The below transcript is from the Middle East Institute's 66th Annual Banquet in Washington, DC on November 13, 2012
Wendy Chamberlin: I have the great honor to introduce Mr. David Rubenstein. He has agreed to present MEI’s Visionary Award and to introduce Mr. Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel. David Rubenstein is co-founder and co-Chief Executive Officer of the Carlyle Group. Prior to founding the firm in 1987, Mr. Rubenstein had an accomplished career both in public service and in the legal field. He served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy during the Carter administration. Like Mr. Jameel, he too is recognized for his civic work. Mr. Rubenstein is Chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. He is a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution and he serves on the boards of Duke University, the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Institute of Advanced Studies. Please welcome Mr. David Rubenstein.
David Rubenstein: Thank you very much. There’s one mistake in that introduction – my career in government wasn’t that distinguished. I managed to get inflation to 19 percent in the Carter years. Hard to do. I haven’t been invited back into government since then but thank you for saying that. I’m always waiting for the call.
Since I started Carlyle in 1987 I’ve been to the Middle East about a hundred times. I doubt anybody whose last name is Rubenstein has been there that many times. The reason I’ve been a hundred times is because I really love going, and the reason I love going there is because the hospitality I receive there is better than anyplace else in the world by far, the culture is more interesting than any other place I’ve been by far, and the people are more interesting than any other people I’ve seen in the world. So I’ve enjoyed going there and I relish going there five or six times a year.
As I’ve gone there, I’ve met an enormous number of interesting people. There are many people I’ve met who are great business leaders. I’ve met a lot of great cultural leaders and social entrepreneurs. I’ve met a lot of great patrons of the arts, a lot of people who care about social concerns. But there is only one person I’ve met who combines everything in one person, who’s a true renaissance man, and that’s Mohammed Jameel. Maybe there’s somebody else that’s a renaissance man in the Middle East, I don’t know, but in my view Mohammed Jameel is a true renaissance man of not just the Middle East but the entire world. Let me tell you why.
He has been a very successful businessperson – very successful. He’s built one of the most successful companies in the entire region of the Middle East, and it’s a company that’s more than just the Middle East – it’s a global company. What he’s done in taking a family company and making it global is truly an enormous success story in the Middle East, which all businesspeople in the Middle East look to and admire what he’s done.
But making a great company out of the company that he got from his father is not his most important accomplishment. There are a lot of people who have built very good companies, none probably quite like the type that he has done and quite the international success but many people have built great companies around the world. What Mohammed has done more than that has shown that he wants to make the world a better place and make the Middle East a better place by devoting himself, his resources, his time, his energy and his ideas to trying to solve some problems that exist in the Middle East – as they exist in the United States. Those problems include youth unemployment and concerns about people not getting proper education and making sure that people have a chance to build a better life for themselves. What everybody wants for themselves is a great life and a life where they have something to live for. Mohammed is committed to making certain that people in the Middle East will have a chance to get a better life and to do so – if they need a better job, they need a better education – he’s committed enormous amounts of his resources to doing that. He’s doing that almost to the exclusion of so many other things that he could do with his life. He could take life very easily and just take life the way many people who have made a lot of money could do and not devote himself to social concerns, but Mohammed is committed to making sure that he is someone who people can say proudly that they know him – they are proud to know him as a friend. They are proud that he has become a person that everybody admires in the Middle East because he’s trying to do so much to give back to society.
Everybody here today wants to do something to make the world a better place. Many of us don’t have the opportunity to do so. Mohammed is fortunate to have the opportunity to do so but he’s taking advantage of that opportunity. Everybody here and everybody in the Middle East is very much in his debt. So I am very proud, on behalf of the Middle East Institute, to give him the Visionary Award. Mohammed, will you please come up?
Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel: Thank you, David. I cannot promise you as good a speech as David. He’s very good at that.
Good evening. Thank you, David, for a very warm introduction and very kind words. I want to begin by thanking Ambassador Chamberlin, together with the Middle East Institute, for inviting me to receive this Visionary Award this evening. I’m very honored and extremely humbled that I am privileged to share this podium with Dr. Hanan Ashrawi and my friend Naguib Sawiris.
