|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
14 - 20 December 2000
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
He believes he is on history's agenda, and his instinct is to battle to the end
To the manner born
This week, in his elegant flat in Zamalek, Mounir Fakhri Abdennour -- businessman (he hates the word)-turned-politician, and eminently likeable man -- was looking at the world beyond one of the most ferocious battles he has fought in his life: the elections. He battled to the end and earned himself a seat in the People's Assembly during the parliamentary elections held last month. He walks in -- expensively suited -- and motions me towards a sofa, sitting down opposite. He is focused, unflappable, and resolute; he has been so even when all those around him were losing faith. This is the Abdennour his associates -- and perhaps he himself -- would like to talk about.
It would be no exaggeration to say that he has situated himself in the history of opposition politics as a man who can create a high degree of consensus among very divergent elements of Egyptian society. He is doing so at a time when consensus on political issues is a rare commodity. He was perhaps the only candidate for whom secularists voted and for whose victory Islamists campaigned.
For Abdennour, playing politics has never been a matter of "if," only of "when" -- a reflection of the sense of destiny that he has carried since he was growing up in a family steeped in politics. His sense of mission is driven by a fierce competitive instinct and the family's legacy. It is perhaps no coincidence that Abdennour's story is so closely linked with the history of Egypt in the second half of the twentieth century.
The scion of a prominent Coptic family, Abdennour finds great joy in talking about his youth in the family house in Abbasiya. He was born in 1945, three years after his grandfather, Fakhri Abdennour, died. He recalls vividly being hounded by his grandfather's memory. "He was always there. His memory, his name, his words would always come up constantly; he was a legendary figure," says Abdennour.
In history books, Fakhri Abdennour is a symbol of Muslim-Christian unity in the variant of Egyptian nationalism that to the present day characterises the Wafd Party. He responded positively to Saad Zaghlul's inclusive nationalism and joined the Wafd at its inception. Tareq El-Bishri, former head of the State Council, who has written extensively on Muslim-Coptic relations, refers to the famous incident at the Ramses Club, a gathering place for the prominent members of Egypt's Coptic community at the time. Abdennour had noticed the conspicuous absence of Copts from the Egyptian delegation that was to negotiate independence with the British authorities in 1917. He urged Saad Zaghlul to include a Copt in the delegation, since independence was a national concern. His move was historic, initiating a role for Copts as political actors in modern times. Almost half a century later, his grandson has been elected to parliament by an entirely Muslim constituency.
Following in Fakhri Abdennour's footsteps was his son Maurice, Mounir's uncle, who was elected to parliament twice in 1944 and in 1950. Saad, Mounir's younger uncle, was also a political activist. Unlike his two brothers, Mounir's father opted for a career in business. Growing up in a household where everybody was so politicised left its mark on young Mounir, however. He remembers vividly that lunch was an occasion for often violent political discussions. "From 1952 to '54, I lived in a house where the intentions of the Free Officers were constantly being debated," he remembers.
Aged 10, Abdennour was of course too young to participate in any of these discussions. He remained an observer and an avid reader, particularly of the French daily Le Monde.
The 1952 Revolution soon became the centre of discussions in this Wafdist household. At its outset, the revolution almost created a schism in the Abdennour front. The brothers were divided: Abdennour's father was hopeful that a democratic process would be the end result and that the officers would eventually return to their barracks. Maurice and Saad believed that democracy could never result from an army-led movement. Saad paid a price for his political views: he was jailed twice, in 1961 and 1967.
Such discussions were put to an end as the family sought to come to terms with the revolutionary policies' impact on its wealth and social status. Abdennour grew up in an atmosphere coloured by disappointment and disillusionment. He does not like to talk much about those days. "It was just very hard," he says in a way that changes the topic decisively.
Hard times, however, did not put an end to his own ambitions; he grew even more preoccupied with the big questions. "Uncle Maurice thought I was crazy to choose to study politics at the very time of its demise. But I knew things were bound to change." He graduated from Cairo University in 1967; by this time, disillusionment with the revolution had reached its peak. Following his successful father, he aimed for a career in business and turned down an academic post at Cairo University's Institute of National Planning. One reason was that the institute followed a socialist school of thought, and Abdennour firmly believed Nasser's policies had fettered the economy and blocked the creative initiatives of Egyptians. Instead, he went to the American University in Cairo, obtaining a master's in business administration in 1969. "I knew by then that I wanted to be a businessman. I had a lot of 'crazy' ideas for new projects that would take a lifetime to carry out."
