We would like to start from the very beginning when you arrived in Egypt for the first time 25 years ago, can you elaborate on this period?
I was here in Egypt from 1993 to 1996. It was a very different time, there were no cell phones and we were just discovering the internet. Egypt was a very different place.
But one thing has been constant, from 25 years ago to today, which is the Egyptian people, their hospitality, friendliness, openness to foreigners, all of which is quite remarkable.
What you see today is a much more connected environment, where the Internet and social media are very present. I am glad that I was able to see that, an older Egypt, and also very excited now to see a new and upcoming Egypt.
What was your position at the time?
I was a young immigration officer. I had joined what was then called the Department of External Affairs in the Government of Canada. My first position was in Moscow in the Soviet Union, during the breakup of the Soviet Union. And then they said, would you like to go to Egypt, and be an immigration officer, and have regional responsibilities. So I moved to Cairo, and from there I had the chance to travel to several countries in the region. I travelled quite often to Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Gulf states, and it gave me a good appreciation of the reality of not only Egypt itself but the importance of Egypt in the region.
Where did you stay in Cairo back then?
I lived in Maadi, and it was a very different place in those days. I went back to Maadi the other day, and it’s amazing how much it has changed. The older parts of Maadi are still the same. It used to be like a desert, but it’s all developed and pretty amazing now.
In your perspective, how did Egyptian culture change over those 25 years?
I think with the presence of social media, you have a greater appreciation of the Egyptian culture outside of Egypt, and you see foreign cultures in Egypt. The younger generation is much more attuned to the reality of what’s happening outside the country. But I’ll say this, for the record, I’m very much a traditionalist. I’m appreciative of Egyptian culture in a very historical sense. I’m a big fan of Umm Kulthum, and I loved her for 25 years. Sometimes I go on YouTube and watch her performances, and as you know, one song can last for hours, but it’s pretty amazing.
How do you see the relationship between Egypt and Canada?
I think the relationship is extraordinary. Historically, it has been very good. We’ve had a relationship with Egypt for almost 65 years now.
Looking at historical records of the presence of Canada in Egypt, the roots of the relationship are very deep and solid. So if you go back to the Suez Crisis in 1956, our Minister of External Affairs at the time, Lester B. Pearson, won the Nobel Peace Prize, because he introduced during the conflict, the concept of blue helmets, the peacekeepers under the UN umbrella.
So right there, you know, from the onset of the relationship, it has been a solid friendship based on respect and common purpose. So to me, it is very humbling to come here as an ambassador, and to be in this line of historically important chapters between the two countries where we really worked together. So it’s a real privilege to be here.
Have you met Egypt’s Ambassador to Canada Ahmed Abu Zeid?
I consider Ahmed Abu Zeid as a very good friend. He’s someone that I would say many ambassadors should model their style after, because he is a very dynamic and active representative of the Egyptian government in Canada.
By looking at his style, the way he operates in Canada, you know, I tried to emulatesome of the things that he is doing in Canada. I’m often in touch with him over WhatsApp, and I tease him – Ahmed, you know, all I’m trying to do is keep up with you.
The Canada-Egypt relationship has been built on respect, and we agree to work on common objectives, but sometimes, you know, if we have to disagree, we’ll do it respectfully.
I think that’s the value of friendship, the value of having someone with whom I can have a very intense, pointy conversation, and come up with different conclusions, but still be respectful of our positions.
Sometimes we see things differently because we come from different societies and realities. But all in all, I have to say, there are very few areas in which we might have a divergence in opinion. I would not call it a disagreement; I would say different perspectives on things. But one thing I did with Ambassador Abu Zeid is that when the first time I met him, I brought him a gift. Okay, a lot of people would think that a typical gift for an Ambassador going to Canada would be maple syrup. But instead of that, I brought him a hockey stick. I said it’s very important to have a hockey stick, you know, during your tenure in Canada. And I’m very proud of the fact that he’s kept the hockey stick. Sometimes I’ve seen pictures of Ambassador Abu Zeid on social media, and I can see the hockey stick in the corner.
Can you elaborate on the cooperation between Egypt and Canada in education?
I would say within our bilateral relationship there’s one area in which we should partner more with our good friends here in Egypt, which is education. I think education in Canada is second to none. We often talk about great universities. But when you talk about the great universities, there are many Canadian universities that you can include in that group.
First, we have approximately 10,000 Egyptian students from kindergarten to grade 12, studying a Canadian curriculum here in Egypt, which is very positive.
Second, we have created in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital an entity called Universities of Canada in Egypt, which includes a group of Canadian universities. We have one university currently offering classes in the new capital. It’s called the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI). We had the first graduation of the engineering class a few months ago, right here at the residence.
I was glad to see as well that in the graduating engineering class there were more women than men. It’s an excellent point for us. You know, for Canada, the empowerment of women is very important. So I’m very happy with this.
Universities of Canada in Egypt is about to launch the second university in the New Administrative Capital, it’s with Ryerson University, which is one of the stellar universities in Canada. It will offer courses in engineering, but also in media.
Third, we’re trying to bring Egyptian students to Canada. So currently there are many Egyptian students studying in Canada. But what we’ve done, we’ve made agreements with different departments, different ministries, here in Egypt, and we’re encouraging Egyptian students especially at the master’s level, to go and study in Canada.
