Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
11 - 17 January 2001
Issue No.516
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Mostafa El-Feqi

Mostafa El-Feqi:

The survivor

An unconventional diplomat, he continues to make comebacks when you least expect it

Profile by Nevine Khalil

"Ask me whatever you like. I'll be as frank and direct as I can." A journalist's dream come true: you can ask Mostafa El-Feqi anything you want, but hang on to his every word, and expect some hairpin turns and twists. He is certain to impress his audience, whether fresh-faced university students, shrewd diplomats, wily officials or eager journalists.

If he trusts you, he will impart information at the drop of a hat, so long as you promise it won't appear in print. At all times, the journalist inside him and the career diplomat are at battle. He had to walk the straight and narrow for nearly three decades in the foreign service, watching his every utterance; but the internal struggle between the people's right to know and what is proper to discuss in public was always omnipresent. He wants to tell the story, but he carries the burden of past experience, which has left him out in the cold more than once.

Now, El-Feqi eagerly looks forward to his new career in domestic politics as a member of the new parliament, to which President Hosni Mubarak appointed him last month along with nine others. "I always felt the foreign service limited my movement. I couldn't express my views extensively. I tried to be cautious, put boundaries on what I was thinking and saying. It was very difficult."

By his own admission, though, he knows that he was allowed more freedom than most in the establishment, especially those who served in an incumbent president's office. He compares himself to Osama El-Baz, Mubarak's chief political aide, who over the years proved to be a shrewd adviser and well-spoken diplomat. "I know I enjoyed the largest margin given to most diplomats in my country," he says matter-of-factly. "The president was always kind to me, even when I served in his office, allowing me to go everywhere and give my views and ideas, which at times could contradict the official line."

El-Feqi's star soared between 1985 and 1992, when he served as the president's secretary of information and follow-up. He was in charge of gathering and disseminating information on the domestic and foreign scene. Although fate smiled on this survivor, giving him a high profile, successful post and a life of advantage, there were disappointments too.

The most painful setback he suffered was leaving his post at the presidency on short notice. "This was one of the toughest moments in my life. I don't clearly know the reasons why I left. I didn't deliberately do anything wrong, but there was a mistake and I had to pay the price." And the mistake? "It's a well-known story: a lady was asking me and other officials to help in some matters between herself and her father-in-law. I was not very cautious, was receptive to these calls as I am with any other person, but in a sensitive post like that I shouldn't do that. That's why I say such restrictive, high-security posts may not be suitable for me. I'm an outspoken public figure who likes to give his opinion everywhere."

But what went through his mind when he was exempted from his duties? He sighs in exasperation. "Everybody had his own version of the story, and I didn't know what to do. I went back to the Foreign Ministry and continued my work there. I'm not someone who basks in suffering long because I can change very dark moments into very positive ones. I can deliver when there are challenges."

Despite being "careless" in this one instance, El-Feqi was otherwise a dedicated aide, "committed to my job, president and country." These are the reasons why when he left the presidency he remained on good terms with his colleagues there.

And what did he learn about the president while working so closely with him? "He's very objective. I have never seen anyone like him. He may like someone 100 per cent, but he will end his service if he makes a mistake. He makes a clear distinction between the personal and professional. I was one of the closest people to him on the personal level, but when he was convinced that I made a mistake on the job, he did not hesitate to end my service at the presidency. He is a hard worker, very nationalistic in a practical way. Not a man of slogans, but one of action." El-Feqi also greatly "admires and respects" Mrs Mubarak, whom he describes as "a good scholar and a bright woman."

It's difficult to talk to El-Feqi without being side-tracked into a conversation about the prominent figures he knows personally and those who have influenced him. Take for example Boutros Boutros Ghali. El-Feqi had "a long discussion" with the then state minister for foreign affairs and later UN secretary-general about a possible career change in 1977. "He gave me sound advice, saying that I should remain at the ministry and meanwhile pursue an academic career," El-Feqi says of this conversation with the veteran politician, who heavily influenced his diplomatic career. "By the way, we're both Scorpios and share the same birthday, 14 November," he interjects with a smile.

