The 2012 Annual Keynote Luncheon, entitled "The Future of Democracy in Egypt," was held at the Middle East Institute's 66th Annual Conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Washington, DC on November 14, 2012
2012 Annual Keynote Luncheon: "The Future of Democracy in Egypt"
Naguib Sawiris, Orascom Group; Free Egyptians Party
Amb. Daniel Kurtzer, Princeton University
Kate Seelye: This discussion couldn’t come at a more opportune time, as Egypt wrangles over the fate of the country’s constitution – a constitution that will define the very nature and values of the future Egyptian Republic. To all of us in this room who are linked to Egypt in some way – either through family or diplomacy or business, or perhaps because you studied Arabic at AUC as I did years ago – the fate and future of Egypt are of profound importance.
In recognizing that revolutionary changes are underway in the Middle East, MEI has been programming extensively on Egypt and the Arab awakening since the early days. Our forty adjunct scholars, many of whom are in this room today, have been writing and speaking extensively about these topics, commenting in the media and seeking to shape understanding of events in a way that will help influence policy in a constructive way. MEI believes this is a critical moment in contemporary Middle East history.
Now is a time to speak out and bring attention to policies and ideas that can contribute to a stable and prosperous Middle East, which is why MEI is so proud and honored today to be joined by Mr. Naguib Sawiris, one of Egypt’s most innovative business leaders who also cares very deeply about the political future of his country and has been actively engaged in trying to steer it in a positive way. Thank you, Mr. Sawiris, for joining us here today in Washington to share with us your wise insights. We are all very much looking forward to your presentation.
I also want to thank the sponsors of today’s luncheon, Contrack International and Mobinil, for making this gathering possible. It is the support of companies like yours that make it possible for MEI to carry out its mission and mandate to promote understanding of the Arab world in America.
Finally, I want to thank our moderator, Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, for joining us from Princeton University to lead today’s discussion. He teaches at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and he has an especially close relationship to Egypt, having served there as Ambassador from 1997 to 2001. He was then assigned as Ambassador to Israel, retiring from the State Department in 2005 after a twenty-nine-year career. Ambassador Kurtzer then went on to do what the especially gifted do with their experience and knowledge, and that is to write books. He is the co-author of The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011. Unfortunately, we are still questing, aren’t we? And he is the editor of the forthcoming Pathways to Peace: America and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. I can think of few people better informed to moderate today’s discussion. He is also a Board Member and a big supporter of MEI. We are delighted he is here. I’d like to thank you for joining us and invite you now to the podium.
Dan Kurtzer: Good afternoon. First, as a Board Member of MEI, I want to take this opportunity to thank Wendy for doing such an enormous job in educating all of us – Washington and Americans – about the Middle East, and to thank all of the sponsors of the Middle East Institute for what you do to make sure that there is an informed and educated debate about the Middle East that takes place in this town. In that respect, this afternoon’s program is not only timely but it is part and parcel of what is one of the most critical debates that the American administration is already engaged in but has to do more.
Naguib Sawiris and I actually go back a number of years. We were connected at the hip by both having been blasted by Rose Al-Yussef magazine in 1998. That was the first time we realized we were brothers-in-arms against intolerance and hatred. Then we enjoyed many and important conversations when I served as Ambassador and received his wisdom.
The kinds of issues that you will hear today will in some ways be moderated by the need for a public figure, a politician, an entrepreneur and a philanthropist to guard his words carefully. I don’t have to do that in my new guise and therefore I can raise with you the kinds of questions that we need to be thinking about with respect to Egypt – an Egypt that we all love, a culture that we have come to appreciate both in its historical manifestations but also currently, but a society that is undergoing fundamental change and heading in directions that frankly are still unclear. We heard in the panel earlier today about the constitutional challenges that are being faced. These will be critical metrics by which to measure Egypt’s progression toward not only a democratic state but a democratic and liberal state, one in which the rights of Christians and women, the right of free speech and the right to express oneself in political parties and organizations, are as well-respected as the rights of Islam. Egypt is after all a majority Islamic country.
