Q&A: Mounir Saad, Egypt’s Coptic vice-presidential candidate

In 1992, Mounir Saad, an Egyptian economist and editor-in-chief of Arab Business Report magazine, was meeting with the president of Austria when one of the president’s aides barged into the office, claiming that a major earthquake had just struck Cairo. The president replied by ordering a cable of sympathy and condolences be sent, as well as a donation of 500,000 schillings from the Austrian Red Cross. Upon hearing this, the Egyptian economist slammed his fist on the table between him and the president. “Only 500,000?” Saad asked, outraged. The president, surprised, asked Saad how much he thought the contribution should be. Saad replied, “Five million, at least.” The president, without hesitation, turned to his aide and said, “You heard Mr. Saad. Arrange to have five million sent.”

Unfortunately, Saad didn’t expect the Austrian contribution to immediately, and almost completely, end up in the pockets of former regime heavyweights including, allegedly, then-president Hosni Mubarak. Today, Saad laments, “I wish I had known at the time. I would have kept my mouth shut.”

When Saad tells this anecdote, it’s presumably to demonstrate two points: first, that he is capable of getting things done; second, that he is a man with a conscience, or, as he puts it, a “corruption-proof” personality – both desirable qualities in any high-ranking government official, which is convenient, since Saad plans on becoming Egypt’s first Coptic vice president.

Saad, who can frequently be seen in Tahrir Square, “talking to the youth” and handing out fliers for his campaign, recently sat with Al-Masry Al-Youm to explain his plans for the vice presidency, and how he intends to help Egypt regain its standing as “one of the great nations of the world.”

Al-Masry Al-Youm: How would you describe yourself, for potential voters who aren’t yet familiar with you?

Mounir Saad: I am a man made from the mud of this country. I am an economist, and have worked as a professor of economics. I have lived abroad for 45 years, and have visited over 90 countries, often as an economic and political advisor to various prime ministers and heads of state.

Al-Masry: There’s a lot going on in Egypt right now, and people are divided over priorities. What, in your opinion, are the immediate issues that need to be addressed?

Saad: To begin with, we need serious changes to the constitution. The government puts the president ahead of the constitution, and that is a huge problem, and the root of all evil as we know it. The constitution is not a Muslim document, nor a Christian one. It is a national document. So why do people call me an infidel, then, when I suggest it needs to be changed?

Al-Masry: Is that what happens? Have you been called an ‘infidel’ just for stating that there should be changes made to the constitution, even while other people have been calling for the exact same thing for months now?

Saad: They say that since the issue of the constitution has already been decided on by the majority in the 19 March referendum, then I must be the minority, and also, an infidel.

Al-Masry: There has to be a reason. Are you raising other points than the people who are also calling for a new constitution?

Saad: For starters, I’m suggesting that the government run a population census, because every other country in the world has one. Look at the US – they have Negroes, Italians, Hispanics. Look at Malaysia – five percent of its population is Chinese, eight percent Indian.

Al-Masry: You’re saying diversity is the solution to our immediate problems?

Saad: Of course! The US is a melting pot as everyone knows, but Egypt is an even bigger melting pot. Look at how many invaders we’ve had throughout history. We’ve absorbed them all. Now, we need to know the exact percentage of all groups, like Salafis and Bedouins, for example. This will lead to a better understanding of our society, and better representation for these groups in government positions and offices.

Al-Masry: Why vice president, specifically? Why not just aim for the presidency?

Saad: For me, the presidency is visible yet unattainable. Given the current state of things, it is an unrealistic goal. Furthermore, I acknowledge that Islam is the national, or state, religion, and that the president must be Muslim. But having a Coptic running mate would undoubtedly do wonders for national unity. It would give it substance, and a new meaning, not just the televised hugs and cross-on-crescent action we get every time tensions rise between the two sides. [It should be noted that the logo for Saad’s ‘Conscience of Egypt’ campaign consists entirely of a cross attached to a crescent.]

What we have now, this supposed ‘national unity’ that people brag about, is meaningless. Look at the national soccer team and ask yourself this: Are Christians retarded? Are they physically incapable of playing soccer? The answer is ‘no.’ Yet, how many Christian soccer players have there ever been on the national team? How many governors, with the exception of that one troublemaker in Qena?

Al-Masry: These are the things you wish to improve as vice president?

Saad: Not just these things. I will not be a vice president for the Coptic population. I will be a vice president for Christians and Muslims alike. For men, women, the physically and mentally disabled, the unemployed, thugs…

Al-Masry: Why thugs?

Saad: Because there’s 400,000 of them, and they are a product of our society. We must accept and rehabilitate them.

Al-Masry: What makes you a good candidate? You don’t seem to have a strongly-defined platform, so why would a presidential candidate choose you as his or her running mate?

Saad: I am a fair person. I am a good person, and completely corruption-proof. I’m here to give, not take. I don’t have a platform only because providing one for the president would be an insult to the president. I would provide advice and, based on my past experience, focus on economic issues.

Al-Masry: Isn’t that the Minister of Economy’s job? What’s he going to do all day, then?

Saad: It may be his job, but I am the watchdog. I am the monitor. Iron hands, and silk gloves.

Al-Masry: Who’s wearing silk gloves?

Saad: Me. I am. For the president. And for the country. I will initiate and [nurture] projects like Farouk El-Baz’s ‘Corridor of Development,’ and I can secure appropriate resources from other countries. I can go to Japan and say, ‘Hey, Hitachi, give me some equipment and some of your top engineers.’ I am a good negotiator, and I can make El-Baz’s project viable within three years. It will cost US$100 billion, but – here’s the catch – I can get that money without placing any kind of financial burden on Egypt.