I would like to share with you tonight some ideas on one of the most pressing problems in the Middle East: unemployment. Let me begin by setting the scene.
As you all know, the world in general and the Middle East in particular faces spiraling unemployment. Sixty percent of our region is under the age of thirty. The MENA youth unemployment rate in 2011 topped 27 percent – that is more than double the world average of 13 percent. The International Labor Organization’s figures suggest that if unemployment is not tackled sustainably, the Middle East will have 50 million people, men and women, without work in less than a decade. They will want the dignity of work and they will not tolerate the indignity of being out of work.
That is the scale of the problem that threatens the foundation of our society. So what can we do to help? As you know, every region is different, but let me tell you about Bab Rizq Jameel (BRJ), our simple grassroots solution that works for the Arab world.
Bab Rizq Jameel means “beautiful gateway to prosperity” in Arabic – and so it has proved. My inspiration comes from two men. My late father, Sheikh Abdul Latif Jameel, who founded our business in 1945, taught me that every CEO actually has two jobs – two responsibilities, not one. The first is to lead his business sustainably and profitably and in harmony with all stakeholders. The second is to help his community to help themselves in a sustainable way. Muhammad Yunus, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, proved with his Grameen Bank that the unemployed don’t actually need charity. They need a chance to make their own way. That’s why I don’t want to be a philanthropist: I strive to be an effective social entrepreneur.
I believe you cannot treat unemployment simply as a socioeconomic problem, because no government has the resources, the hard cash, to always buy its way out of the problem. In our region neither government spending nor foreign investment generates anything like the number of jobs we need (with a few exceptions); nor can we see them doing so in the foreseeable future. Instead we must focus on what I call the “business of unemployment,” a business in which the private sector has a duty to play in its full part: making the eradication of unemployment a business problem, requiring business solutions and earning business profits. I postulate that unemployment has to be treated as if it were a business by itself, where the unemployed workforce becomes the customer of the business. Each job created can provide not only employment for the individual and a skilled worker for the employer who hires him or her, but also an income for the job-creating company.
Ten years ago I thought that it was time to put the idea into practice and to start at the level of the individual, not the bureaucracy. In treating unemployment as if it were a business, I was encouraged by the fact that this approach had already succeeded in healthcare and other industries, where the achievements of commercially run hospitals had proved that business methods could achieve social goals. We set up a job-creating company to facilitate the creation of jobs through the micro-alignment of the needs of industry and the economy with the needs of the labor market participants, the men and women seeking work. It is the micro-alignment that makes a difference: it is the last mile in the job creation process. Creating one local job at a time: that is what micro-alignment is all about. Governments, by contrast, mostly do macro-alignment. That is why they often fail to create enough jobs. They can get everything right except the final part: the delivery at the local level of the local jobs that local business needs.
That is the theory. Now, how has our business of unemployment worked in particular? In our first year, in 2003, we started BRJ modestly, with just two job-creating officers (myself and the director of my office) and a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Our target was to encourage and train ten – just ten – unemployed Saudi Arabians to become taxi drivers. We lent them the money to acquire a taxi each: soft loans, but not loss-making ones. All were fully repaid.
When this modest experience worked well, it sparked interest from both companies short of labor and individuals without jobs. So we said, let’s expand the service. We had no grand plans, we simply grew organically – as a business does. Now tonight I would like to say that I am not representing only myself by accepting this award; in fact I am representing a team of more than 700 full-time job creators working in more than 36 Bab Rizq Jameel branches in the Arab world and Turkey. They specialize in all types of job creation and training, from healthcare to catering. Not only that, but I am in fact representing more than 300,000 young jobseekers who decided to take action and jointly create a job opportunity with us – 100,000 of them this year alone.
We deliver employment that is both self-starting and self-sustaining. This is because we operate at ground level, matching the real needs of individuals with the real needs of businesses and providing sustainable training to make it all possible. Distribution is crucial: a network of branches close to the customers is just as necessary for us as for banks or a grocery chain, together with a stronger digital presence. Our sales network of branches in various cities and neighborhoods puts the job-creation sales team in the field, in direct contact with the job creation markets. They are then able to quickly identify barriers and difficulties and take action to develop the right solutions for unemployed people’s needs. Just like in any other business, the sales and marketing team must be motivated by commission, rewards and recognition.
