When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in South Africa, he owed his freedom, in large part, to a formidable Egyptian diplomat who has been negotiating in secret for two years to free Mandela and roll back apartheid.

Only a few insiders knew about the work of Boutros Ghali, Egyptian minister of state. Intelligence sources say Ghali has clout because of Egypt's history of funding two banned anti-apartheid groups, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and Mandela's group, the African National Congress (ANC).

Ghali follows a long Egyptian tradition of mediation in the Middle East and Africa. Egyptian foreign service officers are among the best negotiators in the world, and they are more interested in resolution than taking credit.

Mandela, 71, had been in prison for 27 years on charges of sabotage against the government for his ANC activities in the 1960s. His final words to the court when he was sentenced to life are recited by black schoolchildren in South Africa today:

"There comes a time, as it came in my life, when a man is denied the right to live a normal life, when he can only live the life of an outlaw because the government has so decreed to use the law to impose a state of outlawry upon him. I was driven to this situation, and I do not regret having taken the decisions that I did take."

On Feb. 2, South African President Frederik W. de Klerk lifted a 30-year ban on 35 anti-apartheid groups, including the ANC, and offered to release Mandela.

Mandela is crediting the stubborn resistance of the ANC and foreign sanctions against South Africa for forcing de Klerk to negotiate. Mandela kept secret the debt he owes to Ghali.

There have been many efforts to free Mandela over the years, always tied to the government caveat that he end his anti-apartheid activities. But he has refused the terms.

About two years ago, Ghali began applying pressure to all sides in the negotiations. U.S. and European officials sensed a change in the wind when Ghali took an interest. High-level State Department sources told us his work has been "pivotal." Ghali has been minister of state since 1978 when he was appointed by President Anwar Sadat. Sadat leaned heavily on Ghali when the Camp David peace accord was negotiated. Ghali wrote the speech Sadat delivered in Jerusalem.

Ghali kept his meetings with South African officials quiet and held them on neutral ground in Paris, Cairo and Harare, Zimbabwe. First he concentrated on getting the PAC and ANC to work together. Then he drew the South African government into the talks. There were numerous other meetings with top officials of the "frontline states," those black nations that have given support and safe haven to anti-apartheid activists.

When de Klerk became South Africa's president last year, Ghali was undaunted. De Klerk had a reputation as a man with "steel teeth" -- an Afrikaner idiom for an adamant supporter of apartheid. He would be a tough customer.

But Ghali was tougher. And when de Klerk made the first historic step earlier this month on the road toward elimination of apartheid, Ghali took no credit.