said was, ‘We’re going to war’.”
As an expert on Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and the Gulf, Joffé was often invited into the room when critical decisions of diplomacy and war were made. He had been an expert for the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague in the 1990s, in the case of the UK debt to Iran over Chieftain tanks. This ruling, which the UK lost, played a critical role in the eventual release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe this year. He also served the court in a border dispute between Tunisia and Algeria that redrew their national frontiers.
During the Lockerbie case he lent his expertise to both the Libyan and British legal teams as they haggled over victims’ recompense and who the actual perpetrator was.
A lecturer and then professor at King’s College London and later the School of Oriental and African Studies, Joffé joined the Department of Politics and International Studies (Polis) at Cambridge in 2003. Colleagues said he was “blessed with the gift of clarity”; his lectures were electrifying, prompting students to flock to him for supervision (at one time he had 13 PhD students simultaneously, an unheard-of number), making him “rightly and affectionately revered”, as Professor James Mayall, the previous director of Polis, recalled.
His lifelong passion was the promotion of north African studies — he was convinced that the southern Mediterranean would gain importance in European and global affairs — and he went on to mentor many of the leading scholars in the field today. He was a master of the wry comment that would bring a sudden unexpected laugh to his listeners, and he would often use his humour as a weapon to diffuse political tensions both in the newsroom, where he became a well-known commentator, and in the classroom. At King’s, Joffé established the Centre of North African Studies along with The Journal of North African Studies, for which he served as its long-time editor, eventually moving the centre to Cambridge. In 1999 he became the director of research at Chatham House, followed by his appointment as acting head of the Royal Institute, steering it through several years of leadership upheaval and the search for a clearer vision. While there, he expanded the Middle East and North Africa programme, hosting, among others, Rached Ghannouchi, exiled leader of the Tunisian opposition group al-Nahdah, who became a lifelong friend, and whose party would win the first democratic election after President Ben Ali fled at the outset of the Arab Spring.
Emile George Howard Joffé was born one of two in Brighton in 1940 to a Swiss father and English mother. His father, Charles, was a professional photographer whose family had shed their Lithuanian-Jewish identity on emigrating to Switzerland to become assimilated free-thinkers, and Joan (née Kirk) came from a rich industrialist family in Birmingham who manufactured bicycles (Joffé remembered being taken to the bombed-out factory as a young boy). In Germany she studied and taught dance and the new technique of calisthenics, and made jewellery and silver trinkets.
After leaving the Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School, Joffé studied chemistry at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, on a grant which he lost in a game of poker in his first few months. He swiftly won it back and, vowing never to gamble again, became master of the games instead, using the house fees to fund his living expenses.
An inherent wanderlust soon sent him seeking for other adventures. He involved himself with the Czech opposition that culminated in the Prague Spring in 1968, running documents and funds across the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany. On one occasion when they were stopped by Czech guards, the car was torn apart. “Luckily, we’d tied the package of newspapers we were bringing to distribute in Prague onto the chassis between the wheels, and they missed it”, he recalled, remembering that he had to drive the car the rest of the way, as the driver’s hands were shaking too much.
After this he went to Morocco, which was rocked by strikes and street protests. He fell in love with the country and stayed to do research on his PhD despite a serious car accident on the then two-lane road between Casablanca and Rabat and the continuing political turmoil which was later dubbed “the Years of Lead”. For several months each year he lived in a small village in the northern mountains, his burly frame standing out from the slight silhouettes of those around him, recording their tribal practices and religious rites. Yet it was in the area of radicalisation and terrorism, which emerged so strongly from north Africa after 2001, that much of his publishing output and appearances on the media was focused.
In 2002 Joffé was giving a lecture when Roxane Farmanfarmaian, a PhD student and editor of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, was so taken with his intellectual breadth — he was notorious for working from minimal notes and composing the lecture from a chair in the corner of the room in a matter of minutes — that she encouraged him to publish an article to her paper. The pair fell in love and married in 2010. Although he had no children Joffé became stepfather to a daughter from a previous relationship, Salma Karmi-Ayyoub, a lawyer at the Home Office in the Brexit department, and Farmanfarmaian’s daughter Kian, an anthropology and marketing graduate from the University of Southern California. All survive him.
In 2012 they moved from Cambridge to London where, in addition to becoming a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) where he directed its office in Qatar, Joffé served as an immigration expert for HM Courts and Tribunals, producing expert reports that saved many victims of repression from returning to their homes in the Middle East. He was also regularly consulted by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the US State Department, the Pentagon, US Africa Command, and the Department of Defense. But it was his induction as a senior member of St Antony’s College at Oxford that touched him the most, having remained deeply loyal to his alma mater all his life.
Despite his heavyweight CV, Joffé was a gentle eccentric; his head was almost constantly buried in mounds of books and he had a penchant for quoting Richard III, his favourite Shakespeare play.
With white sideburns, a bushy beard and warm geniality, many compared him to Father Christmas, or, as he discovered on a trip to a writer’s estate in Florida where he was continually mistaken for the owner himself, Ernest Hemingway.
George Joffé, Cambridge professor and editor, was born on August 1, 1940. He died of heart failure on May 28, 2022, aged 81