Bab Rizq Jameel not only creates jobs and training, but also helps close the gap between educational institutions and private sector requirements; provides job-creating microfinance to help housewives and young women to make the transition between aid recipients and producers; and encourages young people to start their own small business. All under one roof. Since inception, up until the end of October 2012, BRJ has successfully helped create over 320,000 job opportunities in the countries where it is operating: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Morocco and Turkey. Before they begin their training we are able, through BRJ’s separate programs, to guarantee job opportunity. At the end of the process for all the trainees, all of the job opportunities that we helped to create are reviewed and confirmed regularly by an international independent auditor. So far this year we have successfully helped create over 100,000 job opportunities, with receivables of over $150 million. Our ultimate plan is to help create half a million job opportunities a year in the Arab countries and Turkey, through a team of 2,000 job creators distributed among 200 branches in those countries.
We have already proved that our business model is self-sustaining. Thus, in Egypt we have been able to recover all our job-creating costs and sometimes create a surplus, through fees and charges to over 50,000 customers whom we have helped create job opportunities.
From this practical grassroots experience, I believe that the best contribution a business can make for the society they operate in is to help convert socioeconomic problems into business problems and opportunities. But please, don’t take my words for granted. I offer you an open invitation to come and see for yourself. See how BRJ works in Saudi Arabia or Egypt for local entrepreneurs who need skilled workers, for unemployed men and women who need jobs, and for the sales team who make the business of unemployment financially sustainable as well as socially responsible. If you are then inspired to try out a project of your own, we will happily work with you to transfer our knowledge and experience for you to be our competitors in job creation. We’d consider it a great success if BRJ becomes only the number two or number three in the job creation industry. Better still, imagine if there are another twenty Bab Rizq Jameels working to make unemployment yesterday’s story rather than tomorrow’s problem. That’s about 10 million jobs a year, if we can do it.
So let us make job creation part of the solution of unemployment. As leaders, let us seize this moment for ourselves and our society. But we need to act decisively and we must begin today, if the coming population bulge is to be turned into an opportunity for greater prosperity. Together we can build a future that works, a future that can be bright, a future for everyone. Thank you.
Wendy Chamberlin: I’m sure you’ve probably generated several competitors this evening, and I certainly hope so.
Ambassador Antoine Chedid will now present the Issam M. Fares Award for Excellence to Dr. Hanan Ashrawi. Ambassador Chedid entered the Lebanese Foreign Service in 1978. One of his very first assignments was right here in Washington, as a young diplomat and political officer in the Embassy of Lebanon. He has returned full circle in his career: he has been the Ambassador of Lebanon to the United States since 2007. Ambassador Chedid has also been a member of the Lebanese delegation to twelve General Assemblies in the United Nations in New York. He has served as the Presidential Advisor for American Affairs between 1989 and 1991 and as Head of the America desk office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Please welcome Antoine Chedid, who will introduce Hanan Ashrawi.
Antoine Chedid: Thank you, Wendy, for your nice introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, first I would like to thank the Middle East Institute and its president, my very good friend Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin, for inviting me to be with you tonight along with this very distinguished audience of officials, philanthropists, politicians and ambassadors. Today I am deeply honored to present Dr. Hanan Ashrawi with the prestigious Issam Fares Award for Excellence.
Former Deputy Prime Minister, His Excellency Issam Fares, is a prominent and respected statesman who served not only the state of Lebanon but especially cared for the people of Lebanon. He concentrated his efforts on the democratization and reconstruction of his country and on improving Lebanon’s relations with the international community by working with all concerned for a just and stable peace in the region. In Issam Fares’ opinion, a just peace is the best guarantee for a future Lebanon that is free, pluralistic and democratic. Issam Fares contributed in a major way to the making of several essential financial and social legislations during his tenure as Deputy Prime Minister of Lebanon. He was very enthusiastic on the educational, social and development levels. Issam Fares exerted important efforts for the establishment of local and international centers and institutions. Through his outstanding programs, he helped shape political solutions and played the role of catalyst in conciliating conflicting views. As a philanthropist, he assisted many educational and social institutions in Lebanon and abroad, namely in the United States of America at Tufts University in Boston, where he established the Issam Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies.
