Dina Habib Powell: Egyptian in the White House
Politics and beyond
Regional havoc, which many blame on the Bush administration, makes it hard not to receive Dina Habib Powell without some resistance. A fact she understands, for this Egyptian-born 31-year-old who immigrated with her family to the US when she was four is assistant to President George W Bush and director of presidential personnel.
Powell is in Cairo for an official one-week visit, invited by Editor-in-Chief and Chairman of the Board of Al-Ahram Ibrahim Nafie. Her trip includes meetings with all of the expected dignitaries, and as well a roundtable and dinner with a select number of Al- Ahram journalists, writers and editors.
"Let me begin," she says, "by saying how happy I am to be here."
For a moment an aura of surprise is felt across the room. Eye-brows raise and smiles break out. Powell speaks in Arabic. Good Arabic at that.
"I come here in two capacities," she begins. "First as a proud representative of President Bush. And second, as a daughter of Egypt, returning to the place of my birth for the first time in 17 years. I come here as someone who hopes to serve as a bridge for understanding between the country of my birth and the country I now call home."
Powell, predictably, talks about her background, her roots, and the president, his approach to the upcoming elections and his staunch concern for relations with the Middle East.
"Let me say something: we do not wish to impose reform. It is not our place, and we don't want to do it. But we want to listen to the voices of the region and where it is appropriate, lend a helping hand. Let me quote something the president said recently," she says. "'Freedom', he said, 'is not America's gift to give to the world. It's God's gift to the humanity.'"
She pauses and looks up. The room is silent.
"But I know that sometimes with our conviction on these matters, we need to listen and stop talking at times, and we need to further understand the complexities of the region."
There is more silence, and the energy of the group indicates curiosity to hear more.
"I believe my story is a classic American one,” she says, “as everyone in the United States, but the native Americans, is either an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants, so I believe my story helps to explain why the Unites States is a country that is brimming with hope and idealism for at its core is the belief that every individual deserves an opportunity to reach their dreams. My story provides the perfect example."
Dina, who takes the name Powell through marriage, was born in Cairo in 1973, the daughter of Onsi Habib, a military officer, and Hoda Soliman, a graduate of the American University in Cairo.
"My family immigrated in the late 1970s," she explains of her background. "We moved to Dallas, Texas."
The gathering is engaged, curious at the very least about Powell's path to the White House. She is petite, delicate-looking, diminutive amidst the gathering of predominantly older Al-Ahram heavyweight personalities.
"School for my sister and me was quite an adventure," she says. "We spoke no English and wore clothes that were not quite in keeping with American fashion. And while our American schoolmates were always bringing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school, we brought mousakka (cooked aubergine) and waraa einab (stuffed vine leaves) in our lunch boxes."
The family continued to speak Arabic in the home, and the retaining of cultural traditions was key. "My parents never let us forget our roots," she says. "Which is something I've come to learn the value of; not only knowing who you are, but as well where you come from."
Powell moves on. She is perceptive to the group and knows politics is the agenda of choice.
"I got into politics during my time at university. Even before I graduated I was working full-time as a policy assistant for a prominent
Texas state senator, at which time President Bush was running for state senate," she explains. "Upon graduating, I moved to Washington DC to a position working for the majority leader of the House of Representatives, then Dick Armey. He was then one of the most senior members of the US Congress."
She moved up fast, serving as Armey's liaison to the over 200 members of the House. In 1999, she left Armey's entourage for a post as director of congressional affairs at the Republican National Committee -- the same time as Bush was running for president.
"I was able to participate in his campaign through my work in the Republican Party," she says. "So the day after the November 2000 elections I received a call from one of Bush's closest advisors asking me to join the transition team that would prepare for the handover of power."
The coming of a new president into office entails the appointment of 4,000 political appointees.
"We had a big job to do!"
She pauses, sidetracking to talk of America, opportunity, immigrants. It takes her a moment to return.
