Al-Ahram Weekly Online
4 -10 April 2002
Issue No.580
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

photos: Randa Shaath

Gamal Bayoumi:

Working order

It's never just business as usual

Profile by Niveen Wahish

We are sitting in a medium-sized office. On the leather sofa are some framed caricatures of the man we are about to meet, waiting to be hung. On the other side of the room is a large desk upon which the inevitable PC sits, and in the corner is a printer/photocopier. Nothing in the room implies who resides in it, with the exception of a tiny plaque stuck on the back of a pencil holder. That is how he likes to be presented: simply as Gamal Bayoumi. But practically every member of Egypt's business community knows him as the man who oversaw the completion of one of Egypt's most arduous negotiating processes: the Egypt-EU Association agreement.

Perhaps by force of habit, as a journalist covering the issue Gamal Bayoumi was my constant point of reference for over six years (during which the agreement was negotiated and finally signed). A press-friendly personality, he seemed constantly available, and always ready to offer his time and information. He is, in short, a very friendly individual on the personal level. A popular guest speaker at roundtables, seminars or conferences, he has a distinctive manner of jolting a disinterested audience to attention by making a joke, recounting a story or citing a proverb.

We saw him as he walked along the corridor and into the office. He sat on one of leather armchairs across from us, put his briefcase down, took out his digital camera and took a picture of Randa Shaath and myself. He likes to keep track of all his meetings, he explained. He later took the diskette out of his camera, moved the photo onto his computer and printed a copy of our photograph for each of us.

It was impossible to start our conversation with any other topic, so I asked what has become of the agreement signed last June.

Bayoumi, who is 65, headed the team in charge of negotiating the Egypt-EU partnership. For four years, he dedicated himself to getting the most for Egypt from tough European negotiators. During that time, the agreement was the cause of much controversy. And although it was finally signed last year, it has yet to be presented to the People's Assembly for ratification. Bayoumi does not hide his disappointment that so far the agreement has been nothing but ink on paper. "First it took two years after the negotiations were complete before the agreement was signed, and now, even after the signing, the People's Assembly has not ratified it." The European parliament has kept its part of the deal and already ratified the agreement.

"This is an opportunity that we need to make the most of. We're running after a free trade area with the US at a time we already have one with the Europeans, our major trading partners, which we are failing to make use of," he protests. And even when it is ratified, that will not be enough to appease his troubled mind: "The agreement is not worth anything unless the government plans to carry it out."

Bayoumi's expertise kept him in his post as head of the Egypt-EU partnership unit at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after he reached retirement age in 1997. In fact, he stayed on five more years, and left the ministry only recently, after which the unit was dismantled.

Even today, however, he has no qualms regarding the agreement. On the contrary, he is proud of his baby. "The way the negotiations with the EU were carried out is unprecedented in Egypt," he says confidently. The negotiating team started by listening to the demands and apprehensions of the various interest groups. Then they sat with experts and academics to find out what they thought of what was being offered. Finally they presented their findings to the government, "which believed in what we were doing and gave us the confidence to continue."

Because throughout the negotiating process all those concerned were represented, "everybody's interests were taken into account," he explains. A strong believer in the benefits of liberalisation and integration into the world economy, Bayoumi does not believe these processes entail sacrificing national interests. He managed the negotiations like a businessman, giving in only when there was something to be gained from a concession. Against his better judgement, he insisted that a transitional period of at least 12 years be respected before full liberalisation of the Egyptian market to EU products. During this time, liberalisation will take place over four phases. Bayoumi personally believes that a shorter transition is in the final analysis better for Egyptian industry.