Al-Masry: But then wouldn’t those other countries expect an owning share or something similarly significant for their contributions?

Saad: No. We’ll pay them back, but the project will be managed by our local governors. This will create 10 million jobs, and result in the development of 10 million acres or arable land. But ultimately, the project would remain exclusively under Egyptian control.

Also, you asked why a presidential candidate would choose me as their running mate, but I would like to point out that I am [in a position] where the president won’t be choosing me, I will be choosing them. I won’t be coming to the position of vice-president empty-handed; I’m bringing 10 million votes with me, at least.

Al-Masry: What is this assumption based on?

Saad: I travel around Egypt a lot. I talk to people, bond with them, and I’ve been getting a lot of support. This is something I have been doing for quite some time now. I even announced my plans to [former president] Mubarak when we met in Brussels in 1999. I said ‘why don’t we join forces and fight corruption together?’ I told him he could be a hero. This was before I knew the full, shocking extent of his own corruption.

Al-Masry: How did he respond to your suggestion?

Saad: He was very courteous, very polite. He introduced me to his aides, and told me we would set up a meeting once I returned to Cairo. And when I did return, I was detained at the airport and interrogated several times. This began happening frequently and, occasionally, I would be denied entry into my own country and sent back to wherever it was I had come from.

Al-Masry: You also wrote a letter to Mubarak about becoming vice president, and posted it on Facebook.

Saad: Yes. I told him that, should I become vice-president, I wouldn’t want an office. I would want a train. My office would be a train. And I would travel around the country, visit every village, and be with the people. I don’t want a large salary, either. I eat taameya and fuul, tahina and lettuce. These are healthy foods. Despite my age, I am a workaholic. I came back to Egypt, and I will fight for Egypt. I will not be like [Nobel laureate Ahmed] Zuwail, sitting on the shelf gathering dust, only acknowledged when the government wants to impress someone. Dr. Zuwail is a great man, but I am here to serve the people.

I also said it would be an advantage for the president to have a Christian vice president, since it’s unlikely the Muslim Brotherhood or any other extremist group would approach the vice president if he was Christian, in attempt to plot against the president. Having a Christian vice president would free the president from any conspiracy theories.

Al-Masry: Who of the announced candidates would you consider running with?

Saad: I think the right man for the presidency, at this current moment, would be Sami Anan, even though I myself am not at all what you would call a ‘military man.’ I believe Anan has the experience to be able to deal with what’s going on right now, to grip this distressingly fluid situation. However, I believe he should only run for one term – I even mentioned that on my [promotional material]. I would not support him otherwise.

Al-Masry: What about the other candidates? Would you consider, for example, being Bothaina Kamel’s running mate?

Saad: That is unrealistic. Bothaina Kamel cannot lead. This is a difficult country, with lots of problems. Egypt is one of the great nations, and Kamel lacks the experience to handle something like that. I only included her picture on my promotional material with the other candidates to be polite.

Al-Masry: What about the others?

Saad: I like [Hisham al-]Bastawisi, he knows a lot about law. His problem, though, is that he’s not ‘street’ enough for politics. Hamdeen Sabahi is colorless, and just goes with the flow, jumping on whatever bandwagon is currently popular. I like Amr Moussa, and know him very well, but he can’t be the president of Egypt. He’s already been the president of Libya, Yemen, and several other nations, as head of the Arab League.

Al-Masry: And ElBaradei?

Saad: He is the Trojan Horse, isn’t he? He is the chameleon. Ever since he came back [to Egypt] he’s been constantly changing his colors, sitting in his ivory tower, with his Nobel prize shoes. One day he has a beard, the next he doesn’t. Is he a member of the Muslim Brotherhood? Nobody knows. Either way, his biggest mistake is that he didn’t take firm control of the revolution; he just used it to market himself, like an opportunist. He doesn’t like to get his hands dirty, whereas I can dig up the ground with my bare hands. For him, the presidency is a goal, instead of being the logical byproduct of his work to date.

I’ll tell you something about ElBaradei. His Nobel prize was nothing more than a slap in the face for George W. Bush. The committee couldn’t give the award to Hans Blix, because he’s Swedish and it would have caused controversy, so they gave it to ElBaradei instead. That’s the only reason why he won it.

Al-Masry: What will prevent people from looking at your campaign as a gimmick, or worse, as an inevitable result of the free-for-all created by the power vacuum that the previous regime so effectively guaranteed through their oppressive tactics?

Saad: I’m not entering the political race as a Christian [despite the fact that his promotional material repeatedly describes Saad as ‘the First Coptic Christian Candidate for the post of Vice President of the Republic of Egypt’]. I’m entering it as a capable candidate. The real question to be asked is what to do with all the troublemakers flourishing in this power-vacuum. I believe Mao Zedong had the right strategy.

Al-Masry: Wasn’t he a dictator who killed a whole bunch of his own people?

Saad: He also successfully integrated various disparate ethnic groups. And he had the right idea: take the corrupt officials and force them to work. Send them out to the desert to do manual labor. What’s wrong with that? Also, why are we marginalizing our sons and daughters abroad? They can contribute a lot; most of them are millionaires. If each of them contributed as little as $1000, that would be a significant amount.

Al-Masry: Finally, you’re aware that the role of vice president doesn’t officially exist in the Egyptian government…

Saad: See? That is exactly what I’m trying to enforce. Change, for the better. Because if we don’t get that, then you can expect a 25 January revolution in 2012 – only this time, it won’t be as sweet.

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