"My team in the White House is responsible for identifying, interviewing, vetting and recommending to the president candidates for the aforementioned political appointments, which are ambassadors, cabinet members and commissioners."
Of the 100,000 plus applicants each year, Powell and her team have to choose just a fraction.
"We look for certain things. Academic criteria, experience, management skills, proven success in previous career roles." And of course the likes of Powell are trained to distinguish between those who are seeking to "serve their country" and those who are looking to use the White House as a platform for themselves. Of those appointed under Powell's guidance are current Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission William Donaldson and Secretary of the Treasury John Snow.
"Yes, most of my time is spent on issues pertaining to the staffing of the administration, but I've also had the opportunity to spend some of my time working on issues related to the Middle East."
Powell attends the right events and says the right things.
"I'm coming home," she says, looking around the room, making eye contact. "At a critical time in our dialogue. Egypt is a leader in the region on many key issues. Egypt has shown the way to peace. And as an Egyptian-American I know you will also lead the region in history, in culture, in civil society. Thus there is great appreciation of Egypt's role as a special friend of the United States, and great expectations, too."
The energy of the gathering calls for momentum. They are looking for details about Bush and the White House. But Powell keeps them contained, sprinkling her talk with Arabic phrases and isms, sharing the odd anecdote about her time in the White House.
She speaks of peace, democracy and reform, and of course the pivotal role of Egypt in the region on all counts.
"Let me emphasise again before I hear your perspectives and concerns, that we seek to assist, not to insist. And I also wish to stress that we do not believe that there is a single democratic model that must be adopted. We see different types of democratic governments in the world, and we know that we did not have a perfect history. So I'm not here to preach but rather to participate in an ongoing dialogue. All these changes must take root in your culture and you know how best to do that. And that is why I'm here. To listen, to learn, and to take back these things to Washington."
There is some silence before a question is volunteered.
"Why are you Republican?" one person begins.
"I grew up in a household that was very Republican," she responds. "Very pro-Reagan. And it's interesting how much of an impression such things have on you, even as a young child. But I think when I started to work with Republicans I realised that I agree with the views of personal empowerment, of less government involvement, of having the ability to talk about things without the government necessarily being involved. And on the economic side I'm definitely a believer that people should spend more of their money and spend it the way they think so and invest it wisely. Which is being proven very well right now. After 9/11 you can imagine; the economy was heading anyway towards recession, 9/11 hugely affected the stock market, then the corporate scandals. No one thought the economy would sustain or recover. It's recovering very well, which I tell you is due to the economic policies of the president. I'm just a big believer that people, not government, should be able to make decisions for themselves."
The administration, naturally, is a topic of choice.
"There's a sense that things the Bush administration are preaching in the world are actually at home in the United States, such as religious fundamentalism and religious freedom."
Powell's eyes widen.
"I must say I'm really surprised by your question," she says. "And it makes me realise once again that we must redouble our efforts to explain the real motive and vision and desires of the American people and the president. After 9/ 11, I don't think it's been fully appreciated, the psyche change for the American people. In three hours, 3,000 people died. And I knew some of them. And most of my colleagues knew some of them. So this is a psyche that must at least be accounted for. But despite all that, on 13 September, the president visited a mosque, took off his shoes and paid his respects, and said 'this should not [make people] even begin to think about discrimination against people of Arab descent.'"
Shortly thereafter, racial profiling was made a federal crime.
"I see the president talk of Islam as a religion of peace, I see him host an iftar every year, I see him accept people for who they are and allowing them to have faith in what they choose, or none if they so choose. So I totally, respectfully, reject this notion of fundamentalism. I have never witnessed it."
And of course the upcoming elections are a big issue.
"The thing with Kerry is it depends on what day you ask him where he stands on an issue," she smiles. "He voted for the Patriot Act, but now he is against it. He is, essentially, a flip-flopper, which is a very scary thing, and that's why we're seeing right now the American people having more confidence in Bush. Even if they're not saying everything the president is doing is perfect, they certainly know where he stands."