He is vigorous by nature, and retirement has not reduced his activity. "Individuals are worth nothing if they do not work," he explains; and so, he is now secretary-general of the Arab Investors' Union, a self-financed NGO operating under the umbrella of the Arab League. He plans to exercise his skills as a businessman and attempt to run it for profit by providing training and consultancy services. Whenever he is not in the office, he is a guest lecturer in various venues and on a variety of topics, largely related to the EU and trade liberalisation. "The information I have accumulated is worthless if people do not make use of it. And it is a wealth that is not mine to keep." Lecturing is the medium by which he transfers his knowledge to others. "If I do not do this, what I know will go to the grave with me."

At the same time, he is not fulfilling an old ambition by pursuing a university teaching career. Bayoumi graduated from Alexandria University's Faculty of Commerce, where he had studied economics and political science, in 1960. Originally from Damietta, he chose Alexandria because the relatively small number of students enrolled there enabled close interaction with the professors. As a sophomore, he started helping his professor put together the textbook the students would be using the following year. That working relationship developed into a friendship, and soon Bayoumi got to know other professors and began playing tennis with them. Academically outstanding, Bayoumi started lecturing to first-year students when he was a junior, and continued the following year. It was at this time that he met Mervat, one of his first-year students. They married soon after he had graduated.

He heaped social accomplishments on his academic achievements, as an active member of a theatre troupe. His love for the theatre may be inherited, since his family owned one in Damietta. That was where he learned how to manage a business. He worked there for a year after graduating, doing all sorts of odd jobs: everything from selling tickets to seating the audience, scrubbing floors, putting up posters and helping with the set and props. Contracting was also one of the family businesses, and he learnt a bit of carpentry, plumbing and wiring. These skills come in handy in his daily life. He is always ready to hang wallpaper, fix the washing machine or polish the floor. "I was raised to believe that manual labour is honourable -- indeed, sacred," he explains.

While running the family theatre, he recalls, he and his father convinced Youssef Wahbi and his troupe to perform in their theatre for Damietta's inhabitants. They promised Wahbi a certain sum, although they were not sure of the show's success. Any worries they might have had were unfounded, however: Bayoumi organised a massive marketing campaign and brought in five times more than what he had promised Wahbi.

The theatre star gave Bayoumi more: the idea of a career he had never contemplated, in the diplomatic corps. Wahbi even promised he would get Bayoumi a job. But there was no need. Bayoumi saw an advertisement in the papers, applied, and passed the exam.

He was not thrilled about leaving the family business to become a civil servant, though. He would have preferred to be an entrepreneur and enjoy the freedom of running his own business, instead of submitting to bureaucratic restrictions. "If I had been sure that the government would let the private sector operate freely, I would have stayed in my family's line of business." But those were the '60s, the days of nationalisation, and private entrepreneurship was not a priority. "The private sector was only encouraged in the late 1970s, by which time it was too late for me change career," he smiles ruefully.

There was little to regret. In the foreign service, Bayoumi traveled to various countries, not entirely related to his specialisation in economics. He was not one to travel regularly, though. Twice he declined a posting, preferring to stay in Egypt for his children or his parents.

Between 1976 and 1982, his daughters were at critical ages: six and 10. "I wanted to instil in them a sense of Arab identity, of Islam and Egyptian nationalism," he explains. During that time, he also helped his father restructure the family's modest wealth.

Following his father's death in 1986, he spent another four years in Egypt to give himself time to adjust. Both these times were very rich periods in his life. For one thing, he became involved in the Arab-European dialogue. There was talk then of reviewing books published in Europe for any misleading information about the Arabs, but the issue was never followed through. Today, the Euro-Arab dialogue could be revived once again. "If it been pursued from 1974 onward, the West would perceived Arabs differently today."

Over 30 years of service, Bayoumi was posted to Romania, Brazil, Germany and Cameroon. Rather than rejoicing in the variety of countries he was able to visit, he is critical of the criteria used by the diplomatic corps. "Postings were based on chance. The choice did not depend on one's capability as an individual or to one's area of specialisation." While he did work in economics, he was also busy on the Arab portfolio within the Foreign Ministry, an area which he still sees as a great challenge.

