In this Enigma exclusive, Managing Editor Amy Mowafi speaks to Egypt’s Enigmatic Minister of Trade and Industry, Rachid Mohamed Rachid, at his home in Cairo. Read on for a rare glimpse into the thoughts, hopes and ideals of the man behind the mission to make Egypt a better place for future generations.
It’s a powerful image. Rachid Mohamed Rachid, Egypt’s Minister of Trade and Industry, sitting perfectly still in the expansive silence of his empty Cairo apartment. His wife is at home in Alexandria. His three daughters have long ago flown the nest. The sun is setting, painting shadows on his kindly face. He is in his favourite armchair, the one overlooking the meandering waters of the world’s longest river – glowing and glittering in the twilight. Perhaps there’s a little slow Italian music – his favourite – playing quietly in the background. This is his favourite spot to unwind and to reflect; a silent space – both literal and figurative – in which to mull over the path he has chosen and the decisions he has yet to make. Decisions that can make or break entire industrial infrastructures and shape our very economy; choices that can make ‘em love you or hate you; that can build a legacy or destroy a man. Often times his eyes are drawn to the fist-sized black metal sculpture on the coffee table beside him, the one of a matador and bull. And with a barely audible sigh he’ll wonder to himself, whether he is in fact the matador or the bull.
This is a strange world in which he finds himself, this place of politics, politicking and preening. He’s definitely not in Kansas anymore. It’s an unexpected twist in the tale of a businessman who rose through the ranks quietly and spent a lifetime shunning the limelight. An Alexandrian by breeding and an engineer by education, he earned an impressive list of post-grad diplomas from the Ivy league likes of MIT and Harvard, before inheriting the family’s frozen food business. Fine Foods was the first local manufacturer of frozen foods and was incredibly successful in all its ventures. And Rachid could easily have settled into his inheritance and continued to reap the profits. Instead he proceeded to cut one of the most impressive regional deals of the decade with the largest consumer goods companies in the world. Unilever acquired his company and named Rachid Chairman of Unilever Egypt, which also made him responsible for business development in the Middle East. Within industry circles Rachid was respected and revered; a master of his own world, but not beyond. His name was never the sort to be bandied about cocktail parties, his achievements rarely appeared in the press. And that’s exactly the way he liked it and the way he intended it.
And then, one early summer’s morning in 2004, while visiting his newly born first grandchild in Paris, Rachid gets a phone call from the newly appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif. After a brief round of pleasantries, Nazif calmly announces that Rachid has been nominated for a ministerial position of serious power. It was out of the blue, unexpected, unintended. What’s more, Rachid only had 24 hours to make his decision. 24 hours to decide whether he should leave three decades of private sector success behind and leap into life as a public servant; whether he should change the lives of his family; whether he should, or indeed could, taken on an entire economy and all the livelihoods that depend on it.
Of course he could. And he did. But from day one, he made his reasons patently clear. He was not doing this for power or prestige. This was not about him. This was…well…about his granddaughter; about creating a better Egypt for her. This was his opportunity to shape the future for her entire generation. From the beginning his vision was simple yet powerful in its potential consequences. He envisioned Egypt as free market economy. And this is the one governing philosophy that has shaped his political career.
In the pursuit of that vision he has tackled customs, tariffs and trade; he has expounded the virtues of open competition and implemented the necessary policies to try to achieve his ideals. He has condemned the big money monopolies and battled the consequential wars; even when it meant facing the stolid industrial machine, head on, in all its rage. But, hey, let’s not talk shop. It’s all been plenty documented, in the local and international media and of course at cocktail parties. That is not our purpose today. It’s the man that we’re after. Because despite constant exposure and his easy affability, Rachid remains an enigma. And so today, on this beautiful afternoon in early September, we are most interested in the man behind the mission.
Four years on from that fateful phone call, is he still doing it for the kids? Or have the harsh realities of political mongering gotten in the way? Surely it’s hard not to get high off the fumes of power or wake up one morning and discover your original objectives have frozen in the cold light of day. Well, we’ll get his answer in a moment, but before words, come actions, and often it’s best to judge a man by his simplest of conducts…
Rachid is a man who walks to work every morning. The five-minute walk from his Garden City apartment to his ministerial offices is a ritual he refuses to give up; despite the desperate pleas of his security officials. “Everybody on our street knows me now, so they’re used to it,” he says, as he settles into a creamy sofa for our interview, having just completed said walk back to the apartment. He will not succumb to anyone’s projected perceptions of how he ought to behave or how he ought to package himself. As a businessman he used to walk to work whenever he could. As a politician he continues to do the same.
Rachid is a man who refuses to call anywhere but Alexandria home. As a businessman he was obliged to keep offices in London. Yet, in over 14 years, he never once considered setting up home in England. He insisted on “commuting” back and forth. He may now be obliged to keep a sleek city-centre apartment in Cairo, but as far as he’s concerned “it’s the first and last time” he’ll be based in the capital. “The moment I finish this job I’ll leave,” he says. “I’m heading straight back to Alex. My wife and I treat this place as temporary. This is not home.” Rachid remains resolutely unimpressed by the bright lights of the big city; he will not be seduced by sparkle.
