Politics in the blood

" I felt I had ideas that I thought should be represented." Coptic businessman and politician Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour explains his calling


Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour is one of the few Christians who are equally active in both business and politics. His family were prominent landowners in the nineteenth century, and were active in national politics with the Wafd party during and after the 1919 revolution. Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour himself founded one of Egypt's industrial success stories, Vitrac, whose jams, juices and syrups can be found in stores all around the country and are exported, Abdel Nour says, nearly to nearly everywhere in the world except the European Union. Vitrac was originally a long-standing French firm; Abdel Nour formed a partnership with them, but the French went bankrupt, and now the only Vitrac products in the world are Egyptian. Abdel Nour also sits on the high assembly of the Wafd party, and ran for parliament in 1995 in the central Cairo district of Al Weily. This particular race gained notoriety when Abdel Nour's opponent circulated anti-Christian pamphlets. Like nearly all the opposition candidates in those elections, Abdel Nour lost. (He doesn't think the pamphlets were really a deciding factor.) Come 2000, he says, he'll probably try again.

Vitrac's headquarters are an architectural gem. A Moorish villa from the 1920s, dressed with mashrabiyya and tiles, it belonged formerly to Bahieddin Barakat (a family friend, best known as the regent during the brief reign of King Ahmed Fouad after Farouq's abdication), and is now given over to business. But compliment Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour on his offices and you'll learn about the down side pretty quickly. It's cold in winter, he says, hot in summer. It's a nightmare to maintain. Try installing a phone line or electricity in these old walls.

Abdel Nour isn't starry-eyed about his political home, either. " I am extremely critical of the Wafd. It's perceived to be an old party, managed by an old set with old ideas. It's a party that needs to introduce new blood." Which is easier said than done: " Why would an ambitious young Egyptian interested in political life be attracted by an opposition party?" he asks.

But he's an active Wafdist. His family was Wafdist, and he believes in the Wafd's political liberalism. And he stays in the Barakat villa. You work with what you're given, he seems to say, which appears like it might be something of a philosophy. Late 20th-century Egypt might not be perfect for a public-spirited Christian to make his or her mark on politics - it isn't for a Muslim either, actually. But the situation is far from hopeless, and there's a lot that can be done, if one is willing.

" Copts have rightly or wrongly got the impression of not being able to make it in the life of Egypt, within the NDP [the ruling National Democratic Party] or without the NDP," Abdel Nour says. " The strength of the Islamist movement feeds that marginalization. So they participate more in making money. I have a totally different approach. It's a duty, an obligation to be present in political life. There is absolutely no reason to be marginalized, to abandon the stake [in public life]. One should think positively." 

Abdel Nour has done most of the things expected of an Egyptian who's interested in public life but doesn't want to work through the state; he's written articles in the newspapers, he's published reports, he's joined associations and NGOs. He's also done something that a lot of prominent people, particularly Christians, have preferred to avoid - running for parliament. He went back to the poor district of Al Weily, the seat of the family house where Abdel Nour was born and grew up, but now a densely populated, poor neighborhood where the Islamist movement, particularly the associated charitable organizations, have a high profile. People's initial reaction to his candidature was a little skeptical. " I remembered I was sitting in the cafe in Al Weily and I said I was going to run," Abdel Nour said. " 'You can't run,' the [man I was talking to] said. 'I'm running for parliament, not for Sheikh of Al Azhar,' I said. I said give it a thought, and in two or three days I talked to him again, and he agreed there was no problem." 

It's not that there's anti-Christian feeling per se, Abdel Nour says. " Despite the period through which Egypt was subjected to a very Islamicized atmosphere, the layman is not a fanatic. He is respectful of Christianity." It's just that people aren't used to Christians in politics, and the government hasn't done much to challenge the stereotype. And an unscrupulous parliamentary candidate can make use of a principle derived from the Quran - a Muslim should not be wali over a non-Muslim - to justify that position." " Wali" is one of those words that's notoriously difficult to translate. Usually it means lord or protector, implying some level of patriarchal authority; it's not normally associated with a system that calls itself a democracy. But that's not a distinction you're trained to make in a secondary school theology class. And the pamphlets were a little more explicit: " No to the Nazarenes, no to the Magi," suggesting some sort of insidious Christian-Zoroastrian conspiracy.

There was outrage throughout the press. Anti-Christian hate speech, whether it comes from the mouths of extremist sheikhs or politicians, is one thing that gets the entire political spectrum up in arms. The Islamists were among the loudest voices in Abdel Nour's support. Maybe this was opportunism - the Brothers and Islamist newspaper Al Shaab try hard to give the perception that their platform is for the whole nation, Copts and Muslims alike. Or maybe they were genuinely outraged that the other candidate was playing fast and loose with scripture in this way. Abdel Nour doesn't appear to have much sympathy for Islamism as an ideology - he refers to it as " extremist" - but he has a kind word for many of the individuals who espouse it. " To be frank, the Muslim Brotherhood at all levels stood by me," he said. " The extremists in the neighborhood - the Brothers - went around explaining the rights of a non-Muslim. Selim Al Awwa [a respected and independent-minded Islamic thinker] wrote [in both the opposition Al Shaab and the state-owned Al Ahram] explaining that wilaya did not mean representation. A Christian could be a parliamentarian - or a minister of defense or chief justice, for that matter." At any rate, the wali trick had little depth. " People might use it to justify positions that they had already taken" - but it was the usual NDP machine that won. And anyway, Abdel Nour says, it was an old trick. " I know in 1924, in Qena, [prominent Christian politician] Makram Obeid was opposing a family which was ashraaf - from the descendants of the Prophet - and the ashraaf used exactly the same argument. Saad Zaghloul had to send down a prominent Islamic thinker, Sheikh Al Ayati, to help Makram in the campaign." Makram won.

And there's the big difference, Abdel Nour says. Back then, most elections weren't decided in advance. " A minority can only flourish within a democracy." He has no problem with the word minority, he says, it's a demographic term which can apply equally well to a particular religion (Christian, for example) or a particular party affiliation (Wafdist, for example). The point is that an undemocratic system tends to stress certain identities at the expense of others.

Abdel Nour's experience has not dissuaded him from participating in public life. He repeats: it was an obligation. " I felt I belonged to a social strata that should be represented. I felt I was a type of businessman that should be represented. I felt I had ideas that I thought should be represented." The ideas? Liberalism. The type of businessmen? " An honest investor, not a fly-by-nighter, with a vested interest in development. And with certain ethics, a moral sense." 

And the strata? That some are born to govern may chafe at some people's egalitarian instincts; it's not a very popular idea these days. Abdel Nour explains: " People whose names have been linked to the country's emotional and political life for two centuries - they've got vested interests. They're not going to mess around. They're not going to spend the reputation of their family for a few bucks.... The man on the street will tell you that a man like this, a successful businessman from an old family running for office, is probably honest. He's not here because he needs us." 

One may question whether widespread popular respect for old money families has survived four decades of post-revolutionary pasha-bashing. One may question many of Abdel Nour's stances. But at least he's willing to take his chances in the electoral arena. Which, if done fairly, is as much a vote of confidence in Egyptian tolerance and open-mindedness as anyone, rich or poor, Muslim or Christian, can give.

Vol 2, Iss 25
4 -17 February 1999