Ahmed Sherif

Interview with Sherif H. Kamel, dean of the Business School at the American University in Cairo by our correspondent Gael Favari. 

What is your view of the current situation in Egypt?

Firstly, I look at our current situation as a transition from not just 30 years under Mubarak’s regime but after 60 years of repression. People nowadays are complaining about services, infrastructure, healthcare, the educational sector but if you go back in time to 1952 and earlier then you realize that the indicators of Egyptian society were much better. People are saying that we are just beginning to have free elections, transparent parliamentary elections, people voting for their rights and so on, but we actually had those rights up until 1952. It’s not like we’re starting from scratch, but we did get into a dormant stage for 60 years and it was high time for a change as I believe Egypt deserves much better than this. We're a huge country with 7,000 years of history and we have a huge number of opportunities that are untapped: Egypt covers over one million square kilometers and yet the population is living on less than 5 percent of the land – so the space and opportunities for growth are just limitless – but are we using that? No!  The country is growing by 1.9 percent every year, which is almost one million every 6 months. On the other hand, the size of the population - coupled with the instability and status of the economy - might actually hold Egypt back from achieving its rightful position in the world. However, it’s not the destination but the journey that counts and I can’t foresee that we will not be able to fix those issues.

What is the shape of today's Egyptian economy?

Today the economy is in pretty bad shape. We went down from 11 billion dollars FDI to half a billion in a year. The reserves obviously went down - from 36 we stand at 16 billions. Some people argue that we were losing 2 billion dollars from the reserves last year and now we’re only losing 600 million, so this a positive thing. I’m not sure about that: I think it’s only because the engine of the economy is slowing down. Tourism went down to almost zero percent last year. Having said that – is this unfixable? I don’t think so, but it needs someone to start paying attention to the economy. Then, it can pick up even faster but you need security in the streets so that people can go to work.

What are your insights into the political situation?

(...) The change may be easy to bring but not easy to build, especially to build it on solid ground! Under no circumstances can you put this to the candidates. Had the liberals, revolutionaries or even the Muslim Brothers had some experience, they would have grouped together instead of defragmenting the votes among six or seven candidates. (...) It is likely that the constitution committee is going to be formed in seven days and that they will be given 60 days in which to write the new constitution. Six months after that we may begin to see the first benefits. Am I optimistic? Yes…

We need to learn from our experiences. If you look at what happened over the last 16 months - the people who went down to Tahrir Square, the people who were forcing home the message, the people who are running and standing in the elections, and those who are voting in the elections – they are all first timers (because you need to be over 80 to have had any experience prior to 1952, or be under the age of 25 to not have been really contaminated by the system). We are in fact lucky that 58 percent of the population is under the age of 25 - they are our future.

What is the next challenge for Egypt?

We need to know what our plans are for 2020-2030.  And to prepare the population for that. Human capital is the most important asset of the 21st century and Egypt is extremely well equipped with that commodity.

What's impact does Egypt have on the Arab region?

Egypt definitely has an impact on the Arab region because of its size, position, history, and geography. If Egypt goes in the right direction, the rest of the Arab regions will follow. I think that Egypt for many, many years was a gateway for the Arab region - and between the Arab region and the world. But that is a role that has experienced a bit of a bumpy ride over the past maybe 15-20 years or more.

Could the choice of the new president have an impact on the relationships between Egypt and Israel?

I think that relationships between Egypt and Israel will stay unchanged whoever becomes the next elected president. Over a very long period of time, most of our political statements towards Israel were about honoring our commitments. Of course, candidates play with it for domestic political reasons but things have been fixed for a long time and no government coming in or out will be able to mess out with that. It's not in Egypt's interest; neither is it in the region’s interest nor in anybody else's interest.

How have you been involved in transferring IT skills to the developing nations?

My passion is not the technical core of IT but the soft core of IT which is basically the application of IT. Just look how we are equipped today: people are moving around with their notebooks, desktops, iPads, iPhones, Blackberries…we're connected to an incredible flow of information which is pure knowledge. Because people are connected all the time, they can have a bigger impact and that's exactly what happened in Egypt in 2011. When you think of IT you don't think of politics, you don't think of changing the regime of a nation, but the use of IT tools and techniques can have an incredible impact: it is something that is efficient, dynamic and accurate and totally transparent, and can reach out to the masses.

The internet came to Egypt in 1993 but by 2011, we still had only 13 million users. This doubled to 27 million in one year. The social network users prior to 2011 were around 6 million; it is now 20 million. The internet can help you get somewhere quickly with just some very basic knowledge. Think of the opportunities for education! Infrastructure in Egypt when it comes to roads is not great, so how can you reach the remote areas? With broadband technology it's easy to access under-privileged people who live, for example, 700 kilometers to the south of Cairo. Building the roads will be extremely expensive but connecting people to the internet will pay huge dividends. Many people think technology is not good because it ends up by replacing people but actually it creates other opportunities somewhere else. We need to adapt and we're living in a world full of changes and transformation. I truly believe in the impact of technology and how it can help people learn. Interfaces are now very user friendly and accessible to any individual without prior IT knowledge. So developing nations have a huge opportunity to benefit from what other countries have developed.

Could you tell us a bit about the American University in Cairo?

The American University in Cairo (AUC) was established in Cairo, Egypt in 1919 by a group of Americans devoted to education and community service in the Middle East. Today, AUC is the region’s premier English-language university and enjoys a large number of partnerships with US and European universities. For 90 years, we were based in Tahrir Square, and we still have a beautiful downtown campus from where we run, for instance, an incredibly large number of social responsibility programs, extending services to about 80,000 trainees every year. In 2008, we moved to New Cairo, expanding our campus from 5 to 260 acres.

What has been the main challenge for you as a Dean of the AUC?

I became Dean of the AUC School of Business in 2009. One of the very first things that I thought of was: why don’t we change our mission? And then I thought: what do we need to do? Since Egypt has 7.1 million people working for the government and because most of the companies in Egypt are micro-size or mid-size, we decided to target the private sector by focusing on three key pillars: entrepreneurship, leadership and innovation.

What role has the AUC played throughout the years in Egyptian society and the Arab region?

Since the 1950s and until recently, Egyptian professors, teachers and instructors had a major role in educating most of the Arab countries. In the past 9 decades, the AUC has been very influential in Egypt since many of our graduates from all over the Arab world picked up leading roles in banks and multinational companies - whether located in Egypt or abroad. We’ve just had a study done by the Alumni office that indicates that over the past couple of decades, 1,200 AUC graduates have gone onto work in Fortune 500 companies in 56 countries. Not all of them are actually staying in Egypt, but it’s a global market these days.

By changing our mission in 2009, the AUC School of Business was well positioned after the Egyptian uprising in playing a very important role in educating and training people from the broader public.   The AUC, among other players, NGOs and universities in Egypt, started up a large number of projects. Over the past 16 months since the revolution, we have trained over 3,000 young Egyptians, helping them shape their ideas so that they can become potential start-ups, who can then be connected with potential investors.


Photo & Report by Gaël Favari for The Global Journal