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The Pragmatic Optimist

In an exclusive interview with Egypt Today, Political and Strategic Adviser to the President Dr. Mostafa Higazy talks about the challenges of overcoming paradigms of the past, his vision for the nation’s future and his biggest fear: mediocrity 
By Yasmine Nazmy

I first met Dr. Mostafa Higazy at a book-signing event at the Leadership and Management Development Center in Agouza, where he was invited by novelist Alaa Al-Aswany to a question-and-answer session to discuss his latest book. Inevitably, the discussion quickly moved from his book, The Rosetta Stone: A Safe Exit for Egypt, to the performance of the current government. As eager guests questioned him about everything from the protest law to the draft constitution, Higazy attempted to assuage the audience’s fears. Optimistic yet conservative, he accommodated their questions and concerns as he patiently laid out his solution to the nation’s current crises.

When I visited him at his office in Heliopolis one week later for an interview, he was relaxed and down to earth. Casual yet philosophical, he draws on his capacity as strategic thinker, academic, and adviser to the president to present his vision for the future of Egypt.

The Adviser

Political and Strategic Adviser to Interim President Adly Mansour, Higazy is also a founding member of the Institute of Administrative Corporate Governance and a member of the board of trustees at the World Conference of Islamic Development. In 1996, Higazy founded a strategic advisory and institutional development practice called ACME Corp and the advocacy think-tank NASAQ.
Today, he is part of the interim administration that deals with multiple challenges including street violence, rising unemployment, flailing tourism and the spillover of other conflicts in the region. As it works to gain the trust of different political and social groups, the government must also demonstrate that it is not an extension of the past regime.

Photo by Hayssam Samir

Photo by Hayssam Samir

What is the current administration doing to redefine Egypt’s image abroad?
I think being sincere and truthful to our people and to ourselves [is key]. Like I said from moment one, this is a founding period; this is not a transitional period. [What] I can see from my position, and I think to a great extent this is a prevailing culture within the whole administration, it is truth and justice that we have to build on. Truth means that, as tough as facts are, people have to know. The more we focus on that, the more we will be truthful to our people, convincing to our people and convincing to anybody else. I would like to make sure that the balance that we strike in this society is no longer between oppression and chaos. It should be between duties and rights, it should be between responsibilities and authorities, and if we do it in that way, our people will be trained with a new set of values. And those new values for me are what the West would expect from an emerging democratic state.

[People have been claiming that atrocities have been committed or that police brutality is coming back.] I was sitting with a human rights activist this morning and we were both agreeing [he agreed more than me], that in societies like ours, the level of skepticism that we live with is because of that huge heritage of oppression that we lived through. And sometimes we overreact, and we are not giving ourselves the time to build trust in our future. We need to take calculated risks with our future, we need security to be back, but nobody said that security has to come hand-in-hand with police brutality. Security has to come with the law, and no one said that the law has to come with violation of human rights. This is the kind of balance that we need to strike.

Do you think that people have legitimate concerns about how and when we will see structural reform in the Ministry of Interior, for example, or how the transitional phase will play out?
Those are definitely acceptable fears. I would personally share any of the fears that have to do with institutional reform within the Egyptian state. And I know that Egypt needs institutional reform in every single institution, not only the Ministry of Interior.
As I said, my fear is maybe beyond their fears; my fear is that the Ministry of Interior reform has to do a lot with the reform of education, it has to do a lot with the reform of media, it has to do a lot with the reform of culture. You cannot separate that. It is not just that [you have to tell the Ministry of Interior] they have to be nicer with people. You have police brutality in Los Angeles, California. But the percentage of it is very low because the education system starts with a completely different paradigm.

But people have a growing concern about the return of day-to-day violence exercised by the police.
That is why we have to know that it is about the culture of the people. People sometimes [take a job because they want to play a certain role; it is beyond the job]: it is about the position … it is about the social classing. So you have to change that in the society. And that will not change unless you change it through education.

How will the current government change the negative images that have been formed about Egypt abroad?
I have been talking to Western officials, and [I would say part of that] is based on the same heritage that they had in mind: that this is Egypt and Egypt used to be ruled that way, so [we do not give] anything the benefit of the doubt.
[We lived in a state of emergency for 30 years, so many assumed that] the state of emergency that was declared on August 14 will continue for another 30 years. When the state of emergency was lifted in three months’ time, as it was promised, that was a [reassuring] gesture for the West. But that [reassuring] gesture was not just done for the West, it was for us and for our people. We have to find a way to live away from exceptions; we have to live by the rules. If the West sees us keeping our promises to ourselves in the road map while talking about the constitution, then [they have] to take a calculated risk about future Egypt and not measure us against past Egypt. As much as they are scared of past Egypt, we are more scared of it. We do not want it to come back. We [won’t accept] the paradigm of the past anymore.