His Excellency Issam Fares couldn’t be with us tonight. On his behalf, I have the honor to present his award for excellence to a very distinguished Palestinian leader, legislator, activist and scholar, for her outstanding contributions to her country and to the region: Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a brilliant Palestinian figure who I consider to be a continuous spokesperson for the Palestinian cause. She is always there, touring the world, speaking eloquently on every TV channel and on many podiums, defending firmly not only the official policy of the Palestinian Authority but, over and above, the rights of her people.
Dr. Ashrawi’s CV is rich and long but just to mention a few. She served as the official spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. Dr. Ashrawi was appointed the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Higher Education and was elected a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO. She made history as the first woman to hold a seat in the highest executive body in Palestine. She is the head of the Board of Directors of the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy. Dr. Ashrawi is the Commissioner of the Independent Commission for Human Rights.
In appreciation and in recognition, it is an honor for me on behalf of His Excellency Issam Fares to present to you, Dr. Ashrawi, the Issam M. Fares Award for Excellence for your outstanding contribution to the peace process, civic activism and scholarship in Palestine. Please join me on the stage.
Hanan Ashrawi: Thank you very much for your wonderful introduction. You have saved me some time. I promise I will not take too much time in my presentation – we were told to make it very brief. I thank you for talking about His Excellency Issam Fares, who himself deserves to be recognized and to get an award from the people around here.
Let me say that this award gives me a deep sense of gratification, gratitude of course, and a sense of empowerment as well as humility. I am personally touched and I believe that being in the company of such participants as well as such distinguished recipients is also a humbling occasion for me. But this is also of double significance. First of all, because of the Middle East Institute, and I would like to thank Ambassador Chamberlin for her work. I would like to thank also Kate Seelye for her tremendous work and for making this happen. It’s not easy to reconcile a very difficult schedule for so many people and she certainly did a superb job, so I would like to recognize that.
But the Middle East Institute has always been a pioneer actually, and a pacesetter. A long time ago it recognized the imperative of communication – not just any communication but communication that would generate knowledge, which would lead to greater awareness. Greater awareness, of course, would always generate a sense of responsibility, and hopefully this sense of responsibility would be translated into action. All of this is the essence of genuine, positive and constructive engagement.
In doing that, maybe inadvertently and maybe consciously, you have given voice to the silenced. I don’t want to say voiceless – we do have a voice, but quite often we are silenced. You have given validation to the narrative of the Palestinian people and the many narratives of the region that have been either misunderstood or distorted, misrepresented, stereotyped and labeled for so long. The people who have been excluded from the global conversation – you have made sure that they are there. To be realistic, I am positive that the motivations have not always been entirely altruistic or idealistic but of mutual interest, because I think the outcome has served both well. The conviction that informed and intelligent policy is based on taking responsible decisions and these responsible decisions would serve both sides of the conversation or dialogue – this is the language of common humanity. This commonality is what the Middle East Institute so long ago decided to serve.
Issam Fares, as you have heard, embodies those principles that shape reality in an integrated and holistic manner. Within the framework of such a comprehensive vision we see the interaction of education and the intellect, of policy and political decision-making or responsibility, good governance and democracy, as well as entrepreneurship and economic endeavors. We see a dedication to human rights and the pursuit of a just peace. All these things are driven by those values that imbue life with meaning as well as with value. This generosity of spirit is the true instrument and driving force of positive change and commitment. I am truly grateful to be the recipient of an award that bears his name. Thank you.
Now for the tough message. The tough message is that these are difficult times indeed and we are all facing enormous challenges, whether in the region – with the Arab Spring or Arab awakening or Arab transition, a period of transition as we know that is characterized by instability and that can be quite painful and unpredictable. The pendulum could swing to extremes. But any period of transition is certainly not that comfortable or easy for those who have resisted change for so long or those who have been held captive in very rigid modes and systems.
