“Made in Egypt, by Egypt, for Egypt”

By Mohamed El-Erian
June 29, 2011

It is a great pleasure to be with you today. I would like to express my deep appreciation to the Board of Trustees of the American University in Cairo … and extend my immense congratulations to AUC’s graduating class of 2011.

At this time, and more than ever, AUC and other centers of learning in Egypt occupy a very important position in a country that is in the midst of historic transformations. In today’s Egypt, universities are — and should be — much more than centers of learning. They are critical facilitators of beneficial change for millions of Egyptians; for current and for future generations; and for the well-being of a country, a region, and a global system.

People look to our centers of learning for education and thought leadership. They look to them for guidance in navigating complex economic, institutional, political, and social transformations. And they look for them to develop the future leaders of society at every level.

All this gives our centers of learning a critical role in Egypt’s already rich and inspiring history. It is a privilege for AUC and other universities in Egypt. It is also a huge responsibility.

I have no doubt that, with sustained effort and steadfast commitment, you will deliver; and do with pride and excellence.

Speaking today at an academic institution, I could — and should — support this assertion with a well-formulated theoretical foundation, empirical evidence, and peer analysis. I should, but I will not.

Instead, I will illustrate it with two very down-to-earth analogies that reflect the importance of never forgetting the insights of simplicity.

The first comes from the 1980s. I was traveling from Cairo to New York on the direct, non-stop EgyptAir flight. We left Cairo 5 hours late, had an uneventful flight, and experienced the perfect landing that Egyptian pilots are internationally renowned for. Sitting next to an American, we did not exchange a single word during the 10-hour-plus flight — that is, until we landed.

Just after the wheels touched down incredibly smoothly, this gentleman turned to me and said “typical Egypt.” “Excuse me?” I responded. He repeated “typical Egypt.” And then went on to share with me an explanation along the following lines: “Leave Egyptians to do things on their own, and they will deliver a world class outcome. That is why we had such a perfect landing. But place them in an inefficient system, and the outcome is far from world class; and that is why we are five hours late.”

This EgyptAir story is illustrative of the fact that there are many examples of Egyptians shining in the toughest of worldwide competitions. It is about a Naguib Mahfouz and an Ahmed Zewail winning Nobel Prizes. It is about Egyptian doctors that are among the very best healers in the most respected hospitals around the world. It is about Egyptian professors that are first-class educators and researchers. It is about Egyptian artists who bring music, movies and art to millions. And it is about Egyptian football stars helping their teams win league championships in tough national and regional competitions.

Speaking of football, allow me to share the second simple analogy. This one comes from my childhood.

Growing up in Egypt, I was always among the very last kids to be picked for a soccer team at primary school. And sometimes, I would not be picked at all. Instead, I would be asked to stand behind the goal to retrieve the balls rather than play on the field.

Well, as a 10-year-old, I followed my father to New York as he assumed his post at the Egyptian Mission to the UN. I joined a school there and, quickly, I became the captain of the class soccer team.

Now it could be that I experienced some remarkable transformation during the trip to New York. I did not. The reality is that, back then, Egyptians were simply better at the sport.

I share with you these simple stories because I believe that Egypt, led by Egyptians, is today at a very special juncture.

Egyptians have a remarkable opportunity to shape a new and better destiny for their country. And the rare combination of both willingness and ability comes wrapped in a new sense of purpose, energy and engagement on the direction of the country.

Owing to the tremendous sacrifices of its many heroes, Egypt is in the midst of a revolution — a truly transformational moment in a history that goes back over seven millennia. We thank all those that bravely took to the street, forming a movement that helped all Egyptians overcome decades of fear. In the process, they united Egyptians of all ages, social classes, and religions around a simple aspiration of a better tomorrow.

To use a song that I came across when watching a wonderful American television (“60 Minutes”) interview with Wael Ghonim, and one that has been played many times in our home and at presentations that I have made in the U.S. on the Egyptian revolution-Sout el Horreya, or the Voice of Freedom sung by Hany Adel and Amir Eid: “Our dreams were our weapon…[and] all barriers have been shattered.” And to use New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s characterization, what was delivered was a revolution “made in Egypt, by Egypt, for Egypt.”

