Mamdouh Hamza: Building a future
To excel you must take on the system
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Anti-clockwise from top: Hamza with Mrs Suzanne Mubarak and Queen Sophia of Spain; his children Mai, 17, and Mohamed, 21; Hamza, nine years old, to the left of his mother, with his brothers Tarek and Maher and sister Mervat; in 1981 during his engagement; before the opening of the Bibliotheca; Hamza and his wife with Nadia Makram Ebeid, former minister of environment
Abu Simbel. There could be no more apt location to begin the long day it will take to gather the bits and pieces of interview needed to write Dr Mamdouh Hamza's profile than next to this imposing stone structure that stands as testimony to the skills of Ancient Egyptian architects and builders. The guide was detailing the gruelling international effort (1963-1968) to dismantle the temple and re-assemble it on higher ground at the time of the construction of the Aswan High Dam. "That was around the time Hamza was still studying," noted one of the engineers with us on the tour. "If he had graduated by then there is no way the Abu Simbel contract would have passed him by."
This was a few months ago. As we marched from Abu Simbel to the lifting station of Toshka built by Hamza Associates, and then lunched with the governor of Aswan, it would have been inconceivable to have even imagined that this profile would be written as its subject languished in Belmarsh Prison in London. Earlier this week, Hamza was released without bail, pending trial on charges of four counts of soliciting to murder. The trial will open on 1 September.
That day in October began at 4am at Cairo Airport and Hamza was in perpetual motion till well past midnight. The guide's explanations were slow -- he soon took over the job of explaining the history behind the monuments built by Ramses II. Then he was scrambling all over the Toshka pumping station, explaining intricate construction techniques to the group of engineers from around the world who, beside the odd journalist, made up our group. Then it was off to Aswan and tours of the High Dam and the Botanical Gardens. I tried to keep up, pen and notebook in hand. Finally, balancing ourselves on the upper deck of a boat he got round to telling me about his family.
"My father was a merchant in Al-Azhar who also owned a small textile factory in Rod Al-Farag. He was a man of principle. When the government imposed a quota on yarn he refused to resort to the black market to buy the necessary raw materials to keep the Rod Al-Farag business going. He sold out."
And there was his mother.
"She was as tough as 20 men. When she was 19 her younger brother was refused entry into the Police Academy. He stayed at home depressed so she took the train from Tanta to Cairo and headed directly to the minister of interior's office (Ahmed Maher Pasha). He received her and she told him: I am Soad, my brother is Saad and the government is Saadist. As a result he picked up the phone and had her brother accepted in the Police Academy," he recounts with a chuckle.
This talk of stubborn and audacious parents reminds me of our first meeting when the Bibliotheca Alexandrina -- for which he was the engineering consultant -- was nearing completion. At the time he recalled how the architectural design chosen for the library through an international competition had triggered "a great debate among Egyptian engineers who rejected the winning design as impractical". The Library was to be situated 20 metres from the sea and to sit 18 metres deep in waterlogged soil, all of which weighed against the possibility of ever executing the winning architectural design by Snohetta, the Norwegian architectural firm.
Hamza's experience in soft-clay foundations -- a technique he had pioneered in the construction of the Damietta electrical plant -- made him the consultant of choice to make the dream of the sun-disc library come true.
In 2002 the completed structure was voted "an exciting modern landmark with a unique foundation and innovative structural form" by the Swiss-based International Association of Bridge and Structure Engineering (IABSE), the leading international association for civil engineers. Hamza received the Outstanding Structure Award for 2003, the plaque of which is currently displayed at the entrance of the Bibliotheca.
Hamza's work in designing and supervising the construction of the library not only reflects his professional skills as an engineer but his politics as well.
"There is," he has often noted, "no good in a building if it is an imported structure." True to his word Hamza made the Bibliotheca an Egyptian monument.
"What people don't realise is that while the architectural design is foreign, 76 per cent of the total design is Egyptian," explains Hamza, who is proud to point out that no concessions were made on quality. Typical of his approach was the testing 120 bricklayers, of whom six were finally chosen. And in many fields he argued that where Egypt lacked expertise it would be necessary to develop it.
He insisted on a local contractor for the wood partitions and was the dynamo behind the creation of an industrial quarry in Aswan to provide granite for the façade. Not only does Hamza estimate that 15 per cent of the building costs were saved by using Egyptian labour, he describes "those who worked on the building of the library -- some 3,000 Egyptian artisans, craftsmen, engineers and other specialists" -- as "graduates of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Just as the Aswan High Dam produced a generation of engineers and architects, so has this project."