Within that, we see that the Palestinian question has been either marginalized or has taken second place in the face of such pressing issues that need to be addressed. In Palestine, more than twenty-one years ago, we embarked on a negotiating process, a process that had more to do with the technicalities of procedure and process than with the substance of peace. So for the sake of a process we have lost sight of its substance and of the objective, which is supposed to be a just peace. Unfortunately for the last twenty-one years we have seen a process for its own sake used as a cover for Israeli impunity and unilateralism, where it has in a sense become its own worst enemy in that it is undermining its very objective and destroying the two-state solution as well as the prospects for peace. Now we are seeing at the end of this process a situation where more land has been expropriated or stolen. We have seen an apartheid wall built throughout Palestine and on Palestinian land. We have seen Jerusalem annexed and transformed. We have seen a situation of siege – and in Palestine the siege is not just territorial. We have a territorial siege, an economic siege, we even have a political and legal siege, the last of which is an attempt at preventing us from going to the UN.
We believe that going to the UN is a conscious decision by the Palestinians in order to send a message of hope to people that this failed process and Israeli violations are not our destiny – that there are alternatives that are positive, constructive, moral, legal, human and peaceful. That the alternative to this failed process is not violence but rather a multilateral approach based on international law, whereby our land would be recognized as occupied territory, not disputed territory up for grabs; where our enormous historical compromise of accepting to create our state on 78 percent of historical Palestine would be recognized as the borders of the state of Palestine; where Jerusalem would be addressed as the capital of Palestine. Therefore we would embark on talks or a process that has substance, credibility and legality in order to negotiate these outstanding issues but without negotiating away our rights and without giving Israel the cover and the immunity to continue to act outside and above the law.
We believe that it is time that the international community addresses this issue in a responsible, concerted manner, rather than in the way in which the strategic alliance between the US and Israel has tainted the pursuit of peace in our region for so long.
I also believe that we are undergoing a very difficult period internally, yes. In addition to the state of extreme economic crisis we also have a very painful rift, which is up to us to rectify. We do need to act very quickly in order to revitalize our democratic system through elections, because all the constituent components of our political system are in doubt if we do not have elections. We would like to enlist your help in getting us to have those elections as soon as possible. But we also need to hold ourselves and our own system accountable for any human rights violations and any aggression against freedom of expression or freedom of speech. During times of adversity such as these it is even more imperative that we reach out to each other with mutual reinforcement and that we persist, with tenacity and determination, to try to create and maintain a space for reasonableness with a human focus, with principles and values as operative means towards justice.
In the end, I just would like to say that throughout my life I have actively sought freedom, justice, human dignity and human rights for a people long maligned, oppressed, exiled and held captive for no fault of their own. It is my sincere conviction that the redemption of Palestine is the true key to and the measure of the will and integrity of humanity as a whole. Your commitment and your vision tonight are a testament to your own integrity and humanity. This is one way in which you have given us all hope. Thank you very much.
Wendy Chamberlin: Articulate, honest words that I hope will echo here in Washington as the president begins his second term.
Our final honoree this evening, Mr. Naguib Sawiris, will be presented with the first-ever MEI Award for Distinction in Civic Leadership by Her Excellency Dina Powell. Dina Habib Powell is currently the Global Head of the Office of Corporate Engagement and President of the Goldman Sachs Foundation. In this role, she oversees the global philanthropic efforts of the firm. She told me before we began dinner that she gives money away, everybody else makes it. She joined the firm in 2007 following a career in the United States government, where I first met her. She most recently served as Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs and Deputy Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Prior to being confirmed as Assistant Secretary, she served as Assistant to the President for Presidential Personnel, under President George W. Bush. Dina is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She serves as a member of the Board of Trustees at the American University of Cairo. She is also a founding member on the inaugural Board of Directors of the American Enterprise Fund, which was created by the economic package to Egypt announced by Hillary Clinton in 2011. So you can see that although she has served the United States with distinction, she has done a great deal in her career to help those in the Middle East. Please welcome Dina Powell.
Dina Powell: Thank you so much, Ambassador Chamberlin, for that very warm introduction. It’s really an honor to be here tonight and to have the privilege of giving this prestigious award to my friend, Naguib Sawiris, a fellow Egyptian. We want to call you a fellow Egyptian-American but you’re not quite yet.