In his younger years as a student of economics and political science at Cairo University, El-Feqi was strongly influenced by his political science professor, Hamed Rabi', whom he describes as "a great academic, one of the best in the world." Rabi' spent most of his life in monasteries in Europe doing research, spoke seven languages and earned many doctoral degrees. "He had the vision and ability to interpret the future through behavioural studies," says El-Feqi. Rabi' helped shape El-Feqi's solid academic base, but it was his political economy professor Rif'at El-Mahgoub who formed his professional personality. "El-Mahgoub was an elegant person, politician, writer and speaker," he recalls of the late parliament speaker who was assassinated by Islamist militants in 1990. "He exemplified dignity on the job."

He believes Amr Moussa is one of the brightest foreign ministers Egypt has ever had. "He's proud and dignified, and certainly not a compromiser." El-Baz, according to El-Feqi, is "modest and accepts facts as they are."

"My philosophy is different from both. Unlike Moussa, I can compromise; and while I can accept facts as they are, I try to express my clear views on everything, unlike El-Baz. I have of course paid the price for being the person I am."
photos: Khaled El-Fiqi

He's been in trouble in the past for an assortment of reasons -- "too expressive, not cautious enough, too open, misquoted in the press." Whether this propensity to make waves is part of his personality, or pure coincidence, El-Feqi goes where his character takes him and takes responsibility for his actions. "I don't believe in blaming others or bad luck. I'm very honest and objective with myself and take responsibility for my mistakes." But in true El-Feqi style, after the fall he picks himself up and looks for a brighter day, which is usually just around the corner.

He certainly has a talent of turning what may seem to be a dark moment into a victory of sorts. Thanks to hindsight, he can always see the brighter side of any picture: "Although leaving the presidency was one of the darkest moments of my life, in retrospect it proved to be a good opportunity because after that I had time to expand my cultural and intellectual skills. I even received the 1994 State Prize for my book Revival of Arab Nationalist Thought. If I was still at the presidency, I would have been the prisoner of bureaucracy still."

And quitting the foreign service? Unlike many, he doesn't see his appointment to the People's Assembly as a fall from grace; rather, he views it as an opportunity to champion the cause of the people. "I had reached the end of my bureaucratic career. I used the opportunity to quit my job and change gear."

El-Feqi promises to be more outspoken on Egypt's foreign policy, Arab policy and domestic politics. He's eager to address issues of national unity in Egypt. He certainly has the academic background for it. His PhD thesis, which he received from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1977, dealt with minorities in the Middle East, with special reference to Copts in Egypt. "Now I can speak on the subject freely." He pledges to work on cementing national unity further within Egypt, "an issue which is very dear to my heart."

And there are many other subjects he wants to talk about "freely." He will pitch many ideas, give you many leads, but it's up to you to pick up on the subtleties in his statements. You can attempt to second-guess him as much as you want, but he will not admit to anything specific. And it's not necessarily because he's being elusive; rather because, for the past 30 years, life, circumstances and opportunities have surprised him too often to make a safe bet on what happens next. "I believe that regardless of how many plans you make, there is another power guiding you down a certain path. Destiny and fate," he reflects.

Examples abound. "I didn't sit any exams to enter the foreign service, or contest the elections to enter parliament." El-Feqi launched his foreign service career at age 25, when he was appointed by a presidential decree issued by then President Gamal Abdel-Nasser to the Foreign Ministry. He became a member of parliament at age 56, also by presidential decree. "How can I not believe in fate?" he muses. "Of course I plan my future, but I rarely end up where I planned."

That's easy to believe when you realise that El-Feqi's lifelong dream was to become a journalist. In the mid-1960s, he was the editor-in-chief of the youth newspaper Al-Shabab Al-Arabi. He won the Egyptian Universities Cup for Best Public Speaker in 1965, first award for Best Political Article in 1966 and was Student Union president for two consecutive years. When he graduated in 1966, he joined the state's Youth Organisation as a member of the Central Committee and coordinator of cultural activities in Cairo.

