Banter With the Beast

Beneath Billionaire Shafik Gabr’s Tranquility, Fears for Egypt’s Fate

Democracy—not another dictatorship—takes time, Shafik Gabr tells Lloyd Grove.

Ennio Leanza, AFP / Getty Images

In Cairo on Tuesday, riot police fired tear gas at thousands of protesters marching on the presidential palace and demanding that its current occupant, Mohamed Morsi, step down.

In New York, as America’s historic ally Egypt was descending once again into disarray—with democratic secularists railing against President Morsi’s recent assumption of near-absolute power and Morsi’s collaborators in the Muslim Brotherhood apparently poised to enact a repressive new constitution—Egyptian industrialist Shafik Gabr tried to project a sense of calm.

“We are going through a period of transition,” he told me blandly in accentless English. “In the United States of America, it took you a hundred years to get to democracy. As a matter of fact, it was only in the 1960s that African-Americans started having their civil rights. So it was a long process. We are trying to do all of this in a very, very short period of time, and that is creating the turmoil that we’re seeing.”

Minutes earlier on Park Avenue, at a conference on East-West dialogue sponsored by the Shafik Gabr Foundation, his friend Hussein Fahmy, a famed Egyptian actor, was far more blunt in blasting Morsi and his cohort. “The Egyptian civil society is actually taking action—we are against dictatorship,” Fahmy told an audience that included entrepreneurs, academics, Saudi princes, and even a British royal (if the notoriously razor-tongued Princess Michael of Kent, aka “Princess Pushy,” counts).

“If we have gotten rid of a dictatorship, as we have claimed, with the [Hosni] Mubarak regime, we are not ready to have another dictatorship or a fascist regime,” Fahmy continued, pointing out that during recent demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Morsi’s photo has regularly appeared on posters alongside images of Hitler and Mussolini. “This is what civil society believes … We need a secular society as it used to be. They come up with a new constitution—there are no women’s rights in it. There is nothing that mentions Christians and the Copts of Egypt.”

Taking aim at President Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s effusive praise of Morsi—for brokering a fragile ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas government of Gaza—Fahmy added: “The Egyptian people believe the American administration has to got to change its position and take sides with the civil society.”

The 60-year-old Gabr, a globally well-connected billionaire whose ARTOC Group is a real estate-engineering-consumer products-media conglomerate that employs more than 3,000 Egyptians, is too diplomatic to talk that way about his government, at least in public.

But just below the surface of his calibrated words—after all, he has to do business with these people—one can hear a whisper of high anxiety about the fate of the Arab world’s biggest, most important country. With a population of 82 million, Egypt has been America’s strategic safety valve in the Middle East since its 1978 peace treaty with Israel.

“My critique is that anything that is not inclusive divides people,” Gabr said of the new constitution, which was approved last month by Egypt’s Islamist-dominated constituent assembly and would establish an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. “So far, the drafts that are being circulated and supposedly voted on, on the 15th of December [in a national referendum], don’t have the stamp of inclusiveness.”

He hopes Egyptian voters—who elected Morsi in June with 51.7 percent against 48.3 percent for Mubarek holdover Ahmed Shafik, who was promptly indicted for corruption and fled into exile—will reject the constitution. “If unfortunately voted yes,” Gabr said, “then the country needs to go through the period I was just describing.” Reaching for a benign context, he added: “Just like you in your country went through many phases until you arrived to where you are. And you’re still not in a perfect phase.”

Gabr was also critical of Morsi’s assumption of extraordinary presidential powers—“temporary,” allegedly, until a constitution is adopted—in which his edicts can’t be questioned, much less overturned, by the Egyptian judiciary.

“In my opinion, anybody’s opinion, I do not believe that having one person have all the powers can be constructive in any manner, in any time, be it historically or even today,” Gabr said. “Power needs to always have checks and balances, and the judiciary is one of the most important checks and balances.”

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Much has changed, and not necessarily for the better, since the summer of 2009, when Gabr urged Obama, both publicly and through his contacts in the U.S. government, to deliver a conciliatory speech to the Arab world from Cairo, signaling a welcome departure from the military adventures and imperial tone of George W. Bush. Obama ended up giving just such a speech.

“Obama said everything right, but quite frankly, very little of it was translated into concrete action,” Gabr said. “Again, sadly enough, I can point to President Bush in 2006—saying 2006 will be the year of the two-state solution and a Palestinian state. Never happened … But that’s politicians for you.”

Gabr barely knew what to make of Obama’s statement in a recent television interview that Egypt may or may not be an ally of the United States, depending—an apparent departure from three decades of U.S. policy.

“It’s very difficult to judge politicians when they have their two-minute sound bites,” Gabr said. “I am becoming more skeptical. Because we live in a 24/7 news cycle, and politicians are given the microphone and asked to make a statement, and their focus may be elsewhere. I can tell you that it is in the interest of the United States as much as it’s in the interest of Egypt that we have a strategic relationship, and one that leads to a close-ally relationship. Egypt will remain the gateway to the Arab world. It will remain the geographic hub for the Middle East.” And even Morsi will continue to honor the peace treaty with Israel, Gabr predicted.

Meanwhile, as Egypt’s political struggles persist, along with accompanying political uncertainty, “the Egyptian economy and the Egyptian people are going to suffer,” Gabr said. “We should never ever forget that the ultimate goal of political success is for the people to have prosperity and peace, and a better livelihood. That’s what politics should be about.”

The Egyptian economy—which was growing at 6 to 7 percent a year through 2009 (only fast enough to provide a 70 percent employment rate)—has now slowed to less than 2 percent, he said. “People are concerned,” he added. “There is dysfunctionality. People are worried about committing new money. Investment volumes have dropped. The Egyptian pound is under stress.”

Gabr’s ARTOC hasn’t escaped the consequences. While the company’s receivables are down 14 percent, he said, cash flow is down 40 percent because vendors and suppliers are having a tough time keeping up with payments. “Our belief is that cash is king and profit is an opinion,” Gabr said with a chuckle. “You can show your balance sheet whichever way. You may have a great balance sheet, but if you don’t have cash under strict stress situations, you go under … We believe in an Arabic saying, which is: ‘As far as your quilt, spread your feet.’ In other words, never over-leverage.”

He’s obviously doing well enough. Aside from bankrolling Monday’s conference on East-West dialogue—one of several he has been staging in Washington, London, and Cairo—he hosted an elegant dinner for 400 Monday night at the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur while showcasing his renowned collection of 19th-century Orientalist paintings.

His plan, starting next April, is to create a cultural exchange program between Egypt and the U.S. for under-30 leaders in academia, business, media, and the arts, and thus attempt to transcend the strictures of politics to arrive at genuine empathy—not the caricatures of the mass media.

“If you ask the average American in Idaho, ‘What do you think about the Arab world?’ three things are going to come out of his mouth,” Gabr said. “He will talk about extremists, he will talk about radical Islam, and he’ll talk about terrorism. If you ask an ordinary Egyptian in Dumiat and Mansoura, ‘What do you think about the United States?’ he’s going to say they’re helping Israel occupy Palestine, they bombed the hell out of Iraq and killed so many people, and the United States has an arrogant foreign policy. Is that the reality? It could be a reality, but there are so many other positive things that need to come into play so as to change that reality.”