I have to start out by saying that one of the greatest privileges that I had was serving alongside the extraordinary men and women of the Foreign Service. My time was short; you have dedicated your lives to it. Watching Ambassador Crocker up there tonight was really humbling for me. It is unbelievable how much you sacrifice to serve our country. I sit here tonight with Ambassador Chamberlin, Ambassador Crocker, Ambassador Jones and so many others – would you just please give them a hand of applause for their service.
I was struck as I was sitting there though that we have so many friends who also serve those roles. Here we are tonight with the distinguished ambassadors and their excellencies from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the new ambassador – new-ish – from the Arab League. There is a camaraderie there because these are men and women who truly love their countries. I think you all also, and if I have left any out I apologize, but I’d like to give you all a hand of applause as well.
I had the privilege of meeting Naguib Sawiris when a friend of ours, Ambassador David Welch, the then Ambassador to Cairo from the United States, introduced us. That was many years ago actually, almost twelve years ago. Over the time that I served in the White House, in the State Department and now at Goldman Sachs, Naguib and his wife and their extraordinary family have been very dear friends.
I will tell you a little bit of a funny story though that is a connection across the oceans, as they say. This morning when I told my daughters why I wasn’t going to be home tonight, I told them that I was presenting this award to one of the most famous businessmen in all the world, an Egyptian. And that a little tidbit they might find interesting is that his father is named Onsi and their grandfather, my father, is named Onsi. So my six-year-old looked at me and said, “Wait a minute, Mom. His dad’s name is Onsi, your dad’s name is Onsi – how many Onsis are there in Egypt?” I said to her, “Actually, Onsi is like John in Egypt, so there are a lot of them.” I used to always have to explain that Habib, which sounded different to them, was like Smith in Egypt. So she looked at me and said, “So we can start calling Giddo John Smith?” I told her I did not think her grandfather would be for that.
Naguib Sawiris, in this room especially, really doesn’t need an introduction but I think it is important to pause and to comment on his extraordinary success in business. As the Executive Chairman of the Orascom Group, he is the largest private sector employer in Egypt. That is truly extraordinary and has been for many years. He is also the Vice Chair of the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, which empowers Egyptian citizens by encouraging job creation through training, education and access to micro-credit. In the wake of the Egyptian revolution last year, Naguib founded the Free Egyptians Party, which promotes democratic values and pluralism in Egypt. Naguib serves on countless boards, too many to name, but the thing that is not as widely known, because he is so humble about it, is the extent to which he has given philanthropically. He has invested in so many causes, not just in Egypt but all around the world, to help serve those who are so much less advantaged to so many.
I was thinking today about all that Naguib has done and is doing, and how proud we are that his mom is involved in a program we have in Egypt called 10,000 Women, which at Goldman Sachs we are very proud of. It is an initiative that our CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, launched and with the help of colleagues like Sherif Wahba, my friend who is here tonight, we have already trained more than 300 Egyptian female entrepreneurs. They all want Orascom to invest, by the way – I’ll get back to you on that.
But I was actually thinking about a personal story that made me think about the values that Naguib has embodied all of his life. Believe it or not, thirty-five years ago I was in Tahrir Square, but I was there holding my mother’s hand as a young girl, very proud of her mom in her cap and gown because she had just graduated from the American University in Cairo. I remember so clearly being a little kid who actually was just tired and wanted to go eat, but the pride on her face because there she thought, as an Egyptian woman, that she was beginning the steps to ensure that her three daughters would later reach their full potential. To imagine that so many decades later, many Egyptians are still fighting for the chance for that one simple dream, so that their children can reach their full potential.
I don’t think there is anybody I know who loves his country as much and is willing to invest in that ideal – crazy as it may seem and crazy as he has been called sometimes – out of love of that country. I think that is a hope that we should all continue to strive for. With that, please welcome Naguib Sawiris.
