Back from the future
The new holds no shocks, only fascination
It takes only moments of casual conversation before Abdel-Rahman Tawfiq is talking data bases, research engines and administrative shortcomings. Time is money, he says, and wasting time is a crime. And he is very clear about the punishment meted out to such wastrels. It is backwardness.
"My job is to undermine secrecy," he says, "to shine a light where knowledge is needed."
Modern governments generate mountains of paperwork, but they are mountains that have to move. All that paper has to be kept in motion. How efficiently governments manage to do this decides their future, as well as that of the people they govern.
How do we get information and services to citizens? How can we digitalise the government? Does an electronic mail system cover the whole of government activity? Does it facilitate communication both within and between agencies? Are we using digital communication to effectively deploy information and services, making them more readily accessible to the public? Is the government sponsoring the type of technological endeavours that will help modernise the country?
These are the type of questions Tawfiq takes home with him every day.
Since childhood Tawfiq has been fascinated with the new. Once sent out to buy a razor for his older brother he decided, on his way back from the shop, to unwrap the package and examine its contents. So engrossed did he become in contemplating the device that he tripped on the pavement. As he fell the razor cut a tendon in his right hand. He was five, since then he has written with his left hand. The injury was sufficiently serious for him to be excused from military service following his graduation in 1966.
Tawfiq remains close to his family. "My oldest brother was the true head of the family, a model of the confident civil servant, moving slowly but surely in his career. My next oldest brother combines artistic creativity with perseverance while the third is a well known Egyptologist, a former head of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority. My only sister has a very strong sense of responsibility while the brother who is just older than me is incredibly stable and level-headed."
Yet for all his admiration of family Tawfiq did not seek to emulate any of his siblings.
He grew up in a lively Cairo neighbourhood with the kind of social mix -- the affluent and the destitute, dervishes and intellectuals -- that is now almost extinct. He attended schools in Al-Sayeda Zeinab and Lazoughli, and retains vivid memories of the Khedive Ismail High School, which he joined in 1959.
"The headmaster, Ali Saleh, would chase any one late for class with a stick, and that included the teachers."
He was obviously a stickler for punctuality. In 1961 he waived Tawfiq's tuition fees because the boy had not taken a single day absent. The fees, at the time, were LE10.75.
Tawfiq did not shine particularly brightly in the classroom. His notions of success were not restricted to academic excellence. He always, he recalls, sat at the back of the classroom. But he was an avid reader of biographies. He recalls his weekend routine at the time. Thursdays were spent with friends. Fridays were for reading Mohamed Hassanein Heikal's "Frankly" column and playing football. And Saturdays were spent with books -- novels, science reviews and biographies.
Tawfiq admires the attention Western publishers give to biographies. Perhaps we need to do the same, he says.
"Many people know very little of the stories of businessmen, people like Ahmed Kanu, Saleh El-Rajihi, Talaat Harb, Othman Ahmed Othman, Sobhi Betirgi and others. Yet their stories are well-worth telling."
Tawfiq himself is currently writing a book about a number of prominent Egyptian figures and has already interviewed several people for the volume, among them Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Izzat Hussein, Adel Labib, Hassan Mohamed Hassan and Sobhi Betirgi.
In 1962 Tawfiq joined the Faculty of Commerce at Cairo University. He was unsure as to which subject he should major in. His own preference was for business administration, but his family pushed him towards accounting. And so he studied accounting for a while until his natural impulses prevailed and he returned to business administration. The episode, he says, furnished a useful lesson.
"You cannot go through life trying to please. You have to answer the calling within you. No one excels in a career he dislikes."
The turning point in Tawfiq's career followed his graduation. The Public Administration Institute had vacancies for assistant teachers and Tawfiq applied for a job, along with 3,000 other candidates. He went for an interview with Layla Takla, who was one of his professors in college.
"Do you know that you will be reading and researching for the rest of your life? Do you know you will be paid LE16.70 a month?" she asked. He answered in the affirmative and got the job, along with 30 other applicants.
Tawfiq's first assignment was to catalogue the library's collection of books. Initially he was far from enthusiastic about the task but soon learned that it made him very popular with other members of staff. His colleagues had only to turn to him whenever they needed to enquire about library references. He was only 22, and the attention was gratifying.
In 1969 Tawfiq won a US-sponsored fellowship to study at the American University in Cairo (AUC). The AUC courses, he says, helped him enormously with the post-graduate studies he was doing simultaneously at Cairo University.