Therefore the kinds of questions that we heard about in this panel, which you will hear echoes of in the remarks of Naguib Sawiris, are those which need to motivate our policymakers. I thought that after almost thirty years of studying – living for seven of those years in Egypt – and practicing the art of diplomacy, that I had reached a point where I could at least ask the right questions about Egypt. But two years ago, as we all did, we suffered a kind of computer crash, when our brains woke up one morning to find a revolution that defied all of the logic that we thought governed the situation. So anything we can learn about the ongoing challenges that this society faces – will it be a society in which liberal forces, those which had a major role to play in bringing about the revolution two years ago, will be able to push back against forces of what can only be called darkness (those who would like to take Egypt in a direction which, forget about whether it’s good for the United States, the real question is whether it’s going to be good for Egypt and the Egyptian people).
So we have no better person than a public personality, a statesman, a politician, a philanthropist, a very successful entrepreneur and, I am proud to say, a friend – Naguib Sawiris – to join us up here and present some remarks.
Naguib Sawiris: Maybe I should start with the revolution. When Dan used to be ambassador in Cairo, I used to go to him and he had a room in the Embassy where we were somehow sure there was no eavesdropping mechanism that would detect what I was telling him. I was mostly complaining of the dictatorial nature of the system that was during Mubarak and the fact that liberal and secular people like us were not even able to exist. The danger was that if – the Mubarak regime always told people that, “Look, if you don’t want me – this is what you will get. You’ll get the Muslim Brotherhood and the extremist Islamists.” Many Egyptians, not just me, we didn’t feel that any of these alternatives was the one we wanted. We were sure there must be another alternative. Unfortunately, the system during Mubarak cracked evenly on liberal/secular people like us who wanted to have a voice and did not want to join the National Party, which was a corrupt party and a party of benefits but had no real mission.
So when the revolution came, and many of us liberals and secular – what I call the naïve liberals also – did this great revolution, I told myself that I was brave enough to stand with this revolution from day one, still when Mubarak was in rule. If this revolution would have failed, I’m sure my family would have crucified me because we all would have been crucified. Luckily enough, the revolution succeeded and here we are.
Unfortunately most of the liberal and young Egyptians who went with their guitars – women, Christians, Muslims, rich, poor, socialists, capitalists all went to the square and did the revolution. Then the revolution was done so unfortunately the liberals went home and left the square to the other parties. Unfortunately also, the army – the two generals in charge – felt the same way as the US administration now: the organized power on the ground is the Muslim Brotherhood so we’d better have a deal with these people, because otherwise the country is now in shambles and we want to ensure that our fringe benefits and our rights are preserved. So they did the deal. They got a committee which was dominantly from the Islamists to write the first draft of the constitutional amendments. Then events went from bad to worse. They freed the people who killed Sadat, the members of the Jihad, and…and… and…and – I don’t want to bore you with everything that has happened.
I still want to be on a positive note because it’s my country. In the end I can argue – okay, I want them to fail; but if they fail my country, my country will fail. So I am in a dilemma here. So I decided to make the second half of my speech on a more positive note by saying, okay, what advice would I give now to my dear friends in the Muslim Brotherhood?
I would say to them: if you concentrate on grabbing the power in a dictatorial, fascistic way, more than you concentrate on making Egypt succeed, then you will fail. The 57 percent who did not vote for the Islamists, who did not vote for President Morsi, are not totally in alignment with your way of thinking. There is no constitution in the world that has been written one-sided that can satisfy everybody. So my advice is instead of concentrating on the power, concentrate on building bridges with people who are very conscientious about their country, who want to see their country evolve and become really successful. I actually think that sooner or later they will have to make the choice.
Allow me to give you an analysis of what are the forces in Egypt right now. We have the extreme Islamists – the jihadis, the Salafis. We have the moderate Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood. Then we have the liberal/secular capitalists – very small. And we have the liberal/secular socialists – a little bit bigger. Then we have the extreme socialists, communists, Nasserists on the floor too. So in any democratic system, when you need to make a coalition, you most probably will take the ones who more or less could be combined. So for example our party, the Free Egyptians Party, has the same economic program like the Muslim Brotherhood’s. If you read ours and theirs, they are not far from each other. Ours is actually more towards the German social market economy, because we figured out after the revolution that there have been mistakes by the previous administration in not addressing the needs of the poor.
But the biggest challenge Egypt is facing today is that, first of all, all the left, the workers and the poor thought that the revolution would bring them their dreams come true. Money would pour and they would get everything they want. Now we have strike after strike. Every day in Egypt today we have five to six strikes, which are paralyzing the country.