"I was seriously contemplating a career in the press, but was appointed to the Foreign Ministry and that dream was put on hold for a long time." Now he writes a bimonthly column in Al-Ahram newspaper and the London-based Al-Hayat daily. Before his appointment to parliament, he was willing to accept a top post in an Arabic-language newspaper abroad.

Over the past 15 years, El-Feqi's relationship with the media has been quite dynamic. He's always a sought-after source because of his knowledge, experience and willingness to give statements. The media has always had much to say about him, and he has as much to say back. "If I had the choice again, I would choose journalism as a career. I would make a good journalist and writer although there are a lot of problems with the profession today. Some of the young journalists are not up to par professionally. It's a big problem because they will deliberately twist facts and misquote you at liberty."

Nonetheless, he continues to bare his soul to the media. "To be a successful public figure anywhere you must have access to the people. Since I can't stand in the middle of a square and shout my message, I take advantage of the media, and it's their duty to convey what I say accurately. It's imperative that I keep open channels with the media, but now I'm more cautious, talking only to reliable people, because I am often misquoted." Judging by his record, it's easy to believe that El-Feqi could shock you with an unexpected statement anytime, anywhere. It's nearly impossible to anticipate his next move.

Among his other trades, he taught political science on and off at the American University in Cairo between 1978 and 1993. While serving as Egyptian counselor in New Delhi between 1979 and 1983, El-Feqi doubled as a visiting lecturer on international politics and Middle Eastern studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Apparently he was not a tough grader, judging his students according to the attention and interest they showed. "I feel the intelligence gap between an excellent student and a lesser one is not that big. The issue is whether they're active and interested or not. Sometimes I failed students because they were not interested at all. There must be a distinction between those who made an effort and those who didn't."

Of all the professions he has dabbled in, the closest to his heart was teaching, and he may return once he becomes restless. "It's dynamic, giving you quick responses. You can affect young minds, and be influenced by fresh ideas. You can see the future by listening to their reading of current issues." Pay attention to what is being said and have a view, that's all he asks. But he also enjoys making waves, otherwise life would be boring. "I tried to impress on my students not to accept facts as they are, but to think about them from all angles. I'm against given facts, and I'm afraid in this part of the world we have a lot of given facts -- in history, in our daily life. We need to rethink and revise everything."

Much of El-Feqi's political identity was formed as a student in Nasser's pan-Arabist, socialist Egypt; he launched his career in Sadat's pro-West, open-door policy Egypt, and reaped many professional successes in Mubarak's era. So what are his political beliefs? "I believe in Egypt as a strong nation with an independent identity, but I am a pan-Arabist too. I believe this is a central country, at the heart of the Arab world. I was very cautious in speaking about this issue in the past because of sensitivities regarding Egypt's Arab identity."

El-Feqi is also a liberal who will listen to opposing views with an open mind. Despite the fact of having "classical religious roots," he is not a fanatic. "I am very interested in Islamic fiqh [jurisprudence] and Shari'a," he remarks, "an interest I inherited from my rural roots."

As a young boy, El-Feqi was a regular visitor to the local mosque in a village near Mahmoudiya in Al-Beheira governorate. He is a descendant of the prominent Moghazi Pasha family. In his childhood, he developed an array of cultural and intellectual pursuits. "I have colourful interests. I know something about many things, but now I concentrate my writings on Middle Eastern affairs, history, and the philosophy of history. I always kept my cultural and political activities parallel to my diplomatic career."

The man with many hats is a member of a large number of NGOs and development bodies. He is a member of the National Council for Women, chairman of the Austrian-Egyptian Friendship Association, vice-president of the Egyptian-Indian Friendship Association and member of the Supreme Council for Culture's political science committee. You will find him in the most prominent NGOs working in the field of international affairs, national, social and political development. As someone who for many years was a figure of the establishment, why does he take such an interest in civil society? "To enjoy their activities, support their principles, and be with the people."

