I grew up in an era when Egyptian ambassadors were usually retired army officers, sacked from the army and still compensated by being assigned to ambassadors’ posts. These men were often clueless as far as diplomacy and protocol were concerned. His Excellency, the guest of honour, sat at events, hardly opened his mouth or mingled and remained aloof and distant. Simultaneously, the embassy was managed like a bureaucratic Egyptian office, the consulate tedious and maddening.
So when I was told that the Egyptian ambassador to Canada was making a visit to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia, I was, at first, reluctant to attend. However, because I truly wanted to know his views on the current situation in Egypt, l went. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised.
Ambassador Waeel Aboul Elmagd arrived on time, shook hands and introduced himself by name to all attendees standing close by, was well dressed, and seemed down to earth and cordial. He also spoke the English language fluently and eloquently, so eloquently that he was never short of words or stammered to find a phrase. He was also well informed, candid, responsive and persuasive all in one.
But most of all, the ambassador had an encouraging demeanor about him. He remained positive even when he was talking about the challenges befalling Egypt. He was also genuinely keen on promoting Egypt—no fake diplomacy here; he sees a bright future and encourages Egyptians abroad to play a role in that future.
Ambassador Aboul Elmagd’s topic was “The Democratic Transition in Egypt.” He discussed the revolution's achievemet, the existing myths, and the challenges facing Egypt. His talk was followed by an array of questions from the attendees.
He started off by underlining the revolution's success, a momentous event in the history of Egypt. He challenged the naysayers who argue that the revolution has not achieved anything and who say that things were better under the old regime. He did this by citing the direct results from the revolution; namely, the heightened level of accountability of the current—and any future—president of Egypt; the fact that the rampant corruption, which existed previously, has been curtailed; the end of the impunity enjoyed by the police in dealing with citizens, and the settling of the relations between the first democratically elected civilian president and the military.
The two myths he focused on were, one, Islamizing Egypt, and two, the annulment of the Camp David Agreement. He refuted both myths giving valid and convincing explanations of why such myths would not be realities.
He also acknowledged the numerous challenges, which continue to confront Egypt's transition. Some of the conceptual challenges include the urgent need to define the role of religion in public life, combating the rampant absolutism in public discourse, “my choice is the best,” which has deepened the rift among the political players and among Egyptians, too; and the creeping cynicism in Egyptian youth, who once again assume their efforts would be wasted.
Among the more tangible challenges, he alluded to the economic ones: lack of foreign direct investment, and drop in tourism; and the security challenge—increased lawlessness and disregard of the law, as well as the lack of preparedness and training of the police itself; as the most pressing.
Then the ambassador took questions from the floor. He eradicated the worries of the two Israeli attendees without once belittling from the Palestinian cause or Egypt’s right. At the end, the Israeli woman who fumbled to choose her words without coming across as disrespectful, followed the ambassador outside, walked up to him, shook his hand, and told him how much she enjoyed his talk and was encouraged by his explanations.
Two Egyptian Canadian students seemed worried about women’s and Coptic rights; he was clear that these are areas, too, needed extensive work, but I believe by the end of his response he had managed to encourage them both to return to Egypt and work hard on improving women’s status there.
As much as I was gratified throughout the talk, I grappled with one aspect. Though this should’ve been a win-win situation, I don’t think Egyptians, in general, or UBC students, in particular, got enough out of it. The event was not publicized or promoted well, the venue inappropriate; I’d have liked to see hundreds of political science, journalism, and communication students enjoy the ambassador’s lecture—he would’ve gained their approval ever so quickly. Only then would have both Egypt and UBC students truly gained.
I’m blogging about the ambassador’s visit to UBC because he solidified a new impression within me: not all Egyptian government officials are bureaucrats, nonchalant and not caring, but in fact many are passionate about promoting Egypt. I came out of the talk believing in the role that a government official can play once more.
I’m sure many similar officials exist, but it is always good to give credit where credit is due. Thank you Ambassador Aboul Magd for returning my trust. Thank you for making me see a better tomorrow for Egypt.