Again, my advice to the Muslim Brotherhood is to choose who you want to work with and not from an upper-hand mechanism, not by telling people “we have the majority, we decide.” This will bring them nowhere. We need to unite. If they don’t do that, they need to bear the responsibility on their own. Personally I don’t think they will succeed without a common gathering of everybody together.
The second advice is for the US administration. This is maybe a good opportunity to be here. They did the same thing, they said okay, now we have this regime of Islamists, we will side with them because they are the ones in power now. They went to embrace them very fast because otherwise, if we don’t embrace them, they will side with the other side. They will go with Iran or the extremists. We need to care about these two fights, Iran and Israel – these are the most important fights.
I love America but not because of Iran and Israel. I love America because America stands for democracy, freedom of speech, separation of church and state, the rights of opposition to oppose and not be attacked and jailed, and all these issues. Apparently all these issues were lost in the discussion, never mentioned. They made a deal without preconditions. So my advice to them is, okay, I understand where you are coming from, but when you make a deal with someone you should put preconditions for this deal. This means we tell them, okay, embrace them but tell them: don’t forget you need to protect democracy, you need to protect the women, minorities and Christians. To my colleague Amr Hamzawy, I hope in the future when you talk about non-Muslims you say “Copts,” because we are proud to be Copts. But the definition of Muslims and non-Muslims, it doesn’t really speak to my religion. Just say the word Copts. We are the red Indians of Egypt, you know. We want to be called by our original name.
So my advice to both the administration and the Muslim Brotherhood is to look to our neighbors in Turkey. What’s wrong with this model in Turkey? Personally, as a Christian, I would be very happy to live under this model. I acknowledge the fact that Egypt is a majority Islamic country. I acknowledge that very much. All my friends are Muslims, I grew up in a Muslim home. All I don’t want in the end is if I am completely against the Muslim Brotherhood, I’m classified as anti-Islamic. That’s the big dilemma we have today. One party in Egypt made the Christian Brotherhood – it was a joke. Actually the Copts have always been very careful to be classified as Egyptians first, before they are Copts.
There is a third advice that I have to give a few minutes also. It’s to the liberal/secular forces. They are all unable to unite and the reason for that is purely personally egocentric leaders. Each one wants to be a leader of the gang instead of being one front and putting the interests of Egypt, the interests of having a very solid, strong civil opposition – or partner with the Muslim Brotherhood to promote Egypt. Therefore we are losing in weight because we are totally fractioned. Everybody wants to be a boss and everybody has his ego. If you watch the ego map of all these leaders, you will find that we will not get anywhere until these issues vanish and we all unite in order to balance the situation in Egypt, in order to have a balanced state in the end and not another Iran. Thank you very much.
Dan Kurtzer: Let me take advantage of being the moderator to ask the first question, on an issue that you touched on but didn’t focus on – the economy. We all know Orascom, we all know Mobinil, how successful this was. We know the power that the Egyptian economy started to demonstrate in the last decade. We now have seen two years of reversals, a major drain on foreign exchange, all the labor troubles. Can this economy dig its way out of these problems even while this major debate about the direction of politics is taking place?
Naguib Sawiris: I think there is an issue here which maybe you don’t know here in America. You don’t know exactly what is happening in that area. The problem now in Egypt is that post-revolution, there was this jailing of all these Mubarak ministers. It was done in a way that personally, I know for sure, many of these ministers were innocent. Many of them were thrown into jail because the general in charge at that time did not like them even during Mubarak. Some people, like the Minister of Finance, got thirty years for using photocopy paper and approving car license numbers. Many of these sentences were done in a vindictive way. The problem we have is that even until today, every day in the newspaper – we have a legal system that says, “anybody that didn’t like anybody can just write a letter to the district attorney’s office and say ‘I am accusing Mr. Sawiris of so and so’.” Then I spend two or three years of my life trying to prove that all this is false, during which your money can be frozen, during which you could be prevented from travelling and, worst case, in jail until you prove that you are innocent.
This has been done to Emirati investors that came and took land based on a price that was announced very transparently – Saudis too, Egyptians too. There was a kind of revoking of all this process by telling them no, it was too cheap, you need to pay more and so on. So this whole environment of accusations, prevention of travelling, freezing of assets – revenge for the past – who is the investor who wants to go and invest in such a climate?