Photo by Hayssam Samir

Photo by Hayssam Samir

What is your biggest fear about the time to come?
Not having the critical mass of rational, competent people, and leaving the space to mediocrity. Mediocrity is my greatest fear. Leaving a society again [in] the hand[s] of mediocre [people], under any circumstances, is a real killer.

How is the current administration dealing with social divisions and the embitterment of certain segments of society, whether it is members of the Muslim Brotherhood or others?
First of all, you have to weigh the divisions with their own realities and acknowledge them with their own real weights. You should not either overestimate them or underestimate them. … The Egyptian society is not divided between Islamists and non-Islamists; it is not between people with a certain ideology and others. As we said, it is between a set of values of the past and a set of values of the future. The more that we get people to be aware of the values of the future, [the more they will realize] that the values we are calling for [are what] they have to stand by.

That is why in South Africa they started with truth and then reconciliation. That is why, in our transitional justice, I call it truth-justice, and probably reconciliation comes way after. But it is truth and justice.

The Strategic Thinker

The university professor and strategic thinker first caught the public eye at a press conference in August of last year, following the dispersal of the sit-ins at Rabaa El Adaweya and Al-Nahda Squares. Higazy’s current position coupled with his expertise in institutional reform and strategic planning put him in a position to give insight on Egypt’s future in the months to come. Through his public appearances and various interviews with the press, he has tried to bridge the gap between the public and the current administration, and to mend relations with the international community.

In the past months, transitional justice has been associated almost exclusively with the Muslim Brotherhood. But transitional justice dates back to the legacy of Mubarak. How is the current government working to enact transitional justice?
There is a wrong definition for transitional justice which is [prevalent], and we are trying to, in a way, rectify it. Transitional justice is not about political disputes that you have to settle.

It is not about [pleasing] a political faction that is [unhappy with the way things are]. Transitional justice is about the society being truthful with its own self, and to be on the path of trust building. And without knowing the truth about what happened in the past first, and knowing that it is not about the killing that happened in the revolution or two; it is about knowing what happened in this society’s institutions that got us to where they are now. How people should build a trust system in their own institutions — that is transitional justice. [People use a very limited and distorted definition of transitional justice]. There are parts of transitional justice that have to do with the historical atrocities and wrongdoings, but this is just one part of it, this is not the whole thing.But someone who has lost a son or a daughter or a loved one will have a strong feeling that justice must be served. Do you think that this too needs to be addressed?
Yes, but there is a difference between a vindictive process and a transitional justice process. A transitional justice process starts with what led to the loss of this son in that situation, and we go to the profound reason of why this happened. Maybe the institution [needs to be reformed or] restructured, but, at the same time, we have to [classify] things according to their proper definition, because not every perpetrator is a perpetrator, and not every victim is a victim. You have to define who the perpetrator is and who the victim is. And accordingly you have to [go through] the legal system, and the legal system has to deal with it in [due] time. The legal system has to restore rights for the society instead of taking revenge.

Higazy’s new book

Higazy’s new book

You talk about creating a meritocracy in Egypt. In spite of the changes in Egypt, our public sector continues to function with all its inefficiencies, and people have learned to navigate that system. What are the mechanisms needed to promote a merit-based value system, socially and within our institutions?
The best way that you can get people with merit to the frontline [is by making] people aware of real achievements and [building] benchmarks that they can measure their own par against. [Today, it is] an open competition. If you [have a minister who] is not performing… people would sense that… [They] would not give time to people who are incompetent. [When people realize that public office is more about responsibility than it is about glamour or prestige], that would get more competent people to the frontline and that would naturally create meritocracy.
[If you have a group of people sitting in a room fighting over silly things, and you tell them that they can continue fighting, but that someone will set the room on fire from the outside], in a split second, you got their attention. And the threat in a situation like we are in now is a truth, is a fact, and people have to know what they are threatened with. If we can do that to the people, it will make them realize that those kinds of divisions are not worth it. It is the collective action and the collective responsibility that will get us there.

What is the threat today?
The threat now is not to become capable. Of [not] passing this period that we are in swiftly enough, so [instead] we give other nations the chance to re-engineer the whole region that we are responsible for, and we become under the threat of being squeezed within our borders. If we are not capable enough, we will lag behind. We will be moving according to the directions of other people’s agendas, not because we like to do so but because we are pressured to do so, because we are still working on firefighting on a daily basis. We will always be a semi-crippled nation living like someone who is always out of breath.

What cripples us?
It would be like what is happening now: You will always have problems that supersede your capacity because you have to deal with the urgent issues, not the important ones, and that is what we call the crisis quad. And sometimes even worse, we would be dealing with the non-urgent, non-important issues, and that is what we call the loss quad. Living in the loss quad leads you back to being dehumanized, because you lose focus in your human capacity. [We have to] think of the non-urgent, but extremely important things, [like what] the shape of this nation will be in 10 years’ time.