In 1995, his membership of the board of the now defunct Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies was frozen because he had left the country. The centre's director, Saadeddin Ibrahim, currently stands accused of receiving money illegally from foreign donors to produce studies that allegedly tarnish Egypt's reputation and criticise the regime. El-Feqi describes Ibrahim as "a capable and bright sociologist who understands politics well, but always concentrates on what he wants to do, without understanding the social and political climate."

Finally, this diplomat, aide, author, lecturer, columnist and Egyptian representative to the Arab League is glad to don his parliamentarian hat and crusade for the people. "I've always preferred to live in Egypt because I'm interested in public life at home." More than half of his 30 years in the foreign service were in fact spent in Cairo. His posts abroad only include London (1971-1976), New Delhi (1979-1983) and Vienna (1995-1999). "Although I did my job well, serving abroad was not enjoyable for me. I always preferred being part of politics at home. That's why when the president offered me a chance to enter parliament, I agreed immediately."

Nonetheless, London has a special place in his heart. It was his first post as a young diplomat; his two daughters were born there; it's where he earned his doctorate and where he goes to recharge his batteries at least once a year. "I have a special weakness for London. For 30 years I have kept a flat in this cosmopolitan city, where you can do anything and everything; shopping, studying, medical treatment."

After sleeping an average of five hours, El-Feqi's daily routine begins at 7am when he makes some calls to "formulate the character of my day". If he is writing or dictating his column, that would be the first task out of the way. "I prefer to dictate because you can just close your eyes and say what you want. My concentration is focused on thinking only and not divided between thinking and writing." By noon he has finished most of his itinerary, which leaves his afternoons and evenings open for social and cultural functions. Throughout the day he will be talking to people, either on the phone or in person. He answers his cell phone without looking at the caller ID. "Maybe someone will tell me something interesting or useful, or they just want help. I'm always waiting to be surprised."

To relax properly, El-Feqi travels outside Cairo to his farm in Mansouriya or his Mediterranean beach house at Sidi Abdel-Rahman. "No one can reach me when I'm outside Cairo; I'm disconnected for one or two nights." But he cannot stay away longer than a weekend. "My wife prefers it when we leave, but I don't like to spend much time away from the hubbub of the city."

He met his wife, Nagwa Ali Metwalli, in 1966 at a summer camp sponsored by the Youth Organisation. They were married in 1970; she is a member of the Egyptian Red Cross and chairperson of the Egyptian Diplomats' Wives Association.

The El-Feqis are glad that their daughters' teenage years were spent in Egypt, and that they too developed a strong attachment to their home country. "They don't like to live abroad either," says El-Feqi proudly. "We were in Egypt until they both married."

While it is easy to be deceived by El-Feqi's easy-going manner, he is a planner; though fate has interfered many times in his life, he knows how to beckon new opportunities. "I was thinking of resigning before the last elections in order to contest a parliamentary seat, all my friends knew that. They advised me to wait. I did and eventually I was given a seat."

El-Feqi believes that he had reached "the ceiling" at the foreign ministry, with no prospects of further promotion. "I didn't want to wait until I reached retirement age (four years hence), and then find out that my official career was over. That would have killed me." By changing careers, El-Feqi can now avoid retiring and "my 60th birthday will be like any other," he adds with a smile.

As a member of parliament's foreign affairs committee, El-Feqi intends to "perform well, be dedicated, study the issues well and discuss them objectively." He has high hopes for himself and his peers, and is encouraged that the elections brought in new faces and younger blood. "I believe parliamentary dialogue is essential for the interest of the people, and that democracy is progressing in Egypt. The space for freedom is widening."

He embraces his new career with earnest enthusiasm, and hopes that life as a parliamentarian will be stimulating. "I get restless and bored quickly. I could easily go to sleep in my seat if I'm attending a session where nothing of interest is being said. I have to be careful about that in parliament," he chuckles.

In the end, it's difficult to form a comprehensive opinion of El-Feqi, because he's in a continuous state of development and change, surprising people with an opinion, a gesture or a career move. "Every 10 to 15 years I must start something new," he says.

What else will he reveal? That's off the record.

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