Nobody wants to say it loudly, because every other businessman in Egypt that I know is under the carpet or trying to hide. He wants people to forget him, that he is rich and has money. But this is the real problem today. Unless we forgive and not forget – I’m not saying forget, but forgive – unless we put this page behind us and take the South African model where people were pardoned for what they have done and we close this fight, and we return to a stable, legal environment where people are not persecuted, and we change our laws to – the laws on financial transaction dates to the 1960s, during Nasser. So anybody who gets accused gets prevented from travelling, jail, freeze his assets and all that. Unless we get out of all that we will not be able to proceed and our economy will not find new investments and nothing will improve. That’s number one.
Number two is that all these unions and labor unrest and strikes, they need to understand that you can’t come and ask for money when the owners are broke. They are all coming today to the state, which is broke, and asking for more benefits, more salaries – and the same to the private sector, which is right now paralyzed. I have a couple of hotels which are empty – how can I give a raise to the people working there when the hotel is empty? The same applies to everywhere. We need also to go and talk with these unions and explain to them: give us a year, give us two, until we have a breeze so we can move the country forward.
But without these two elements, personally I believe that any money which would be put will be lost. It’s not going to happen. We need really to close that door. I can say that because maybe I am a little braver than others – others are not saying that. But this is the real cure for what we are in now.
Dan Kurtzer: I would invite questions. The only question off-limits is why your cell phone service doesn’t work in Egypt.
Question: Mr. Sawiris, which nation is the closest ally to Egypt today who can help in economic development?
Naguib Sawiris: Qatar. Qatar has been the – there is something good to say – they have been supporting most of the Arab [indiscernible] revolution. I think it would be good to respect that and admit that this is an appreciated effort. The only question is, why? And at what price? Is there a price behind that? It’s just because you want to promote democracy? If this is the reason, good, I don’t want to say more than that.
Question [Ambassador David Mack]: Mr. Sawiris, I arrived in Cairo in 1964 as a Fulbright Scholar. I have been fascinated by the study of Egyptian nationalism and I know about the important role that the Coptic minority played in that. My question is about the new patriarch – I think he’s called the Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa and the Preaching of St. Mark. What sort of qualities does Bishop Tawadros bring to this position and how effective is he likely to be?
Naguib Sawiris: First, I have to give you a religious bit. Living in Egypt, we are also allowed as Christians to have our religious stuff, once in a while. I actually believe that Egypt is blessed, because of a religious story. When Maria had to take Jesus and escape, she could have gone to Syria, to Jordan, to Iraq, but she decided to come to Egypt. So I believe that Egypt is blessed. What happened in the election of this new pope was a total blessing. The patriarch in charge, who managed this electoral, did a superb job. I don’t know how but it went like a piece of cake, very organized, very disciplined. He managed to eliminate some of the candidates which would have caused a big problem with the Muslim majority. He managed to eliminate candidates who were corrupt, or some of them wanted to inherit the pope when he was alive. So he managed to do all that and do the right process. With God’s blessing, the guy that won was actually one of his own pupils. Having met him, I think the new pope will be great for Egypt because he has actually, from what he has said until now, he has moved very clearly on the same path as Pope Shenouda, who managed to protect the Christian minority and have a good relationship with the governing bodies, and he was very loved by the Muslims as well as Christians. So I think the new pope will exactly move in that direction.
I think he will have a tougher job, because some of the extreme Islamist forces on the ground believe that the fact that we are governed now by a Muslim Brotherhood majority gives them the right to have some more leverage on the Copts and the churches and so on. So the challenges and the stakes are going to be higher for him. But my feeling is he’s going to be capable of solving them.
Dan Kurtzer: Are you aware of any channels of dialogue or mechanisms by which the senior Coptic leadership and, for example, either the Brotherhood or Al-Azhar are actually communicating?
Naguib Sawiris: The relationship with Al-Azhar is great. Azhar and the Coptic Church have a united position. As far as the Muslim Brotherhood – again, I hope there are no repercussions for what I am going to say – they are doing exactly like the Mubarak regime. Mubarak used to go and get the most unknown, the weakest Christians and put them as decoration in any system. For years the only Christian minister was the Minister for Environment. So my joke was always, don’t we have a Muslim that understands environmental issues? Are Christians specialists on the environment? And we don’t see any change in that. Actually the current government has only one Christian minister. She is a lady and she is doing, I don’t think it’s environment, I think it’s scientific research. And they appointed a Christian guy, they called him a party vice-president – a guy that nobody has heard of. The guy appeared only when they appointed him, we’ve never seen him again. Not even in a commercial.
