Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 July 2004
Issue No. 699
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hardware spot for CIT whiz

Who is Ahmed Nazif? Niveen Wahish and Yasmine El-Rashidi look into the record of Egypt's surprise prime minister

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Ahmed Nazif

In the weeks following the announcement of an impending cabinet reshuffle speculation was rife over who would head the new government. Ahmed Nazif's name was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Because the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) he headed was doing so well, the most that might have been said was that he would get to keep his job.

Perhaps the headline in Friday's Al- Ahram -- a day before the announcement was made -- should have provided a clue. "Egypt's new government will take it into the age of technology and information," the paper said.

That goal -- considering Nazif's background -- made him the ideal man for the job, despite the fact that at 52, he is the youngest prime minister the country has had in decades. His uniqueness also stems from the fact that despite almost 15 years in the so-called "government kitchen", he is not a "political figure". Neither does he have an "economic" background, as had many former prime ministers, including his predecessor, Atef Ebeid.

Then again, under Nazif's leadership, Egypt's communications and IT sector experienced a phenomenal 34 per cent growth rate in just five years. By upgrading the ministry and its affiliate bodies, while encouraging intense private sector involvement in the implementation of government goals, an unprecedented level of private sector investment in the blossoming field took place.

Among those who have worked with Nazif one described him as "a visionary with his feet on the ground". MCIT international relations director Ghada Howaidy said, "what sets him apart is that he satisfies the functions of a leader, but he has perspective, he's realistic, and he knows how to remain focussed to make things happen. And he's good at dealing with multiple stake holders."

Nazif graduated from Cairo University in 1973 with a degree in electrical engineering, and then completed his PhD at Canada's McGill University in 1983. After several years as a McGill professor, Nazif came back to Egypt to become the executive manager of the Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center, which provides ministers with essential economic data. Ten years later, he was charged with establishing the MCIT.

The ministry's success has been widely feted. That track record may have been the impetus for Mubarak's choice, one that was far removed from the traditional criteria used to select candidates for the prime minister's post. In fact, his appointment has also paved the way into the cabinet for a crew of younger, reform-minded technocrats who are now in a position to breathe life into the country's long-stagnant economy.

Ali Musilhi, head of the MCIT- affiliated Egyptian Post Organisation, has worked closely with Nazif in recent years. He highlighted Nazif's meticulous nature as one of the driving forces behind the ministry's success. "He believes in careful planning and setting specific targets. He then proceeds to lay down specific plans and initiatives to make the objectives happen. An important element towards the achievement of the objectives is follow-up."

That follow-up involved weekly meetings for the ministry's management team, where it was imperative that something concrete be delivered. Such an immense task, Musilhi pointed out, involves delegating authority and referring issues to the people concerned. "He is good at choosing his aides," he said.

Nazif, in fact, is reputed to have no qualms about drawing on those around him for their respective areas of expertise -- and he does so without the usual reservations regarding age and seniority that often end up sidelining the talent of the nations' younger generation of professionals.

"He's extremely good-natured and supportive to work with," Howaidy said. "And what sets him apart is that he doesn't micromanage. He chooses his team members well, and entrusts them with the tasks. That way things get done."

From the moment his appointment was announced, some of the nation's biggest names in business have commended Nazif's CIT sector, and expressed hope for future national change. "It's a very positive step for the country given the success of the CIT sector under his visionary leadership," said Orascom Telecom head Naguib Sawiris. "He reformed the sector and brought in foreign investors, partly as a result of his direct, business-oriented and strategic approach."

That approach helped transform what had been a paper-based bureaucratic system into a more efficiently automated organisation. It was a task that entailed much focus on human resources to facilitate the transition to a computer- based system. With Nazif heading the government, the hope is that a similar dynamic will flow through the other various ministries.

Nazif -- whose name in Arabic literally means "clean" -- also has a reputation for integrity, a highly coveted asset in a system ridden with talk of dirty money and scandal. Married with two sons over the age of 20, the young prime minister is also considered both cultured and sophisticated.

Yasser Radwan, East Africa and Eastern Europe regional manager of Equant, an international data communication company that recently set up shop in Egypt, said he was proud to introduce foreign executives of his company to the minister, describing Nazif as someone who comes across as both highly presentable and trustworthy. "This is what is wanted of a government official," he said.

Will his lack of political expertise, however, hinder his ability to manoeuvre within a complex political arena known to be rife with infighting? That remains to be seen. "He never aspired to public office," Howaidy said. "He is a nationalist, he wants to do good for the country, and he finds the way to do what he believes in. What he has done in terms of the liberalisation of the CIT sector reflects his politics. But whether it can be projected to the country as a whole remains to be seen. It's not entirely in his hands."

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