Taher Helmi: Feats of circumstance
You are your circumstances -- what you make of them, anyway
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Helmi accompanied the first ever visit of an Egyptian defence minister to the US; with President Clinton on one of AmCham's Door Knock missions some years ago
As I entered Taher Helmi's office, on the 18th floor of the World Trade Centre, the 55-year-old man was behind his desk, jotting notes on a pad in front of him . It's a medium-sized room overlooking the Corniche, one wall of which is a floor-to-ceiling window affording a stunning view of Cairo, all the way to the Pyramids. His desk, overflowing with documents, occupies one side of the room; a dark red couch on the opposite side is similarly covered with paper, so are stretches of the floor and the entire surface of the table behind him.
"I've just cleared the desk -- one load gone," he explains. "And this is only what has come so far." It's 11am. Helmi, as he now informs me, has just composed an e-mail to Richard Gere, peace activist as well as actor, inviting him to a fund raiser for Palestinian children held by the Suzanne Mubarak International Peace Movement, of which organisation he is the secretary.
A lawyer by profession -- in fact the managing partner of the Cairo office of Baker and McKenzie, the international law firm -- this is one of many sidelines he pursues as a part of his highly- charged schedule. Since 2003 he has been, for example, president of Cairo's American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham), which has just finished its annual door-knock mission to the US. This year, the mission, for the first time, included officials such as the minister of trade and industry: a departure from the long-standing tradition which has -- for almost 20 years -- made the mission limited solely to businessmen.
Helmi had been preparing for the trip to the US for this year's AmCham Door Knock Mission, the 23rd and, with 40 chamber members not counting staff and press, the largest ever in the history of the office. Since assuming the position of president, Helmi has recruited women and the young, whose participation is "a learning experience", he says, "to be around Congress, in the White House, in the State Department, the centre of world power". And the larger the mission, the more people "to deliver our message" to -- civil society representatives as well as officials: "We talk to them about recent developments in Egypt, economic and political. Our objective is to promote trade and investment in Egypt, and the transfer of technology to it from the US, to clarify misperceptions and answer queries. It's a lot of hard work that keeps us on our feet the whole day, but by the end of a trip we've had over 100 successful meetings."
Preparation is no easier, by the look of it. Briefing starts in Cairo, where delegates are strictly advised not to promote their own businesses. On arrival they embark on meetings with consultants, who make sure they have the right appointments. "Consultants provide the mission with the insider's story," Helmi explains, "what are the issues on the minds of the people we're meeting".
Such painstaking planning is important for the credibility of the mission, he elaborates: "We've developed a reputation with Congress and the administration. And we want to maintain our credibility -- to deliver a clear and powerful message from Egypt." And the theme of the trip being "Egypt: moving forward", that message is of immense significance this year: "We're saying that Egypt is now open for business, that it's on the move." (Backed by both Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif's cabinet reforms and President Mubarak's decision to hold multi-candidate presidential elections, since this conversation, as Helmi expected, that message, delivered in the period 7-11 March, has proven very strong indeed.)
"The president's announcement has come to us as a gift," he said then. "Before the visit had even started, we had received information from our consultants that we're going to be 'bombarded with the issue'. It was, after all, a historic announcement; an asset for us on the trip which allows us to concentrate on promoting Egypt as an FDI magnet attracting technology, and to endorse opening the US market up to Egyptian products. If not for the announcement, we would have been drawn into irrelevant, more politically centred discussions. Now it will still be the focus, but in a positive way -- a help in effectively conveying our economic and trade message.").
One positive outcome of the door-knock mission has been the announcement of the formation of committees to look into the initiation of free trade negotiations between Egypt and the US. The FTA has been a long-standing demand by the Egyptian government, in order to grant Egyptian products a competitive advantage in the American market.
Helmi sees the encouraging of US investment and the transfer of technology as going hand in hand with the promotion of tourism. "Even when we've had eight million tourists," Helmi says, "there were never more than 250,000 Americans among them." He sees it as part of AmCham's job to eliminate the impression of which such numbers are a function -- that Egypt is a dangerous country to spend time in. And this is why he tries to expand the geographic scope of the mission -- visiting other US cities besides Washington DC: "When we speak to the local government, media and press, a lot more people get to see what Egyptians are all about."
Since 2003, indeed, two missions have been undertaken every year: the main one in the spring, a small one in the autumn. Some 1,100 companies have membership in AmCham, Helmi explains, and 90 per cent of them are Egyptian: "This is how we believe we can help our country." Helmi believes that the growth of a strong, well- connected business sector is integral to national development; and one of the more pressing aspects of the process, Helmi says, is the establishment of the Egypt-US free-trade area (FTA) -- the proposition that became more viable following the last change of cabinet.
"It goes a long way back," Helmi explains, "this issue. Egypt was once on top of the list of countries lined up for an FTA with the US, but there was some reluctance because it was felt that Egypt was not moving ahead with reform as fast or as radically as such an endeavour, and any private- sector endeavour, really required."