So there is a kind of feeling that this is something you just need to address but not from the substance. Today you don’t have a single Christian who is a governor. When they tried to put a Christian governor in Minya, they immediately retracted that nomination because some of the Salafis went and cut the railways and protested. We don’t have any Christian who is the head of a university or the head of a public – it’s unfortunate, because that also gives the feeling to the Egyptian Copts that they are not on equal grounds. I won’t even speak about security agencies. There is no way that any Copt or Christian will be appointed in any security agency in Egypt, either state security or what we call the Mukhabarat. It just doesn’t happen. It’s a waste because Christians or Copts love Egypt, they are patriotic Egyptians. They would like to feel that they are treated equally.
Dan Kurtzer: One digression before the next question. There are a lot of ambassadors in the room and I love them all, but there’s two I want to recognize, because we have a little club: Ambassador Margaret Scobey and Ambasador Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian Ambassador to the United States and the United States Ambassador to Egypt. We have a little fellowship. Thank you very much for coming.
Naguib Sawiris: I want to add that I have a nice memory: when Ambassador Scobey called me immediately after Mr. Mubarak’s speech, the last one, and she told me, “What do you think? Was it good?” I said, “It was a disaster. It’s finished. With this speech, we are done, there is no hope.” A few hours later it was.
Question: My name is Samira Harris [phonetic], I’m an Egyptian-American activist. Mr. Sawiris, you are a very successful businessman. We are proud of you as an Egyptian entrepreneur. However, Egypt is very sick and we all are accountable for that sick lady. What are you doing about helping the needy, the sick and the old? What is your role in developing Egypt today – not when it stabilizes, but today? Because it needs help today. Thank you.
Naguib Sawiris: I’ve always had a principle not to talk about what my family does in that segment. It’s an area where my mother is in charge. She has managed to extract, I will tell you, immense funds from all of us by decree, not by mutual consent. I don’t want to do that because it goes to the extent of trying to brag or impress, but we have I think the largest NGO or social institution in Egypt – the largest funded institution. Hundreds of millions have been paid. This family, the Sawiris Foundation, does nothing but fund NGOs that prove that they are working in the area of job creation. So they don’t go actually and distribute money but they examine NGOs who are very active and once they qualify them, away from the Ministry of Social – I don’t know what they call it – they fund these organizations. We believe that this has provided tens of thousands of jobs. In addition to that, I personally did something on my own, a micro-finance company which has managed to create more than 45,000 jobs until now, in less than three or four years. But it’s just not appropriate to come and say we are doing this and that.
Question: My question is to both of you. How do you assess the health of the peace treaty relationship between Israel and Egypt today?
Naguib Sawiris: Short answer: it’s dead.
Dan Kurtzer: It’s alive.
Naguib Sawiris: It’s dead and alive.
Dan Kurtzer: This is a region where you can be dead and then…
Naguib Sawiris: You know this joke about this guy goes to Jerusalem and his wife dies. So they tell him they can bury her here in Jerusalem for $100 or he can take her to the States for $5000. So he decides to take her to the States. They say, are you crazy? He says, no, I’m not crazy – anybody who is buried in Jerusalem comes back to life and I’m not going to take this risk.
Dan Kurtzer: I’m not touching that one. Do you want to amplify a bit on your concerns?
Naguib Sawiris: Right now there is nobody in Egypt that would venture into any escalation or any change of the situation with Egypt, for the mere fact that first of all we have too many problems to look at. We need to rebuild our country post-revolution. We don’t need to initiate any animosity with anybody. Therefore, for the time being my feeling is that there won’t be an escalation. What the future will entail maybe should not be in this kind of forum.
Dan Kurtzer: I would just add there’s no particular reason why the treaty would not be sustainable currently. My concern are the wild cards, the unintentional escalatory forces at play – including what’s happening today in Gaza. The spiral of escalation that is likely to get much worse as a result of the targeted killing of the head of the Hamas military wing – the response is going to be a barrage of rockets. That will engender a response. At what point does this spill over into Sinai? At what point do Egyptian military and police forces become engaged? It could go out of control. It doesn’t necessarily cut to the foundation of the treaty but all of these issues erode the bilateral trust that had built up over the years, even if friendship had not built up. It has to be a concern for the period ahead.