Looking back, Tawfiq notes the remarkable improvement in information technology since 1972, the year he graduated from AUC.
"The time students spend on research is much less now. The Internet saves so much time. Translations are done faster. Machines are getting closer to man. They talk, move, sense, smell, grow and learn."
Conventional schools and sprawling campuses may one day disappear, he says. And, he predicts, agencies that grant diplomas will become separated from those that do the teaching.
"Some people look at the great Pyramids and think what a waste of time. They are wrong. The three Pyramids and the Sphinx were an exercise in management. The engineer who supervised the building of the Pyramids was a master of management science. Just think how 200,000 workers had to focus on a common objective. Think about the logistics, how lentils and fuul (fava) beans were prepared, on a daily basis, to be served hot to an army of workers. The Pyramids survived for centuries with no external or internal maintenance."
Management, Tawfiq enthuses, clearly getting into his stride, is the maker and locomotive of civilisation. It is the common denominator of all human activity, as important in a village household as in the headquarters of NASA. And management techniques, he insists, were born on the banks of the Nile.
Western management styles impressed Tawfiq, as did the AUC library. The latter was full of books with no typing errors. Research documents and book sizes were standardised.
"Why do we have errors in street signs to this day?" he asks.
By 1972 Tawfiq had completed his masters in public administration at AUC and been appointed as a teaching assistant at the National Institute for Administrative Development (NIAD). His boss was Abdel-Salam Badawi, who later became minister for cabinet affairs. Badawi asked Tawfiq and his colleagues never to clock in on their way in and out of the building. "You're researchers, not employees, and creativity has no boundaries of time," Badawi told them.
When Yehya El-Gamal became state minister of cabinet affairs Tawfiq worked for him as technical adviser to the Ministerial Committee on Administrative Development (MCAD).
"From El-Gamal I learned humility, integrity, self-respect, cohesive presentation, simplicity, and spontaneity," Tawfiq says. Yet there was still something in the way the department conducted its business of which Tawfiq couldn't approve. El-Gamal once asked him to prepare a study on the French national management school as background for a proposal to create something similar in Egypt. Tawfiq was proud of the work he put into the project. But when the day came for him to present his report to the MCAD, the minister instructed him to remove his name as author of the report. Public work, he said, is best conducted by anonymous soldiers. To this day, Tawfiq disagrees. "If we know the soldier, why pretend he's anonymous?"
Tawfiq learned much about bureaucracy during his work with the cabinet. He learned how the chain of authority functions, how ceremonies are conducted, and the enormous influence of office managers. Everything, from the allocation of a direct telephone line and the manner in which each room is furnished, to the number of times a junior official is allowed to see a senior official, is in the hands of the office manager. This was the period in which the government was busy enforcing the "from where did you get it?" income law. Red tape was cumbersome and the government had extensive regulations covering everything: work permits, yellow papers, follow-up procedures, income monitoring.
"All these regulations meant the state was monitoring the freedom, movement, and creativity of its citizens."
Following his stint with the cabinet Tawfiq was briefly director of the Labour Studies Institute, which later became the Labour University, during which period he wrote his first book, Business Administration: Humanitarian, organisational, and environmental aspects. That was in the mid-seventies, a time when the job market was beginning to offer lucrative opportunities both at home and across the region. Tawfiq found a job with the Public Administration Institute in Riyadh and was about to leave the country when Nabil Shaath (now Palestinian foreign minister) dissuaded him, telling him he should finish his doctoral work first.
In 1986 Tawfiq finally put together enough resources to achieve his life's dream. He created the Professional Expertise Management Centre, a powerhouse for administrative training. Before Tawfiq created the centre training standards were lax. Trainers had no professional organisation of their own, or even a magazine in which to discuss issues. There were few resources, no website or annual conference. Now they have all of these things, thanks to Tawfiq and his centre.
Tawfiq has already issued a directory listing the names of people, institutes and companies working in training. Once an avid reader, he is now an equally avid publisher. His latest publication is a Directory for Training and Human Development.
Data bases, he says, are the locomotive of modernity. Once researched, classified, and publicised, he argues, things that once appear scarce suddenly seem to be present in abundance.
"The absence of a map, of a compass, has been and still is the reason why we have so many problems with our administration. I am looking into administrative shortcomings. Why do we need administrative development? What is our goal? And how do we reach it?"
Tawfiq is at home in a fast-changing world, as comfortable with as he is with people. And his publications have been described by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, whose columns the young Tawfiq once pored over, as a laser beam homing in on their targets.
By Samir Sobhi