Naguib Sawiris: I think I was sixteen or seventeen years old when I started thinking the same thoughts everyone has: why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Why did God create us and all that. I found out that I’m not going anywhere with these thoughts so I better see what I want to do in this life. So I decided that I want to do a lot of good but I figured out – I was in a German school and the Germans were very much pushing me. So I said the only way to do that is to become very powerful. Being a Christian Copt in Egypt doesn’t really make you very optimistic about your political career, so I wasn’t going to make a big political career being a Copt. So I decided, okay, what’s the other alternative? It’s to become very rich. So I could do a lot of good, you know. But the problem is there was a Sunday school teacher – I was going to church every Sunday – and I remembered that Jesus said it was very difficult for a rich guy to go through to heaven, it’s like a camel through a needle. So I said, okay, what will I do then? How should I deal with that? I’m a strong believer and I believe in my Book. I said, okay, let’s first get rich and then worry about how to get to heaven.
To make this speech shorter, I’ll jump to the fact that I actually became very rich in the end. During that time I decided what good I should do. I think I’m a person, even in micro-size, I try to do good every day, like helping an old lady with her bag or anything else. It’s my nature. But just to jump to the end of where we are today, I take pride in the fact that even during the Mubarak regime I was critical. I was very clear about not trying to come too near, because I didn’t feel that this was a regime that will sustain forever. I take pride in the fact that actually I created the first newspaper, with another friend of mine, that was actually the voice of democracy and freedom and pluralism and secularism. It is still today one of the largest newspapers in Egypt, Al-Masry Al-Youm. I followed that with another TV station, which was actually the TV station of the revolution on TV.
To jump again to the end, I remember an incident during the – we were put under a lot of pressure during the old regime because of these two stations. I might say I’m still under a lot of pressure today because of the same thing, although we made a revolution. I remember that the Minister of Information called me on the third day of the revolution – he called the manager first and told him: Listen, you need to air the public or national stations because you are really doing the wrong thing. We were just filming what was happening, stations don’t make up the news – the news is there. He told him: Look, this is not my decision, you need to talk to Mr. Sawiris – but I wouldn’t advise you to do that. But he did. I ended the conversation with “I’m not going to do that,” and I told him, “You would do your country much better if you would show the truth, because maybe we can get to the bottom of that.”
The second time I remembered my very high conscience and my dream to do good is when I was interviewed during the revolution. The regime was still in place, Mubarak was still president, everything was still in place. This, as usual, cunning TV presenter of the Arabaya surprised me in the end with a question that usually I answer immediately, I don’t take time to answer, but that is the first time in my life when I had to take a breather and think very carefully. He told me: Now we understand your analysis, what you are trying to do. We were trying at that time through the Committee of Wise Men to have a succession of Mr. Mubarak to a more or less – to change it into a democratic regime without the army taking over. We failed, as you know. So he told me: Tell me one question only, are you with the guys in the square or do you want them to leave or should they stay there for the revolution? Now I remembered that this is the moment of truth. But I took my breath and I told him no, they should stay there, because we want a new life now. When I finished I went down, the first phone call came from my brother, who doesn’t share my enthusiasm or my revolutionary ideas. He is a very careful businessman and he thinks I should have stayed only a businessman. He told me: Can you explain to me exactly what went into your mind when you made that statement? So I told him: Look, it was the right thing to do. Well, he was nice enough to tell me: Maybe you were lucky and you’re right, and these guys are not behaving in the right way so maybe you were right. Again, after I closed with him, then my dad called: Is it true that you went on Arabaya and said this? I said yes. He told me: Okay, what went into your mind? Nothing, it was just the right thing to do.
So doing the right thing, like my colleagues here, which I am very honored to be with today Dr. Ashrawi and Mr. Jameel, is something I think is very important in life. If you look at the politicians and diplomats that are here, sometimes they just do what is diplomatically right. But I am not someone who is diplomatic and I don’t think that it always – it serves the rightness sometimes of being diplomatic to go out and do really the right thing that your conscience tells you. On that note, I thank you very much.
Wendy Chamberlin: I think all of our good friends here this evening would agree with me that we’ve had three – actually six – very inspiring talks. Eight, with Steve Inskeep and Ryan Crocker. It’s been an extraordinary evening. One of the things we like to do at the Middle East Institute is end it early but we have been graced by the attendance of all of you and by our honorees and our speakers this evening. We look very much forward to next year, when you’re going to come and join us again. Thank you so much.