The construction of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina might serve as a paradigm of Hamza's approach to all the work he has accepted, including the Mubarak Pumping Station, the main lifting station in Toshka, the North Al-Sukhna Port, Cairo South Power Plant and the Children's Oncology Hospital, all projects undertaken by Hamza Associates, the company he set up after he was summoned back from England by his mother -- "she heard I may marry a foreigner and she said to me haram, you must come back" -- after having completed his PhD in soil mechanics and foundation engineering at Imperial College.
"At first [upon returning to Egypt] I felt I had no place. Many people start out working in a big practice and then break out on their own. But I felt that would be dishonest and so decided to start on my own."
That was in 1979. Today Hamza Associates is one of Egypt's leading multi-disciplinary engineering firms. It has supervised 460 projects, worth $7.5 billion, and is currently overseeing the construction of bridges, factories, roads and ports in Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Yemen.
Given that the company has built its reputation on the provision of quality services it is easy to understand Hamza' frustration at the lack of concern for detail, let alone excellence, that characterises much of the construction industry. He points to a marble façade at the airport -- "imported even though this is the land of granite" he scoffs. He comments on a new tunnel and bridge, complaining about the outdated technologies used in the construction.
"I have always wanted to excel in my field," he explains. "I never took on the mundane. For example, I never built an apartment building. Instead I have always taken on projects that are complex, large and prestigious."
Hamza Associates' portfolio serves to underline his success at such projects while the coverage his work has received, the publication of research and Hamza's presence in international engineering competitions, reflects the extent of his reputation abroad.
There is an irony in the fact that as Hamza's accomplishments propelled him to international fame, expressed in an increasingly expanding Middle Eastern and African market for his work, at home he continued to be marginalised. The local projects for which Hamza is best known were all commissioned to his company through a foreign body. The open secret is that the current minister of housing, Mohamed Ibrahim Soliman, has a deep-rooted dislike of Hamza. Ibrahim has been accused in the local press of having on the one hand deprived Hamza of a fair chance at contracts and on the other of having directed a great many of the ministry's contracts towards a company owned by his brother-in-law.
But Hamza always knew that the road to success would involve taking on the system.
"Why is it that even the most obvious issues are left without proper solutions?" asked an exasperated Hamza one day from behind his desk-littered papers and files. He suddenly jumps out of his chair and yells at his secretary to bring in two carrier bags.
"We have an amazing history and yet it is the British Museum that makes the effort of manufacturing souvenirs," he says, dumping the contents of the bags on the floor of his office. There are Pharaonic motif dish towels, small statuettes, candles and others such items. "Why can't we do this?" he asks.
Such palpable exasperation is the key to understanding the manner in which he has positioned himself as an entrepreneur with a public role.
He has penned regular columns in the local press dealing with reform and development. In one such column, published in Al-Ahram Weekly last year, he wrote that "the worst sign of decay is that the country has lost its regional standing and reputation for excellence." The remedy he proposed was "swift and unconventional action"
"Outside help," he wrote, "is no longer useful. Neither assistance nor additional loans will help, not even the much- hyped European partnership. Reliance on incompetent insiders and cronies is out of the question. The only way ahead is to trust the judgment of our own capable citizens."
Not that his concerns are limited to the local. Post 9/11, and in response to the anti-Arab/Muslim campaign in the US, Hamza commissioned Hate in Arab/American Relations, a collection of essays illustrating Arab views on the matter.
"Someone must answer back," explained Hamza. "It is as simple as that."
And there are the more whimsical projects. During the day spent in Toshka, Hamza was musing on how to transport produce from the area. "How about zeppelins?" he suggested. "A fleet of zeppelins is cheap, environmentally friendly and efficient. That way we could get the produce to whatever outlet with minimum fuss."
Along the way Hamza has found time for a family, obviously very dear to him.
"Want to hear a romantic story?" he asks as we bump across the desert. "I met Omayma [Hatem, his wife] by chance. I was walking into the Swissair Office downtown and she was walking out. I told my companion 'isn't that an amazing and beautiful woman?' and went after her. It turned out she was a friend of a friend and it has been a love affair ever since."
And what is next? The last time we talked Hamza was revving to go, itching for more challenges. Not that he does not consider the possibility of slowing things down. "When I am 60 -- no 70 -- I will buy a yacht. When I start to slow down. Maybe later."