Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Alexandria through British eyes

Caroline Alcock, the British consul general in Alexandria, talks about the economic, social and cultural aspects of the city to Ameera Fouad

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Since she took up her post in Alexandria in August 2013, Consul General Caroline Alcock has been seen everywhere, meeting people from all walks of life.

She is widely recognised as one of the most experienced Western female diplomats in the Middle East. She joined the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1993 and worked in the Middle East Department in London, covering the Gulf States and Iraq, before being posted to Bahrain in 1996.

From Bahrain she moved to Egypt, where she held a number of positions within the UK Embassy. From Cairo she then moved to Alexandria where she became the UK consul general. Some 18 months into her posting in the Mediterranean city, Alcock spoke about her experience in an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

 

You and UK Ambassador to Egypt John Casson recently met more than 30 civil society and youth activists in Alexandria. What did you discuss?

Since I started in my job in August 2013, we have been trying to reach out to civil society organisations and people because they are so important for Egypt. It is very important for us to know them, to understand them and see if we can help them.

Therefore, the purpose of the gathering was to meet people from different walks of life in Alexandria. It was extremely important to introduce the ambassador to them because he does many similar activities in Cairo but, of course, Alexandria is different from Cairo.

 

How is Alexandria different from Cairo? Is it simply because it is smaller?

I do not think it is different just because it is smaller. People in Alexandria also have a different spirit. I lived in Cairo for 15 years, and I find people in Alexandria to be very focused in terms of knowledge and learning and very outward looking and cultured. They consider themselves to be Mediterranean or European. However, I believe that opportunities for people in Alexandria are unfortunately less extensive when compared to Cairo.

Education in Alexandria is strong. There are strong, high-ranking universities such as Alexandria University and many good schools. Thus, I don’t think that opportunities are fewer because of poor education. And I don’t necessarily think that the level of unemployment in Alexandria is higher than in Cairo.

What I mean is the wider civil society-networking field, where opportunities can emerge. Only a few international organisations are present in Alexandria, and people tend not to come to Alexandria in the way they do for example to Cairo, Sharm El-Sheikh or Luxor. There are fewer organisations in Alexandria, which is a shame because people are very open and have contributions to make.

 

Ambassador Casson last week listed 12 reasons to like Alexandria on his Twitter account. What are your reasons?

There are some things the ambassador mentioned I would definitely agree with. Alexandria has a special place in his heart because it’s the place where he first learnt Arabic at the university. For me, it is quite different as I first came to the city as a student, when I fell in love with the whole country.

But Alexandria was the city I wanted to come back to and become UK consul general in. For me, it has been a dream come true, and the city has not disappointed me at all. It has fulfilled all my expectations. It is even better than I expected. People are so friendly, so cultured and so open to new ideas. They like to meet people who are sophisticated like themselves.

The other thing I really like about Alexandria is that it has a fantastic past you cannot get away from. Everybody has heard a story from their grandparents telling them about Alexander the Great, Anthony and Cleopatra, and so on. Up until the last century people had a really strong historical sense of the city, which gave it a real advantage. I do believe the city has to take advantage of that, basing its future upon its fantastic past.

One thing that struck me when I first came to Alexandria was how people feel about their city. They love being Alexandrians, even if they sometimes feel frustrated about the state of the city. Things have improved since I arrived in 2013.

The last few years have been a very hectic time for Egypt in general and things of course have started to improve gradually. However, whenever I say ‘I love Alexandria,’ people look startled and answer by saying, ‘You should have seen it before. It was much better.’

Most importantly, what I love about Egyptians is their sense of humour. You see funny things every day. Not a day passes when you don’t see something that can make you laugh. The way people can create something apparently out of nothing is extraordinary. They can find jobs where no one else could find jobs.

 

How do you see Egypt’s economic development in light of the recent Egypt Economic Development Conference? Why should people invest in Egypt?

The decisions British companies have made to invest in Egypt are for the companies themselves to answer, including British Gas and British Petroleum. But we think it is a good time to invest in Egypt because Egypt is a huge market and it is also a massively underdeveloped market. There are 90 million people in the country and one million more are born every year. This in itself is an attraction, coupled with its excellent geographic location, its people who speak English, its highly skilled labour force and many other factors.

Secondly, Egypt has multiple advantages like trade agreements with the EU, commercial agreements with the COMESA countries and the Gulf States, and also good transport links. It is a hub for regional trade.

Thirdly, it is very obvious that the Egyptian government has now realised that investment and economic growth are absolutely crucial and they are taking real steps to make these things happen. There is a lot to do and there is much more that needs to be done. They are basically sending strong signals saying that we are open to investment and we will make things better and will change what needs to be changed. This is a very powerful message indeed.

All this is about what the UK wants for Egypt, and it wants Egypt to succeed. Unless Egypt is strong economically, it will not succeed. Investing in Egypt and supporting it economically and developmentally is demonstrating our commitment to help Egypt succeed.

 

What reforms should be undertaken to help increase investment?

If you talk to British companies, they focus on three things: foreign exchange availability and the ability to repatriate profits; the problems of bureaucracy, meaning not just difficulties in setting up a business but also in leading a business; and the rule of law, referring to what happens if there is a dispute and how it can be resolved.

Ultimately, the question that is basically raised in any market, not only in Egypt, is ‘When am I going to get paid?’ This is still an obstacle. Companies need assurances they will get paid.

 

Do you think bureaucratic problems can be overcome?

There are a number of reforms that are needed and legislation is one of the reforms. But it is not in itself enough. More has to be done. It depends on the sectors concerned as well, when it comes to bureaucracy. Some sectors are much easier to deal with than others, for example people in the retail business are concerned about customs arrangements.