And one cannot talk to a top US official, a senior advisor to President Bush, most notably, on issues of personnel, without bringing mention the position of Jews.
"We in the Arab world are very sensitive to the opposite story," one gentleman, a prominent columnist and editor-in-chief says, "sensitive to how much people of Jewish faith reach such important positions across the United States. But we seldom hear about Arab-Americans who have reached such positions in the US. Your position and presence tells us something that we do not know and that we should know more about. So what is the process, what is the system that goes into the appointment of people such as Paul Wolfowitz? Is there some motive to it? Why is it that so many of these high positions in the Unites States are occupied by Jewish Americans? And how come most of them end up in advisory positions on the Middle East."
Powell is quick to respond, reciting a list of almost a dozen Arab-Americans in senior personnel positions.
"Let me tell you that I will respectfully say that there are some serious flaws in your argument, and I'm the one who does it, so I know. There is one personnel director for the president for political appointments, and that is directly under my view. And I've never once in four years told the president the religion of any appointee. He pushes us hard on diversity, of gender, of region. But I do understand the sensitivity, and so I ask you to remember the context; yes I am American, but I'm also Egyptian. It doesn't mean there isn't a sensitivity, and it doesn't mean that I don't understand that sensitivity. But you're looking at an Egyptian-American who does it for the president."
The questioning continues, about employment, about the neo-cons, about racism, Iraq and the rise of Islamophobia across the United States. In each case, she answers with poise, with eloquence, and with a resoluteness in her administration and nation that one must admire if only for its ardour.
"If you want to succeed, if you want to move ahead, you have to believe in what you do, you have to do it with passion," she tells me later, when the gathering has gone and we sit one-on- one. "And you have to set dreams and pursue them. I had two parents that would tell me you can do anything you set your mind to if you work hard, and if you treat others well. I'm blessed in that way, and that's what I try to pass on to others, that's what I encourage when I meet with women around the world. And you have to go for what you believe in. Don't listen to what others say, don't listen to those who say you can't do it. The negative comments make you strive farther and work harder. Take them as a challenge."
Powell's tone has changed. Her body language is looser and she speaks with a spontaneity and spark.
"More and more I see young people succeeding very well. There is a terrific generation of women that want to be active. And when I come to Egypt, and when I go to Qatar or Jordan, I encourage not only the women, but also the men -- the fathers and brothers, to support their daughters, sisters and wives in pursuing their goals, to believe that the sky is really the limit. But there's also another thing," she says, taking a moment to pause. "When we do achieve success, we must take the time to look back, see who's coming behind me and how I can prepare them. That's our duty, that's something we must make an effort to do. We need role models, mentors, people who believe in you, give you responsibility but as well tell you what you need to improve on. I was blessed with my mother and grandmother, and later other women in my profession. Any woman, and person, who has achieved success of any kind must offer that wisdom of experience to those aspiring to take that similar path."
Powell leans forward. As she relaxes more, she speaks, like most Egyptians, with the use of her hands. Her temperament is indicative of her passion for what she shares.
"We also need to get out of the mindset of asking 'are you going to be an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer?' We should start talking to our youth about different kinds of opportunities, make them realise the whole world is before them. We need to look beyond the labels, the titles, the traditional expectations and roles -- for both men and women of course."
She thinks for a moment and sidetracks.
"You know, along the way people commented on my age, and at times told me that maybe it was too early to apply for a certain job, that it wasn't advisable. And it was at those times that I learnt not to listen to my doubts, and not to listen to others. I learnt that I must try and learn in the process to accept the outcome, whatever it may be. You need to learn to strive for the things that you really believe in and what you want."
Powell pauses, smiles. She tilts her head sideways and softens her tone.
"You know," she says, slightly contemplatively for the first time in the conversation. "With all that's going on in the world, we need to look beyond all the labels society has created, beyond what religion, race or political party people represent. We need to start looking at people, appreciating people, for the human beings they are."