While almost fanatical about liberalisation, he is a strong proponent of Arab cooperation as well. But is there any hope for economic cooperation after 50 years of failed attempts? "There has to be." He qualifies the categorical statement: someone must be ready to exert the necessary effort. Instilling faith in Arab cooperation, he argues, will be as difficult as preaching a new religion. "For the past 50 years, we have not known what we were doing. We decided to have cooperation, but did not provide the needed ingredients to make it happen."

In his opinion, there is strong resistance from the bureaucracy under pressure from various interest groups. Among the obstacles to Arab trade and cooperation are lists of 2,952 products that cannot be traded among Arab countries. If trade in these products were liberalised, the inter-Arab market would expand considerably.

Rules of origin, the criteria according to which a product may be considered locally made, are another missing ingredient. The current rules of origin, according to Bayoumi, are defective. He sought to use the Association Agreement with the EU as a launching pad for greater Arab cooperation, suggesting that, since many Arab countries have, or are about to sign, association agreements with the EU, and therefore must adopt European rules of origin, then these rules, tailored to suit Arab countries, should be adopted among the Arab countries as well. From the vantage point of his extensive experience in economics, Bayoumi laments Egypt's lack of a clear trade policy. "There is potential in certain areas, but policymakers are not giving them enough attention," he asserts.

"For instance, Latin America is not a priority region for Egyptian exports." He dismisses the oft-repeated argument that distance and lack of complementarity are the reasons. Posted in Brazil for four years, he realised that distance could not be a factor, for a simple reason: "Why did we import, at one point in time, $250 million worth of Brazilian goods while exporting only $60,000?" He admires Brazil's industrialisation experience, which started at the same time as Egypt's, in the 1960s. "Both countries started out producing a million tons of iron and steel. Today, Brazil has multiplied its output. Nothing is not manufactured in Brazil. Their automotive industry is exemplary. They have not set up assembly lines, but factories to make cars from scratch."

Another assignment that deviated from his area of specialisation was his posting to Cameroon, where he served as ambassador from 1990 until 1994. The news that he had been posted came as a shock. "The previous 30 years I had been working on OECD countries and sometimes on the Arab portfolio." Cameroon had nothing to do with either. He describes his transfer there as "attaching a 100-horsepower engine to a refrigerator."

But he made the most of it. Besides, he says it was the post his wife enjoyed the most. As there were no economic relations to be pursued, Bayoumi developed a new portfolio there: "For the first time I worked on the da'wa [spreading the message of Islam]." Cameroon at that time had a population of 12 million, divided almost equally among Muslims, Christians and animists. The first two groups did not attempt to convert each other, though, since they were in accord over proselytising to the third; however many converted to either of the two scriptural religions were considered a gain in absolute terms.

"Our mission was not only to preach Islam to new believers, but to work with the resident Muslims. "Any assistance was appreciated," Bayoumi explains. This was done by enlisting Azharite missionaries, and sending imams from Cameroon to train at Al-Azhar.

Bayoumi speaks of his experience in Cameroon with the same enthusiasm he applied to his tasks at the time. That is how he still approaches anything he is involved in. He speaks with the same robust ebullience of his wife's skills as a jeweller. He keeps pictures of her work on his computer and shows it off proudly. He describes Mervat as a "terrific lady." Petite, with the blond hair and blue eyes that bespeak her Turkish descent, she is as warm and welcoming as he is. With her, he has tried to keep up the family traditions he knew and cherished as a boy and a young man. He was raised amidst an extended family, with one dining room for the whole house. "We ate all three meals with our parents every day. Today, the pace of life is different." Still, he always tries to sit down for at least one meal -- breakfast -- with his wife and two daughters. "It used to be like the board of directors meeting every day." Now that Nevine and Sherine are married, it is only Bayoumi and his wife; but they make the most of the time. "Whoever wakes up first brings the other breakfast in bed."

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