Question: My name is Dr. Asya Daoud [phonetic] and I’m a professor at American University. I’ve been living in Cairo for the past two years, I just came back at the end of May. I feel very deeply connected to the situation that’s going on there and I am very deeply concerned about the future of Egypt. I spent more than half of my life in the country. Particularly with the prominence of the new Islamist government, there has been a misperception (in the West in particular) that the tradition of Islam in Egypt is very much in alignment or accordance with political Islam, which is a very grave misperception. Particularly I want to mention the Sufi tradition in Egypt and the work that the Coptics and other liberal groups in Egypt who are now trying to politically mobilize, to unify themselves – the Sufis, the Coptics and the other youth groups. Can you comment more on the work that you’ve been doing with the Sufi groups and these other liberal groups to politically mobilize and debunk this perception of the Islamist tradition, which is believed or perceived now in the world as being the most dominant?
Naguib Sawiris: I have been given an award by the Sufi movement in Egypt. Every year they choose a man of the year, so they gave me an award. It was a big event because for an Islamic movement like that to give an award to a Copt was quite a move. They were actually attacked a lot because of that.
The Sufis represent what I would call the highest elements of Islam. They are the guys who really believe in doing good in worshipping God and not going into a political Islam. So they had been very good partners not just for the Copts but for all the liberal movement. Unfortunately they and the liberals – one thing people didn’t notice, that in the first election, which we thought everybody would go to vote, the attendance was still not more than 45 percent. So out of the 50 million, only 20 went. Definitely the ones who didn’t go are the nice liberals and others who decided – there was even another one during the presidential election. As you know, the votes were very close, even though the candidate coming from the liberal side was not the candidate we wanted. Still, many of these liberals just went to the north coast because it was a long weekend, and didn’t go to vote.
So unfortunately the Sufis and the liberals and others like that are the ones who are relaxed. The other guys are like they’re in the army: go to vote. They all go! But ours, well, I’m not into politics – everybody tells you, I’m not into politics. I tell them it’s not about politics, it’s about your future, your job, your healthcare, your social insurance. But as Nancy said this morning, and this is really a crucial point: nobody has gone to explain to the individual simple people the connection between their future, their jobs, their social insurance, their healthcare and the constitution. Nobody has tried to link – even the politics, the parties – to link to the simple people why it’s important. When you go to the US here, in school the first thing they teach you is, what is the most solemn national duty? To vote. Nobody has ever told the Egyptians that, because under thirty or forty years of dictatorship the elections were all framed anyhow. People got used to not even going.
Dan Kurtzer: Let me cut to a commercial. The value of what we’re doing today, what you heard in the panel, our guests and hearing Mr. Sawiris talk, is critical in Washington. What the question reflects is a real lack of understanding about traditional Egypt and new forces in Egypt. The Middle East Institute is trying to do this and it’s another way of saying thank you to those who are supporting this institution. We need more of it so our policymakers will get a more textured understanding of what’s happening in the country.
Question: I just would like to ask whether your party is having any arrangement for getting to agree or work with the new party, the Dostour Party, of ElBaradei.
Naguib Sawiris: Dr. Baradei is really one of the most eloquent and – he will always keep the credit that he was the first one to defy the Mubarak regime when Mubarak was in power. Most of us would have been quite scared to go up front and talk like that. So definitely he is the most respectable figure. But I think he made a mistake. I had talked to him before he made this party and I told him: what we need in Egypt today is not one more secular party. We have parties now, more than the football league. It’s not really the issue that we want more parties. What we want is a figure, someone who will go out and unite all these parties – because they have no different programs. They are all the same. Therefore don’t reduce yourself to the fact that you have a party but go form an alliance with everybody because that’s what we need. Unfortunately he did not listen to me and now he has a party like everybody.
The last time I was in Egypt I made a big meeting with all the factions. Amr attended that meeting. Frankly speaking, it was an awesome meeting. I actually left that meeting thinking that it’s done, we will all unite. Everybody was there: a representative of Dr. Baradei, the Nasserists, the socialists, Dr. [indiscernible], the social-democratic party, the Dostour representative – everybody was there. We agreed to form three committees: one for the constitution, one how to get together for the election, everything was done. I have never had my hopes so high. I couldn’t even sleep that night from excitement. I left after this meeting and every day I followed the news. Every single day one went his way and still the egos and the personalities and we were distracted.