One such idea was the topic of his thesis, about the impact of private foreign direct investment (FDI) on Egyptian development. His professors described him as "a dreamer," who talked about Western investment and private ownership at a time when to do so was to court disaster. Ties with the West had been cut, and the public sector was supposed to be the future. It was in this unlikely context, somewhat hostile to the ideas he was propagating, that Abdennour wanted to work.
Against the overwhelming evidence, he still believed that change was bound to happen. In his mind, he could see the revival of the private sector propelling Egypt into an era of prosperity and private enterprise. A few years later, Sadat, building on Nasser's tentative moves towards liberalisation in his last years, initiated the Infitah and set the tone for political and economic life in the '70s and after. This reorientation of national policy led to a renewal of ties with the West and fostered an environment that welcomed private enterprise. Abdennour emerged as representative of a new stratum of wealthy and influential Egyptians with contacts to moneyed interests inside and outside the country. He established a company with foreign partners between 1970 and 1975; in 1974, a new investment law had allowed the channeling of foreign investment into the country. In 1985, he set up an agribusiness company whose most famous product is Vitrac jam.
But his progress in business never overrode his political consciousness, combined with a sustained commitment to intellectual work. During the 1990s, Abdennour capitalised on a brief period of political openness and was encouraged to move out of the shadowy niche he had carved for himself as an entrepreneur, joining scores of non-governmental actors engaged in public service. "It was very hard for me not to identify. At the beginning, I wanted to focus on business, but I soon realised that economics and politics are inseparable," he explains. His public role grew steadily. In 1996, he was a founding member of the National Unity Committee, established after sectarian strife broke out in the Delta. Then he was appointed member of the board at the Centre for the Study of Developing Countries in Cairo University's Faculty of Economics and Political Science. His most important political activity, however, was still directed through the Wafd. Although Abdennour does not remember ever applying for membership, he says he always considered that he belonged to the party. "I guess I did not have to have physical evidence of membership," he says with his ready laugh. The next step came quite naturally: he decided to embark on what was to be a turning point in his career -- the parliamentary elections.
By then, Abdennour's own political agenda reflected general views of nationalism and social reform that crossed all political lines. Some label this successful businessman born into a wealthy family a capitalist, but he violently refuses to define himself as such. "I would define myself as a liberal democrat," he says firmly. He quickly adds: "I am very conscious of Egypt's social problems, and the social responsibility of the wealthy. That makes me no capitalist."
When he decided in 1995 to contest elections in Al-Wayli, people wondered how "an aristocrat from Zamalek" could understand the concerns of the working-class district. But Abdennour's definition of politics may be answer enough. "I see politics as work and production," he explains. "Anyone who wants to be a politician must produce, feel the pains and hopes of the people and work to find solutions to their problems."
So why Al-Wayli? "This is where I was born, after all. I felt like I belonged there." A more important reason was the constituency's radical transformation from a middle and upper-middle class area in the '40s and '50s to a zone of extreme hardship. So important is the "revival of the middle class" to Abdennour that he included it on his campaign platform. Two developments, he believes, led to the erosion of this class during the '70s and '80s: inflation, and the deterioration of the image and status of public service. "We desperately need to reconsider the social pyramid in Egypt. We need social reform, and this in turn will require a change of financial policy in order to strengthen the middle class and relieve the pressures on the have-nots. If we are keen on injecting blood into the middle class, salaries, pensions and the tax system will all have to be modified. It is appalling to see the huge gap in wealth among different members of society; it is even worse than in pre-revolutionary times," Abdennour exclaims.
Now the discussion shifts to the economic situation, and Abdennour is at his best. While he is keen on emphasising that he is "not against the state removing its heavy hand," he cannot conceal his disappointment with the privatisation programme. The reason is, he says, economic and political liberalisation go hand in hand; but this is not taking place. By definition, the liberalisation of large institutions should automatically diminish the ability of the government to control the masses politically and muzzle opposing ideas. Instead, a new class of businessmen has emerged, created and supported by the government. He describes this relationship as "a marriage based on the exchange of favours," and continues: "It was a natural attraction, but probably a fatal one." This, in his view, has left no space for small entrepreneurs. Worse still, he argues that ministerial decrees are issued to the benefit of particular businessmen and the government is in a Catch 22 situation. Is there no way out, then? The solution, answers Abdennour, is to create a capital market where you will not need to rely on the whims of the closed circle of investors to finance government projects.
"The private sector now is only a handful of investors. When the government wants to implement a plan it has to ask those investors, but if you have a capital market, you make a project, put it in the stock exchange and 48 hours later you have the money to finance it."