But most revolutions are not discrete events; they are transformational processes. They are seldom easy; they can take many months and years; and the first, most visible part of a successful revolution — that of overthrowing a regime — is often a necessary condition for a successful revolution; but this huge and courageous step alone is not sufficient. It improves the probability of achieving the objective of the revolution — that of a better society for all of Egypt — but it does not guarantee success.

In today’s Egypt, the required transformations involve challenges that cut across politics, economics and finance. They have important social and geo-political dimensions. And they operate in fluid regional and global contexts. And they will not happen without continued steadfast commitment. Each of these realities is extremely complex.

Think about the challenges inherent in altering the structure of an economy so that it can deliver in a decisive and lasting manner the combination of more inclusive economic growth, greater poverty alleviation, improved international competitiveness, and low inflation.

Think of the importance of reaching the most vulnerable segments of the population in a timely manner — providing better access to education, health, nutrition and other essential social services.

Think of the challenges of keeping the country’s finances in order at a time of reduced tourist receipts, lower remittances from workers in Libya and elsewhere, and high food and commodity prices in international markets.

Think of the challenges of constructing an open and transparent political process after many decades of repression, suppression, and too much control by too few.

And think of the importance of institutions. As Jean Monnet, the famous French father of European unity, observed: “Nothing is possible without men and women, but nothing is lasting without institutions.” Egypt today faces the complex challenges of quickly adapting and building institutions that are credible and efficient.

None of these are easy; and the significant degree of difficulty compounds quickly when the challenges interact, as is the case in Egypt today.

It is tempting for a nation and for a society to feel overwhelmed by all this. Today’s Egypt should not. These are all surmountable challenges, especially if the country retains its unity, commonality of purpose, and purity of aspiration.

It may also be tempting for some of you here to feel powerless, believing that your own potential contributions pale in comparison to these significant societal challenges. You should not.

Every single one of you has the ability to make a difference in today’s Egypt. Indeed, many of you already do so, day in and day out.

You maintain the momentum for positive change. You work hard to counter the huge disparities in income and wealth, and the extremes in access to education, health and other basic social needs. And you are unwilling — and rightly so — to see millions of your countrymen and countrywomen condemned to a life of poverty, human degradation and despair.

All of you are facilitators of a better tomorrow for Egypt, of the “new Egypt.”

Indeed, nothing gives me greater joy than to hear all the stories of Egyptians volunteering to make a difference in a village, in a slum, in a school that has insufficient books, and in a hospital overwhelmed by patients.

Just a few months into Egypt’s revolution, we see concrete changes on the ground. And it is not just about new political parties, broad-based national debates, and a more generalized sense of empowerment to influence the country’s outlook. It is also about multiple daily wins.

It is about young volunteers adopting villages and neighborhoods to help make a difference on the ground. It is about individual Egyptians, like Wael Ghonim, setting up NGOs to improve the future of other Egyptian families. And it is about true visionaries, such as Ahmed Zewail, who is inspiring and leading a national project to help Egyptian society attain the scientific and technological advancements that are so essential to sustain growth, poverty alleviation and employment creation in today’s rapidly changing global economy.

AUC has also been at the forefront of change. New courses have been created to put the revolution in context, both historical and forward looking. New initiatives, such as the Tahrir Dialogues, are part of an effort to help “build a better Egypt.” Public seminars are being held to encourage debate among the many and facilitate civic and political participation. And web-based approaches are being used to facilitate volunteerism and community service.

A lot is already being done; and a lot, lot more will need to be done.

To be associated with a university in Egypt today is to occupy a very special and important place. Whether you are members of the student body, educators or administrators, you should always remember that privilege comes with enormous responsibility.

As John F. Kennedy once said, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” And Egyptians living outside Egypt, like me, are committed to help you and others in whatever way we can to ensure a truly successful revolution and a better Egypt for current and future generations.

This is adapted from a commencement speech delivered at the American University in Cairo on June 16, 2011.

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That JFK quote comes from the Christian New Testament – Luke 12:48.

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