Rarely in life do you get to meet someone that you can listen to for hours and lose the track of time. You find yourself enjoying the company so much that the world comes to a stand still as you get lost in their opinions, judgments and ever-engaging conversation that you wish would never end. This is what best describes my meeting with the great mind that is Tarek Heggy
A Port Said native, Heggy is the by-product of liberal parents, well-rounded education and scores of travels. The Ain Shams University graduate of law traveled the world, to speak, share and teach his extensive knowledge of law before assuming the position of a gas and oil attorney at a multinational petroleum and gas corporation. It was no surprise that Heggy became Chairman and CEO of Shell Oil Company in the Middle East. However, he left the oil and gas field to devote his time into more culture activities.
His extensive writings – which span over 28 books in four languages and 500 published articles and essays – circle around a core notion, namely modernity; a concept he believes has no nationality and is non-existent in Egypt. The intellectual is indeed outspoken about several subjects, and I had the pleasure to pick his eminent brain about a few hot topics affecting Egypt at the moment.
On Women’s Rights
Heggy is an advocate of women’s rights. In fact, he believes that women not only make half of the society, rather they should be regarded as twice as powerful as their male counterparts due to the significant role they provide in shaping and raising young men.
“Unfortunately, our society has not been modernized in regards to women,” expresses the bright mind.
“The problem is that we leave all matters, including the ones affecting women, up to men. For example, all legislation involving women’s rights should be drafted by equally representative women,” he comments when we mention the constitutional referendum committee that was formed last March without a single female member.
Heggy further believes that the degree of women’s liberation is directly linked to the degree of society’s liberation. “Society does as good as women are doing,” he explains.
“Education is in dire need for reform and philosophical review,” Heggy began the conversation. He emphasizes the need to approach educational reform the same way we do a business plan, “First there must be a vision on which a strategy is formed,” he says.
Heggy believes philosophy to be a crucial ingredient of education as it stimulates critical thinking and allows people to ask questions, something he sees is the reason behind why the UAE and Saudi Arabia don’t teach philosophy. “They don’t want people to pose questions; they want to raise an obedient society.”
However, he attributes the flaws of our education system to the culture of memorization that Egypt is breeding. “The Egyptian student remains to be a receiver instead of participator,” he clarifies. “Students are taught not to oppose teachers and to take any information given to them without questioning, which stifles creativity and critical thinking.”
On the need to separate religion and state
One of the many things that drew my attention to Heggy’s great thinking is that we both value the importance of separating state and religion. “Religion is a great value, but it should not serve more than a spiritual satisfaction,” he beautifully puts it. “Religion should not be a lifestyle and should not substitute legislation or govern how people should live.”
He goes on to explain that history taught us that whenever clergy ruled a country, dark ages closely followed. “Clergy is by default against science and against freedom, so it cannot rule a society,” he firmly believes.
On Islamists and extremists
Heggy saw two main players from 1952 until Mubarak’s ousting; the above ground players, aka the government, and the underground players, aka the Islamists. “The government was not intellectual enough to open dialogue with these groups, and instead resorted to arrests and repression as the easy way to crack them,” Heggy points out.
“I’m a firm believer that if you use force I will use force back, and if you use arguments and viewpoints I will do the same,” he notes. “By opening dialogue and recognizing a group like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as political force, we will actually be stimulating segregation and rifts between them as they have been regarded for a long time as heroes and martyrs oppressed by the old regime.”
Even though Heggy sees the Muslim Brotherhood as organized, he doesn’t see the group offering any solutions to critical subjects like unemployment, education or the economy. “Their slogan – Islam is the Answer – does not provide a concrete solutions to the many problems facing Egypt today.”
Heggy is optimistic enough to believe that we can push the Muslim Brotherhood into the 21st century as “The more we include them, the better we will be.”
In a nutshell, Heggy does not see extremists like Salafis – which are perceived as comics by many – or Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood taking over Egypt. In fact, he believes the MB will have no more than 25% of the parliament’s seats, and that the media is behind all the exaggerated hype and popularity of these groups.
On the many injustices suffered by Copts
This topic was important for me to discuss with Heggy, especially after I read his amazing essay “If I were a Copt,” which details the inequalities suffered by Copts in Egypt and how he would have reacted if he had lived a day in their shoes.
One of the key injustices, among many, he sees happening to Copts is the fact that construction of churches needs a presidential decree.
Heggy sees much of the discrimination of Copts in Egypt as due to the spread of backward Islam in Egypt. Consequently, he sees the people who share unfair thoughts on women to have the same sentiments for Copts.
Commenting on the recent protests of Copts at Maspero, Heggy sees the 25 January Revolution to be the real push that drove the majority of Copts to finally speak out for the first time – against the church – and demand their rights. “It’s their right; they finally exploded and I’m happy they did.”
On the revolution’s main failure
“The revolution was a glorious event,” he expresses. “Yet, it created a wave of dwelling in the past instead of focusing on the future economically and politically. If you overhear a random conversation between two people it will be likely about Mubarak’s fortune.”
On the army’s performance
Heggy had mostly good things to say about the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) as he praised them for siding with the people against the regime and their overall non-violent behavior. “However, I would have preferred to see the presidential election take place first as I feel we will have more or less the same people in the parliament.”
On a different note, Heggy was somewhat puzzled as to why the army took a long time to react to the attacks on Copts that took place in Imbaba.
On Egypt moving forward
Heggy thankfully shares my optimism on the future. As he so eloquently puts it, “Mubarak ruled us for 11,000 days, so things will take a while before getting better. I still believe there is a general apathy and negativity that still luring Egypt, which is the product of decades of oppression.” When it comes to the political powers, Heggy emphasizes the need for the four liberal parties (so far) in Egypt to join forces before the election if they want any chance to win. “I think liberals will take over, but they need to form an alliance.”