There are committees and ministries in the current government that must deal with crises on a daily basis. Does the administration have a vision for the future that prioritizes what is important?
The current government, I call it a crisis commission and it should be as such, because it has to deal with the crises. The only thing needed from this commission is not to postpone the inevitable, not to prolong the [process so the] time bomb explodes in somebody else’s face. [They have to defuse] anything that looks like a time bomb.

The ones that have to [work for the future], whether in this administration or in a future administration, is what we call a strategic commission [or a brain trust]. When I talk about the strategy of emergence [in my book], I talk about the need for a strategic commission to think about the strategy of the future. It has to be an ongoing work in the coming administrations, regardless of my position out of the administration. But it is something that I am determined, as an Egyptian citizen, to have in this country. We have to have an institutional brain, which is not there yet; we have to have governments that abide by this brain, and we have to have this harmony between strategic thinking and execution.

The Academic

Higazy calls for an brain trust that focuses on the future while others attend to the crises of the moment.

Higazy calls for an brain trust that focuses on the future while others attend to the crises of the moment.

Higazy holds a PhD in engineering and strategic crisis management from the University of Southern California. In his book The Rosetta Stone: The Secure Exit for Egypt, Higazy discusses the challenges of overcoming the “paradigm of the past” which is characterized by incompetence and “fakeness.” Through his work in applied philosophy, Higazy explores the emergence of a new humanistic paradigm for the post-modern age; he coined the term the “wisdom age” paradigm, which he claims is yet to emerge.
Higazy posits the notion of theatrical reality, loosely described as a system where personas are created to fulfill social roles. He claims that by participating in this reality, Egyptians became complicit in their own oppression. Published immediately prior to June 30, his book explores events from the past two decades and their implications for the future.

In your book, you say that if we accept private lessons in place of schools, then we are complicit in the failure of our educational system, and that if we accept medical centers in place of public health care, then we accept that the state does not have an obligation to fulfill these roles. What are the mechanisms of changing our roles in this system?
We have to use the rationale of, ‘If this system worked, why we are where we are today?’ Maybe you have some individual successes, but on the societal level, we have huge failures, and on the national level we have humongous failures.
People have to learn this by experience. Part of the major fakeness in this society has to do with the reform process itself. If you want to do development reform, then you have to [question the profound values at the heart of it]. And that is to say, where is the value of freedom in this society? Where is the value of justice in this society? Where is the value of dignity in this society? If you find that you are not getting all those values, then what you are doing is best-case scenario relief reform, but in every scenario this is against reform. So people found out [through] January 25 that you cannot continue reform in the arena that you like, but it has to be where the reform should be.


Is that fakeness or incompetence?
It is both. Most fake people, they are mostly incompetent people; they would like to sugarcoat their own incompetency with fakeness.

What is your vision for Egypt, given the current challenges, in the short-term and the long-term?
I am very optimistic, but I am pragmatically optimistic, meaning that I know that there is a lot to be done. As far as creating the constitutional foundation for this country, I think it is on track. That does not negate the fact that there are differences, and it does not negate the fact that while seeking perfection, we know that perfection is incomplete. At the end of the day we know that this is one evolutional cycle in our march to the future. And for me, the march to the future does not go on a straight ramp up, but it goes on an evolutional spiral format. You have to go through a whole cycle, and then you go upward in another cycle or loop, which is smaller. In each loop there is a knowledge-building phase that would leave us with a set of expertise. But [that expertise does not always] prevent us from committing some of the blunders of the previous cycles. Because [you have a] whole society with a past paradigm, and you do not have within that society enough critical mass with the paradigm of the future.

What I was looking for before January 25 was the critical mass of Egyptians that would always consider that living in a non-free, non-dignified, non-just society is something that they cannot [accept]. [Today, we have this critical mass and it is in the millions]. That is why I am glad and confident in the future. All they need is to [be on] the same wavelength about what should be done beyond protesting, beyond [demonstrating] beyond declining and [rejecting] what they do not like. They have to start building this kind of critical mass consensus.

By Hayssam Samir

By Hayssam Samir

What would you say to people who have fears or reservations about the coming phase?
I would say that the best thing to be optimistic about the future is to build it yourself. That is what I have been saying over the past 10 years. I have my fears, I know that life is about risk; I know that those things are changing for the better. Are they going to change in one cycle? No. But that is what I do for a living. My work is as a strategic thinker and an institutional mentor, so I know how institutions develop. Institutions develop over a period of time, with a whole lot of change of culture.
People think that the toughest part is writing the constitution, but for me this is the easiest part. For me, the most important part is enlivening institutions in the form of culture. If we are not able to do that, then we have a major problem. It is about culture building, and [this will happen] because you are [experiencing] a change in paradigm in your generation, in my generation, in the generation which is older. [There are others who are less capable of being] part of the future because they are too deformed to change; and it is not a surprise that people in your generation belong to the past more than the future. And this might give a safe haven for mediocrity in the future. The ones who want to live by the rules of the past are the [ones who are the most dangerous]. et

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