I am a fighter all my life. I’ve never given up. For the first time in my life I feel like, okay, we’ve been dumped by the United States; we’ve been dumped by the army today, which we used to look at as our last resort – also pacified. The liberals are completely not united. So what the hell am I doing, putting my family and my brothers’ interests in the country and my dad, who is 83 years, under this big worrisome pressure?
Dan Kurtzer: With great respect for the defense attaché, how do you explain the passivity of the military?
Naguib Sawiris: With all respect, the removal of the two generals came as a big surprise to everybody – even to our military attaché, I would think. It was not something we could have seen coming so fast. Whether we agreed with how they managed the post-revolution era, we definitely don’t agree, but still people look to the army as like a life support. With their sudden removal we don’t know exactly now how things are.
Maybe it’s good, because maybe the new leadership is young and we should really concentrate on building our country and building our defenses. As you know, this situation in Sinai is quite disturbing. It will need closer working with Egypt to start understanding that there is no war coming out of Egypt in the short term so we need to cooperate on this insurgency that is happening there. It could lead – take the situation if these guys in Sinai manage to get the Libyan rockets and start throwing serious rockets on the Israelis and Israelis die. Would the Israelis then go and attack Sinai? So they are attacking Sinai, they are attacking Egyptian soil. So we have a war. It’s a very dangerous situation and should not be taken lightly. Israelis have demonstrated always that you kill one guy, they’re going to kill ten guys. We don’t want people shooting out of our soil rockets at anybody. Our land is a sacrament and our borders are sacrament. Even this joke with these tunnels – some people say don’t close the tunnels, leave the tunnels. Then you can also say, let’s kill the borders, kill our sovereignty, because these tunnels are an attack on our national sovereignty.
Question: I’m really interested in your perspective on the relationship between businessmen and politics or the state. As you know, under Mubarak there were several businessmen who were extremely successful as businessmen because the state favored them and offered them services in exchange for their political support and sometimes direct service in the NDP. How do you foresee this relationship changing in the coming period? Is it going to change or is it going to be the same, like the Muslim Brotherhood favoring other businessmen?
Naguib Sawiris: First of all, I think the late Prime Minister Hariri in Dubai, just one week before he was assassinated – I was in Dubai making a speech. I was saying that maybe if we leave the Palestinian-Israeli problem to businessmen they will solve it, because they are very practical and they can do deals and concessions and so on – because the politicians failed. So he called me after the speech and said: here’s one good advice – don’t go into politics. My dad, too, when I started, he came with that.
So I would say that it’s actually very dangerous for a businessman to go into politics. The only reason I went is because I was totally against that Egypt becomes one-sided. I wanted to see an Egypt that was balanced and I didn’t see anybody having the guts to do something at that time. So I did that. Most businessmen decided not to go into politics, wisely, and to align themselves with the new rulers. I don’t know if that’s wise or not but that’s what they did. They are the same people who were close to the Mubaraks and they built their businesses based on their relations. They need these relations.
I would pride my family as being an [indiscernible] family, a family that has built its wealth and created jobs based on professionalism more than anything else. I think we want to stay like that. I think I violated the rules of my family. I am very upset by the fact that members of my family are having to pay a price now for my positions. I’m in a dilemma personally because of that, because I should bear the consequences of my doings on my own. If my brothers and the rest of my family don’t think that they should be in a political situation, I should have not maybe. We are also identified as one unit, which we are not practically – everybody has his business.
But to answer your question, the old guys are building their bridges with the new guys. I am just business as usual – I’m not going to do that. I feel that the message is that you need to understand that you need partners. If you want to do it on your own, you still stay on your own. Personally I don’t think you can do it on your own.
Dan Kurtzer: I know I speak for everybody Naguib in saying thank you very much for everything: your service, your philanthropy and your dedication. Thank you so much.
Wendy Chamberlin: I think I speak for the entire luncheon group here today: this has been a fascinating discussion. I want to thank you both very much. I think we’ve learned a great deal. As Dan has said, we’ve accomplished what is the mission of the Middle East Institute: to educate and inform.