Abdennour believes that for such a market to develop, proper economic legislation should be promulgated. He thinks the recent economic crisis will be resolved and that Egypt will continue to attract foreign investment, which, he argues, is a sine qua non of economic growth. "Even if Egyptian investment and savings are raised to an acceptable level, that will still be insufficient to finance investment capable of creating enough jobs. We still need additional sources of savings and investment. To create a job in the industrial sector costs $20,000 to $30,000; in agriculture, it costs $10,000 to $15,000."
The greatest stumbling block is the World Trade Organisation agreement, commonly known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, as a result of which Egypt's foreign trade will be liberalised completely within the 20 coming years. That Egypt must and will be able to compete with the rest of the world is, to Abdennour, an article of faith. He believes Egypt can specialise in labour-intensive industries, such as agro-business and computer programming, but most importantly in cultural production. "We should formulate a policy on where we should go from here and what products and sectors we want to specialise in. This requires tremendous efforts."
It is this sense of mission that put him on the political track. He wanted to disprove the theory that the educated, wealthy members of society live in a world of their own, on the fringe of what Abdennour describes as "real society." His activity as a member of several NGOs brought him only to the realisation that "the real power in a country like Egypt remains in state channels. I found out that the time lag between the mooting of an idea and its implementation is huge. Instead of wasting time, why not be there, closer to the decision-making authorities?"
He first ran for office in 1995, but lost to a veteran NDP politician. This year, however, witnessed his determined return to the battlefield. Even on the days when things were not going well, Abdennour remained unswerving in the belief that he would win this time, although his rival did not hesitate to distribute leaflets couched in virulent sectarian language, urging voters to cast their votes for the Muslim candidate. Abdennour, acting out of a sense of national duty, went to the NDP and told them he was prepared to withdraw from the race because he could not imagine being the cause of sectarian strife.
By now, the media had taken up the case as a matter for national concern. It was -- in a way -- the battle for "a new Egypt" that Abdennour and his generation have fought to help create. Abdennour's rival lost because of a seeming consensus among voters and the press that defeating a bid based on prejudice was tantamount to saving Egypt's soul. "I was confident of victory because I knew I had Egypt standing behind me," says Abdennour with the boyish smile that makes him look at least a decade younger than he really is. Perhaps the other reason for his victory is his lifetime conviction of the imperative need for change. "You cannot imagine the change that has taken place in this country in the past five years. I always knew change was bound to happen; it was only a matter of when. I saw it happening during the elections. People are fed up with old faces, ideas and structures. I think that when they voted for me, they were voting for change. This is why I believe I was elected: I represented the alternative," he explains.
Top of his agenda for the Assembly, which is due to hold its first session on 17 December, are the issues he has made his personal crusade: a more open political process and possible ways of achieving social justice. "We cannot possibly begin 2001 guided by the logic that dominated in the 1960s," he insists. Political stability, he thinks, is a basic condition for economic growth. Abdennour is aware that his activities in the Assembly are not going to be a walk in the park. His mission is even harder because he was elected head of the Wafdist bloc in the Assembly, and therefore -- since the Wafd has seven seats, the most of all the opposition parties -- the leader of the opposition. He is well prepared for this role, having set up a think tank affiliated to the party of which the main function is to make available the studies, laws, statistics and decisions the bloc's members will need in discharging their function. This sense of perfectionism means that Abdennour spends his days, and now most of his nights, in his office in Abbasiya, researching his constituency's needs. "I have Iftar and Sohour here," he jokes.
This dedication may come at the expense of his own business and, more importantly, of his home life. Shahira Doss, Abdennour's wife, understands perfectly well, however. She supports him all the way. The little Abdennours -- Nada, who is currently studying political science and international law at Georgetown University in Washington, and Sherif, who holds a prestigious post at Goldman Sachs in London -- probably feel the same. "Sherif wants to quit his job and come back to Egypt. He keeps phoning to say that he cannot stay away any longer," Abdennour says with a laugh.
It is probably in the genes: Abdennour himself turned down several offers to leave the country, even during the worst times. "I always believed that improvement should be sought from within," he says. It is his sense of belonging that brings him to the fore as a nationalist, at a time when the "loan deputy" and other scandals have made the word businessman synonymous with personal enrichment at the country's expense.
The story of Mounir Fakhri Abdennour is the story of a generation that believed firmly in an Egypt remade by individual initiative, private enterprise and technology -- a generation, perhaps ironically, that is a product of the Nasser era. Growing up with a national movement on the rise, he felt the despair and frustration of 1967 intensely and personally, yet never lost faith. His is a generation that has struggled for a new Egypt. But his story is also that of a family, of a man and the dreams he had -- dreams fulfilled by his grandson almost a century later.
Letter from the Editor
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