Rachid is man who refuses to lose himself. He refuses to allow the high-octane pressures of public office and becoming a public persona, change him into something harder or different to what he has always been. The political furnace has devoured many a man’s integrity, and if there’s one thing Rachid will never ever lose, it’s his integrity. “I try very hard to make sure I don’t change. And I do it consciously,” he says. “To the extent that I keep asking people around me, have you noticed any change? Do I act or react or behave in a different way? Seriously I have people around me, who can be open with me, to whom I ask these questions. I want to remain the same person. Of course you gain a lot of experience. You react to the new life that you have, but I want to keep myself. When I was still in business, one of my friends gave me a great piece of advice. I was about to start work in a new environment and he reminded me I would be under pressure to adjust, to cope by becoming the same as those around me. But, he said, my strength was that I am different. And that’s the crux of it: if you try and act like what you presume a politician or a minister to be, you immediately lose yourself. If you try and guess what people want you to do, and do it, you lose yourself. And if you lose yourself, you lose the essence and ingredients of your success. You are where you are, because of your character. Whatever it is. I’m not saying I’m perfect, I’m sure there are a lot of negatives in my personality, but whatever they are, I want to stay as I am.”
This is not a man with a tendency to digress, to deviate from the task at hand or the aspirations in mind. So of course he’s still doing it for his granddaughter. And the three more grandkids he’s had since. “My motivation remains the same,” he says. “I’m working for the new generation. The future has to be better than the present. Whether we do it or other people do it, it’s important we see change and reform in the country. Whenever I sit with any of the country’s youth, I can sense desperation and frustration, and that hurts. It shows me that as a generation we have not done enough to ensure our country is as effective for our children and grandchildren as it was for us. And that’s created a lot of negative sentiments in a lot of young people. So this has to change. We cannot give up on our ambitions to make the future better, and it’s everybody’s mission to make sure we deliver that.”
Rachid might be a businessman, but he’s not a salesman. There’s no razzmatazz surrounding his ideologies. He’s not a political preacher, orally pulling at your emotions. He’s as much a pragmatist as he is an idealist. He doesn’t talk, he does; which is shocking, because many have come to think change is never going to come. And then out of left field the machine is in motion, and whether your industry or business is suffering the consequences or bathing in the bounty, it’s all a little traumatic, because it’s different. And no one, at first at least, likes change. It engenders the fiercest of resistances and resentments, and unleashes the monster in the media. So how does a man, who believes he has the country’s best interests at heart, withstand the backlash? Where does a man find the tremendous tenacity required not to wake up one day, and think, ‘to hell with it’?
Well it requires iron in the soul to face down the monopolistic power players who accuse you of betraying the professional establishment. And Rachid’s calmness in the line of fire derives simply from his self-belief. Not the fragile veneer of assurance acquired by most politicians, but a deep down certainty he is on the right path. “Everybody loves change for everybody else except themselves,” he starts. “So change is always difficult, because the essence of change is that you are giving up the security and stability of the short term for a benefit in the long term. And in many cases you don’t know what it is. It’s like jumping into the darkness. You’re asking people to jump into the sea, and they won’t jump unless you convince them where you are sending them is better. So you can never assume there will not be resistance. If you don’t have resistance you’re not changing anything. If everyone is happy then you can guarantee you’re not doing the right thing; because it means everyone is staying exactly where they are.”
The imagery is vivid and violent and it’s all a world away from this peaceful living room; with its coffee table books, its framed family photographs and it’s gentle protagonist who speaks in hushed tones. But this world, his own world, of calm and quiet is one he rarely gets to visit anymore. “In the past it was about life balance,” he says. “Trying to keep everyone happy. Now it’s about life imbalance, trying to make everyone equally unhappy.” He laughs. At an age when most men are contemplating slowing down and wrapping it all up, he’s decided the needs of the mission must supersede the needs of the man. “I don’t have family time, I don’t have friends time, I don’t have time. That is the nature of the job and you just have to count on the understanding of the people around you. And let’s make that clear. I do count on them. At first I thought there must be some other way to do it. But there’s not. I asked all my friends and colleagues in other countries and they’re all in the same situation. Ministers in France, Italy and South Africa all feel exactly the same. You’re dealing with the president, the prime minister, international community, you have to act and react to events, you’re on call 24 hours and everyone thinks they have a right to your time.”
Yet Rachid was trained long ago to stoically bear the burden of great responsibility. As a child his father threw him into the deep end, and he’s been swimming ever since. “When I was seven or eight my father had to spend long periods away from Egypt. He’d only visit once every two or three months. I was the only boy and he made me feel I was responsible for the family. Not because of necessity but because he wanted me to take responsibility. He encouraged me to take decisions and be in charge. He said, ‘you have to take care of your family, you have to take care of the security and stability of the people around you.”
How fitting then, that all these years later, he is in large part responsible for the security and stability of an entire economy, an entire nation. “Whatever you do it will affect thousands and maybe millions of people. That’s a reality. That’s what ministers are supposed to do. Once you are aware of that, you feel the load on you. But you need to make sure it does not paralyse you from your decisions. We are given the responsibility to take decisions, not to avoid them. If we don’t take decisions we have failed that responsibility and all those depending on us.”
And Rachid is not the type to fail anyone, least of all himself. For better or worse, he has found himself centre stage in the political arena. Armoured with a vision for a better brighter Egypt, he will battle it out to very end…sometimes as matador and sometimes as bull.