We are not only talking about procedures here, but also about how long things could get stuck in customs. And when they could get out. One Egyptian man told me recently ‘What we have right now is 73 different steps to get things done.’ We are talking here about simplifying the number of procedures. It is inconceivable that a foreign investor will want to go and negotiate with 73 different government bodies. It is simply not practical.

 

You have been living in Alexandria since 2013. What changes have you witnessed in this period?

Egypt has been going through tremendous changes and it is quite difficult to attribute that to individual presidents. The first time I came to Egypt a quarter of a century ago there were hardly any imported goods, and Sharm El-Sheikh didn’t even exist. I remember going to Sharm El-Sheikh and there was nothing there except one hotel.

There have been tremendous changes related to the national development of the country and what people really need and want to do. I have seen a huge degree of modernisation, with young Egyptians very well equipped for the modern world, speaking different languages, technologically advanced, open minded and well educated.

But I also see a big gap between people who have opportunities and those who do not. There is also a very big generation gap. I see young people aware of modern technology and modern ways of thinking and the elder generation who still think in the way they were brought up to.

 

Was this sharp generation gap seen during the revolution?

My recollection of the revolution was that it was pretty intergenerational. There were of course a lot of young people in the streets, but there were also a lot of elder people who supported them at home and were equally enthusiastic. My own personal experience and my recollection of the 30 June Revolution was that it was a strong popular movement.

It didn’t feel like the one before that: I know many women of my age who didn’t go out onto the streets in the 25 January Revolution but did go out on 30 June. Looking back at it now two years later there was never any doubt that what happened had wide popular support.

 

How do you find activities for women in Alexandria? And what do you expect from women in Egypt?

I don’t expect anything more or less from women in Egypt than I expect from women around the world. There is a misconception in the UK about Egyptian women, about their lives, the choices they make and their motivations in life. There is a sense or a picture of Egyptian women that doesn’t reflect the reality. Egyptian women are not different from women elsewhere. Some are well educated; others seek jobs and are building their careers; some want family lives, etc.

But there are also terrible stories of poverty, like the woman who dressed like a man for 40 years to help feed her family. This is an exceptional story, of course, and it doesn’t reflect the whole, or even half, of the Egyptian society. I have met some exceptional Egyptian women, particularly in Alexandria, and I have met ordinary people from different classes and different walks of life.

For me, the real struggle Egyptian women face is between family and work. Women are crucial to the Egyptian economy. If you have the support of your family, you will be good at your work. Women are doing well at all levels of society, in schools, at university and in the workplace. The challenge will be how to help women overcome the obstacles they still face.

 

Does this have to do with Egypt’s male-dominated society?

I think many societies are dominated by men. I would rather say there is a lack of equality between men and women. Men tend to take priority and men’s needs take priority over other’s needs.

This is fine if women accept that, but they may ask themselves why they should go out to work as well, and why they should look after the children as well as working. They may ask who should look after the money and whether the money should be shared. To be fair, I have seen fathers who favour their daughters as much as I have seen mothers who favour their sons.

 

What about violence against women and harassment of women?

One thing that has struck me about President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in his speeches is that he is against this kind of violence. I think it will tend to disappear, even if it takes a while to do so. There are civil society initiatives, governmental approaches and initiatives, awareness campaigns and other things going on, and we will see the results in time. Things cannot be done overnight.

 

You attended the opening ceremony of the Model of the United Kingdom Parliament in February. Could you tell us about this project?

It was an Alexandrian initiative developed by people in Alexandria. It was a great experience as young people, most of them university students or recent graduates, came up with the idea themselves. It was great to see young people who have got hopes and the determination to see things get better.

When the UK ambassador was in Alexandria, he attended the closing ceremony when there was a question and answer session. He answered questions from the Model Parliament. Such models are now quite common, but it was the first time I had attended one in Alexandria.

 

You have been living in the Middle East for more than 20 years. Have things changed as a result of the recent need to counter terrorism?

Of course, ensuring security and stability is crucial. There cannot be economic growth without security. I don’t feel insecure, however, and particularly not in Alexandria. I don’t think Egypt feels more insecure that it did in the 1990s or even further back. I think that legislation on security is needed, along with legislation to safeguard human rights. This is an issue around the world today.

Actually, Egypt’s security is quite good. Apart from an area in the Sinai Peninsula, there are no restrictions on British people coming to Egypt. I am more worried about dying in a road accident than as a result of security failures! A couple of small devices exploding here and there will not stop Egyptians living their lives.

 

You have visited most of the Delta.

 I have visited Kafr Al-Sheikh, Damanhur, Beheira and Rasheed. They are all different. I also went to Mansoura and Kafr Al-Sheikh universities and they were really impressive. Kafr Al-Sheikh is a very modern city. When I went to the university there I didn’t expect to learn about nanotechnology, but that’s what happened. I was really impressed when I found out that Damietta has zero unemployment.

 

My last question is on an issue many Egyptians inquire about: UK visas.

If a UK visa is refused for any reason, an explanation will be given. Nobody is refused without a reason, though this may not always be well understood. There are two types of refusal. The first is where the papers are incomplete, in which case an applicant will be told exactly what papers are missing and encouraged to reapply. The summer holidays are very busy periods, and a visa could take up to four weeks in this period. But there is also the priority service where a visa could arrive in two to three days.

The second type of refusal is because the applicant is not qualified. Over the last few years, the requirements for the documents have changed. All of them now have to be in English, something that is true not only in Egypt but also across the world. I hope the number of people who are rejected for missing documents will be reduced. I hope people will become more familiar with the changes. My advice is to apply early and read all the documents required.

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