Renaissance man: Gehad El Haddad works as the Islamist project’s pragmatist

Three weeks ago, Gehad El Haddad divided his time between volunteering for the Muslim Brotherhood and heading the Cairo office of the Clinton Climate Initiative, a nongovernmental organization set up by the former American president.

Mixing practical goals with Islamic values has defined the 30-year-old’s life to date. Once a creative entrepreneur, he is now putting all his efforts into the Brotherhood’s Renaissance Project.

Renaissance is far more than the electoral program of President Mohamed Morsy or the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. It is a 25-year project to reform state, business and civil society, rooted in the Brotherhood’s Islamic values but conditioned by the experiences of the project’s founders in the modern economy.

“You can’t come up with concrete solutions unless you have a compass to tell you what’s right or wrong. For us, that compass is Islam. We believe its mission is to change people’s lives,” Haddad told Egypt Independent.

He is one of five members of the project’s steering committee, which is chaired by Khairat al-Shater, a wealthy businessman and influential Brotherhood member. His offices are directly beneath Shater’s in Nasr City.

A search for purpose

Spending the early part of his life in Alexandria, Haddad hails from a family of influential Brotherhood members. His father is Essam El Haddad, a member of the organization’s Guidance Bureau, which is one of its highest decision-making bodies.

While studying strategic marketing and filmmaking in the UK on a Chevening Scholarship, Haddad came into contact with the influential Islamic televangelist Amr Khaled. For nearly a year, he and Haddad worked together on a television program called “Sunna al-Hayat” — “The Makers of Life.”

“It was about drawing values from the Quran and connecting them with the type of social work that wealthy Egyptians could do to help their societies. This connected well with me,” Haddad said.

After graduating, Haddad worked as a consultant in competitive intelligence for a multinational firm. He was earning well, but at one point told his father that he was losing purpose in life. He then received a message from Shater that marked a turning point in his life.

“I went back home, Googled his name, watched a video he made, and said to myself, ‘That’s it, this is the guy I’ve been looking for,’” Haddad said. He packed his bags and returned to Egypt.

Between pragmatism and ideology

Shater is known for breeding a group of young members who remained low-profile. “[Shater] knows that to win elections you need to depend on middle-men who are rural traditional people. But governing takes more than that. You need people to make policy papers, to craft designs, and this group of people should be independent from the Brotherhood structure,” says Ashraf El-Sherif, a political science lecturer at the American University in Cairo.

Though social reform is rooted in Brotherhood ideology, it was Shater who conceived of the renaissance as a “project” in 1996, later selling it to Haddad by describing its objective as bringing Islam back into Egyptians’ daily lives.

Shater was rounded up by a military tribunal in 2007 with other Brotherhood figures, and was released in March 2011.

To sustain himself financially while working on the Renaissance Project, Haddad worked for the Industrial Modernization Centre, a body set up to modernize Egyptian industry with the help of European Union, the Egyptian government and private-sector funding.

“It was very corruption-prone, a big ATM that [former President Hosni] Mubarak’s circles would draw money out of,” he said, explaining his ultimate decision to leave.

He then started working for the Clinton Climate Initiative, while continuing to work anonymously on the Renaissance Project. Another of his Brotherhood activities, after last year’s uprising, was setting up Qabila TV on YouTube. The channel produces a series of videos that use humor and cartoons for civic education and raising political awareness. It has 18 owners.

“We wanted a distributed ownership, and even though I’m the biggest shareholder, I only have 10 percent,” Haddad said.

He sees this as a model that can be applied to the Renaissance Project’s thinking.

The Clinton Climate Initiative taught Haddad about managing an NGO and the role that civil society takes between the state and private sector, lessons he is applying to the Renaissance Project.

Within the Brotherhood, Haddad says he sits on the group’s internal reform committee. “We’re changing from being an introvert organisation locked into survival mode, to an extrovert organisation that’s leading the new Egypt.” He argues that according to the organization’s census, they lost about 15,000 followers since the revolution from amongst the ranks of non-paying members who subscribe to the one-million-men strong group’s ideology.

The renaissance vision

The Renaissance Project has recently been registered as an independent company, he Renaissance Project for Consulting and Research.

Describing the company as a think tank, Haddad said, “There aren’t many established think tanks in Egypt, apart from Al-Ahram [Center for Political and Strategic Studies] and some smaller ones. None of them work on national development road-map plans. They work much more closely on specific cases. This is the competitive edge we have.”

The group aims to have Renaissance Project affairs assistants in the offices of the president and prime minister. If the prime minister and the Cabinet are not sold on the idea, the Renaissance Project will have to continue through the private sector, civil society and branches of government that do subscribe to it, Haddad said.

So far, its private sector and civil society partners are the Egyptian Business Development Association, headed by Brotherhood member Hassan Malek, and the new NGO Ayadi, respectively.

“A number of other businessmen want to get on board but are waiting for it to be launched independently in September,” Haddad said.

At the launch, they are hoping to sell the idea to society so that it can carry on independently of the Brotherhood.

They will also work with businessmen who operated under the former regime and are not facing criminal charges.

“There are those who had to work within the system whose returns were minimal, and took advantage of their connection. They will be given a chance to correct their dues,” Haddad said.

Laying the groundwork

Though Haddad said the project is not fully mapped out yet, members of the project’s team have already traveled across the world for advice on subjects such as education, corruption and state bureaucracies.

On economic development, the Renanissance Project is committed to the free-market economy and the private sector. Asked how the project would interact with the military’s hold on the economy, an institution Shater had as one of his clients in the past, Haddad said they would make the military subscribe to the same free-market rules as all private investors.

“The problem with the army is that they get natural resources for free, such as conscripts as labor, land and state contracts. We won’t tell them to stop their product lines, but you will abide by the same market rules,” he said.

The project’s intellectual driving force is steering committee member Hussein al-Kazzaz, who runs the United Arab Emirates-based management consulting group Skopos as well as the Mada International Academy, a nursery school which is the project’s educational pilot scheme.

“It’s built on creative learning and reintroduces value systems of how to create a model citizen. … Education systems that are predominant now are based on a factory model, so that people fit into a specific box. This is un-Islamic — it kills their uniqueness. Historically, Islamic societies have had mentor-apprentice relationships for their students, and we want this concept to inspire a new, 21st-century educational system,” said Haddad, adding that he hopes this type of school can be introduced on a mass, affordable scale.

The project has three stages. The first is Morsy’s 100 days project, which address pressing security, sanitation and transportation issues; the second is the firefighting phase; and the third is called reconstruction and maintenance.

Haddad said the first phase is facing bureaucratic delays. The second phase — which he described as being a crisis management one in which “skeletons from the old regime will start reappearing” — has already begun, he said, referring to measures such as the supplement to the Constitutional Declaration issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and court decisions that have muted the Brotherhood’s power in government.

“You can’t do development unless you have a stable political system,” Haddad said.

For Sherif, the presence of people like Haddad within the Brotherhood has its relevance. “He reflects the increasing rise of Muslim Brotherhood neoliberal technocrats. These are people connected with the world economy, have significant international exposure, and know-how in business, technology and the media. They can speak in a language that’s comprehensible to the business class and other political forces in Egypt.” But Sherif argues that Haddad and his likes are not as relevant to the internal organization.”The internal organization is still as it is, intact, very domestic, vernacular, moralistic, religious.”

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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