The new government's fresh approach to economic reform has since been recognised by the US trade representative Robert Zoellick, and confirmed further by signing a protocol to establish qualified industrial zones in Egypt. Three weeks ago, indeed, Egyptian and US officials met for the first time in over two years for Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks. Negotiations had been in a state of stagnation for that whole period and, though he claims "we are not ready to announce it yet", Helmi is certain negotiations will progress in the next few months.
Reluctance had resulted in part from the Americans not wanting negotiations to last for more than a year or two -- something that would have been impossible without genuine commitment to full-fledged reform: "Now the president's announcement has provided a clear signal that Egypt is willing and able to take the toughest decisions." Helmi's wholehearted enthusiasm derives from a profound understanding of the circumstances informing the situation, and as the conversation proceeds it transpires that such is his approach to every aspect of life. His experience, he insists, has always been shaped by circumstances.
Take, for example, the story of his becoming a lawyer. By the time he graduated from secondary school the 1967 war had started and all the universities were closed, so his parents decided to send him to an uncle in St Louise (against his will, since he was eager to join the air force to fight for his country), with the result that he ended up doing premed for four years. He ultimately decided to study law however.
Nor did he decide he was not interested in medicine until his final year. (He took the admissions exam, he remembers, during his first year of study rather than prior to starting -- an exception made to accommodate outstanding students.) It was a dramatic change, of course -- for one thing, the legal profession at that time was not very prestigious in Egypt, compared to its former heyday of the 1930s and 1940s. In the US, however, it remained comparable to medicine -- but his interest proved sustained, and he graduated with a doctorate of jurisprudence, from St Louise University, in 1974.
Once again, things did not go according to plan. Knowing that foreign nationals were not allowed to take the bar exam, Helmi had intended to return home, where he wanted to practise, after a year of training (at Cahill, Gordon and Reindel, a Wall Street firm, as it happened), but the 1973 war had changed everything; the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, was fast becoming a business magnet; and wanting a lawyer of Arab background, Baker and McKenzie offered him a post, with the result that he ended up moving to Chicago, where his career commenced, in 1975.
Helmi did not come back to Egypt until 1987, in fact. In 1975 the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to prohibit foreign nationals from the bar exam; and passing it, he was admitted into that same court, continued to work for Baker and McKenzie and was elected partner in 1981. He had also opened a practice in Saudi Arabia, but it closed down after four years due to changes in the Saudi law on foreigners in the legal profession.
This long stint abroad has had a negative effect on his Arabic, Helmi concedes, but "you can't have everything". And in fact, with fair skin and blue eyes, because of a Turkish strain in his family, the man has never looked typically Egyptian; the American accent adds to the confusion, of course, giving rise to the misconception that he has US citizenship. He does not. He would never even consider it, he says, if only out of respect for his father's background. Samir Helmi was a revolutionary, a colonel in the Egyptian army's engineering corps who joined the Free Officers, worked closely with Nasser and became minister of industry.
Samir Helmi later took the place of Hussein El-Shafie as head of the Central Auditing Agency (CAA), only to die along with President Sadat on the latter's assassination. It was Samir Helmi who insisted that Taher should come back and serve his military draft even despite the fact that he was working for Baker and McKenzie: "I had to be like everybody else."
The experience proved worthwhile in itself. Helmi's skill in the law and proficiency in English were put to good use as he accompanied the first ever visit of an Egyptian defence minister (more precisely deputy prime minister and minister of war) to the US; he was the official spokesman for the Egyptian army, but at the same time continued performing his duties as a private. "During the day I would attend functions in the White House," he recalls, "but in the evening I slept with the other soldiers. I was also the one responsible for clearing luggage at Andrews Air Force Base."
Since his return home, in fact, his life has seldom been less fascinating. He took part in the founding of some of Egypt's most important institutions: the International Economic Forum, the British-Egyptian Businessmen's Association, the Future Generation Foundation. In addition he is a member of the Policies and Economic committees of the National Democratic Party; he has been chairing the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies, a high-profile institution which was founded by Gamal Mubarak, businessman Ibrahim Kamel, and Taher Helmi who has headed the centre since 1996. By the end of this year, he says, he will have stepped down to attend to other duties: "I feel the centre is well established as one of the leading think tanks in the country. An endowment has been allocated to it, besides, to ensure sustainability."
Now he offers me something to drink; lemonade is what he recommends: "People come here for the lemonade, not for legal advice." At this point his blazer, which he later puts on for the photographs, is slung across the back of a chair; and as he smiles he seemed particularly informal for someone in the global legal profession. Photogenic, as it turns out, Helmi is surprisingly camera shy -- "I hate it," he says of having his picture taken -- so much so that he fails to concentrate on answering my questions so long as there is a photographer in the room.
To say that Helmi has a tight schedule would be a huge understatement. Suffice it to say that to the practice out of which most of his current entanglements emerged, he can no longer dedicate more than 20 per cent of his time. He flits from one meeting or event to another all through the day, ending up with precious little time for himself or his family, and sleeping no more than five hours a night. He takes only the shortest vacations. The last time he went away for pleasure his daughter Lara -- now a chemical engineering student in her junior year in Chicago -- was 15.