As an example, we’ve approved 200 Egyptian students to go and study at the University of Ottawa, in computer science, and a similar program now exists for a cohort of 100 Egyptian students to go and study at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario.
These programs are being sponsored by the Egyptian Government. The government names some Egyptian students at the master’s level, and they go and get an education in Canada. This is part of the Digital Builders of Egypt initiative by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.
What about bilateral cooperation in vocational education?
That’s something that we are exploring at the moment. We’re not there yet. But it’s something very important to Egypt, and the building of infrastructure here. I spoke, for example, with the Minister of Communication and Information Technology, and it’s a topic that came to the forefront. That’s something we will explore in the next few months, and we would like to invest more in vocational education.
What is the size of Canada-Egypt trade exchange?
The annual trade exchange between Canada and Egypt amounts to $2bn. Canada is also very proud of the fact that Egypt is the number one trade partner for Canada in Africa. The role of Egypt in Africa is extremely important to us.
What are the most important Canadian exports to Egypt and vice versa?
From Canada to Egypt, we export a lot of food, like many legumes and beans for example. We have to keep in mind that Egypt is still importing 50% of its food at the moment. So that’s a very important sector for us.
What we’re bringing from Egypt to Canada, is mainly gold, making up around 90% of our imports. But over time, what I would like to see is a greater diversification of our trade with Egypt. I think we need to open it up a bit more. When you look at Vision 2030 and the direction that the country wants to go, it’s obvious that Egypt offers amazing opportunities for the future.
When we talk about opportunities for Canadian companies in Egypt, we talk about prosperity not only for Canada but also for Egypt because we believe we’re in this together. If we have a stronger Egyptian economy, it will benefit Egyptians here in Egypt, and it will benefit international trade as well.
Which sectors are the Canadian companies interested in besides the mining sector?
If you take a step back, and you look at what’s happening here, in Egypt, there are a lot of opportunities in different sectors, in aviation, and in the building of the new capital.
I have to say that the monorail that will be going from Cairo to the new capital, was originally a Canadian product, and proposed by a company called Bombardier. Since then, you know, parts of the company have been sold to Alstom, the French company. What makes it even more complicated is that the trains were being built in the UK. That’s the reality of international trade. Nevertheless, when I ride the monorail, I will remember that originally, this was a Canadian product.
Challenges facing Canadian companies investing in Egypt?
I think Egypt has done quite well, in terms of simplifying investments procedures and laws. I think there’s much to be said about, you know, the current role of the Egyptian government in that space. We want to make things simple for people to do business, and for businesses to have confidence in each other’s market, and that’s what we’re working towards. In terms of obstacles, they can’t be overcome at the same time. It goes back to vision 2030, and properly identifying where the country wants to go from here.
We also have to think about people to people ties, you know, like the Egyptian Canadians community in Canada, which is extremely vibrant. They’re the ones who have a vested interest in seeing a better place here in Egypt. And it’s the same for the Canadian Egyptians living in Egypt. They have a vested interest to see a stronger relationship and have confidence in both markets. At the end of the day, whatever the obstacle is, it comes through dialogue.
Can you elaborate on the Canadian-Egyptian security and counter-terrorism cooperation?
Yeah, absolutely. I think Canada has been privileged to have this very collaborative relationship with Egypt for many years. Security is very important for Egypt, for the region, and also for the world. We work closely with Egypt, on matters of common interest. And to give you a more precise example, I’ll just talk about the Multinational Force and Observers that exist in the Sinai at the moment. We have 55 members of the Canadian Armed Forces currently deployed in the Sinai. So when we talk about actions, trying to solve issues about terrorism, our people are there in the Sinai, on Egyptian soil, making sure that the region stays safe and secure. To me, it’s a very humbling experience to see that Canadian people are assisting Egyptian brothers and sisters here.
So can you tell us more about the scale of security and military cooperation?
There’s a dialogue between Canada and Egypt in the space of security. We do have a defense attache here at the embassy. The colonel is yet to arrive. But he’s very important, because, you know, he talks about the reality of the Canadian Forces with his Egyptian counterparts. Accordingly, we could develop training, for example on border security, because both Canada and Egypt have huge borders with other countries, which is a major security challenge.
How do you see the Egyptian progress in human rights, and the newly launched human rights strategy?
Human rights issues are something that we raise with Egypt, and for Canada, it is very important. There’s no doubt about the importance of human rights and of women’s empowerment. Things of that nature are critical. So having a better society, a more equal society, a more respectful society, is near and dear to our hearts. We are having conversations with our Egyptian friends, and sometimes, we have to agree to disagree. Nonetheless, our friendship is based on common values.
The fact that Egypt has said we’re going to have a human rights strategy is remarkable.
Is there any other country, you know, here in the region that has a human rights strategy? I commend the courage and the vision of Egypt to go down that route.
Here in Egypt, when you talk about human rights, the definition used here is far more encompassing than in other countries. So here they talk, for example, about the right to a clean environment, the right to education, etc. We say to ourselves, how can we accompany Egypt in that direction? That’s when we have conversations. There are various areas we are exploring, like for instance the administration of prisons. That’s very important, and Canada can perhaps play a role in that space. What we propose is to bring different options to Egypt, without thinking that we know better, but to bring Canadian expertise and offer another country’s experience in different sectors.
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