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Ahmed Shafiq: With an iron fist
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 09 - 2005

Ahmed Shafiq took off his military uniform three years ago to become a politician. Ever since, as the minister of civil aviation, he has courted controversy with his relentlessly harsh style of management. While he used to be known as an air force commander and hero of the 1973 War, today he is more famous for the thousands of news stories criticising his policies and attacking his methods. Three years into his mission -- to re-organise the nation's vital but ailing aviation industry -- Shafiq appears to have rubbed a lot of people in the business the wrong way. He has been involved in controversial conflicts with private airlines, tour companies and officials, international carriers, foreign investors and Aviation Ministry staff in different areas. Just last month, Shafiq brought a major corruption scandal involving former top aviation officials into the open. His friends describe him as a person who values friendship, but does not allow it to get in the way of work. But what makes this minister who seems to relish opening one Pandora's box after another tick?
By Amirah Ibrahim
When President Hosni Mubarak issued a decree in March 2002 to establish a new civil aviation ministry, everyone knew who the minister would be. Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shafiq, who was at the time the commander of Egypt's Air Force, in addition to being a hero of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. As a fighter pilot under Mubarak's command, Shafiq took part in the famous Mansoura Battle, when he shot down two enemy planes.
There was a great deal of resistance against the idea of transforming the aviation sector -- which had been operating in affiliation with the tourism and transportation ministries for years -- into a ministry. To make matters more complicated, Shafiq's nomination itself revived the debate over "militarising civil institutions", at a time when demands for political reforms were being loudly raised.
Within the aviation sector, the newcomer was greeted with fear, discomfort and rejection. Soon, even the most routine of tasks required a confrontation. In any case, Shafiq's mission was wrought with hot topics. The most urgent of all, national carrier EgyptAir, had become a chronic headache for the government. As Shafiq prepared to make his first move, there were two camps. The first wanted to sell the carrier and get rid of its problems; the second was trying to minimise EgyptAir's business in favour of private airlines.
"Many people cannot, or do not, want to recognise the limits between normal economic activities and the country's main resources," Shafiq says. "EgyptAir is not only the national carrier, but also the only hope of rebuilding a strong Egyptian aviation industry. When we plan to put Egypt's aviation back on the international track, we need a strong national carrier to help support our ambitious plans to establish a mega hub in the region. All the successful experiences surrounding us in the region, and worldwide, mainly rely on a strong carrier."
Shafiq moved quickly, immediately converting the company into a holding company with seven affiliated companies. Two months later, an EgyptAir plane crashed into a Tunisian mountain. Shafiq seized the opportunity to get rid of the carrier's longtime boss, Fahim Rayan, who had been at the helm of EgyptAir for 22 years.
Soon thereafter, the chairman of Cairo International Airport -- another major obstacle to change -- resigned, thus clearing the way for the minister to make even more changes. Again, Shafiq wasted no time, hiring American consulting experts to re-organise the airline's network. The result was the suspension of 14 international routes. "How could a carrier with a fleet of 34 planes cover 82 international destinations and also dominate the domestic market?" He came under fire for that move, as well as his subsequent invitation for foreign entities to invest in the carrier. "Shafiq is destroying the company and paving the way for the government to sell EgyptAir," argued his opponents.
"Selling the national carrier is not an option," Shafiq has always said. "But it is okay to invite partial investments in the business". Shafiq started with the in-flight services company, one of the EgyptAir companies that needed improvement, inviting foreign investors into a joint venture encompassing 40 per cent of the company's capital.
At the same time, Shafiq continued to stonewall the idea of allowing private airlines and foreign carriers a larger share of the Egyptian market. "All private airlines are invited to take part in developing domestic and international routes, provided they do not harm the national carrier. I opened all Egyptian airports -- except for Cairo International -- to charter flights, and even permitted scheduled operations to those airports. Very few carriers applied to fly to other airports inside Egypt. They only want the easy target -- Cairo International."
The tourism industry and private airline interests had been lobbying aviation authorities for years to liberalise air transport policies and end the governmental protection offered to the national carrier. Private airlines want to operate freely on the same domestic and international routes that EgyptAir flies.
Shafiq has refused to soften his stand against foreign airlines. "When I defend Egyptian companies my main concern is for the economy. Even when we approach foreign airlines working in Egypt, we maintain the same concept; how would our economy benefit from their contribution? I would not be happy, for instance, to see a movement of 50 million passengers a year at our airports, when 90 per cent of them are transferred by non-Egyptian carriers."
In July, the Higher Council for Tourism held its first meeting in Luxor, headed by President Mubarak, who inaugurated Luxor Airport's new terminal. The majority of the tour industry players present at the meeting asked the president to force aviation authorities to introduce "open sky" policies across the nation, thus allowing any carrier to operate at Egyptian airports without limiting the frequency of their flights. Shafiq again succeeded in aborting the attempt.
When it came to the equally controversial issue of renovating the countries' airports, most observers expected Shafiq to seek out the military's help. He didn't. It was no secret that Cairo International, especially, was in need of a major upgrade, necessary to bring it up to par with other regional and international hubs. The minister's philosophy was that "the existing facilities had to be renovated while we were carrying out our plans to upgrade and develop the entire industry."
At Cairo International, renovations have been, and continue to be, in progress. Existing terminals are being given a new look, equipment is being modernised, and an entirely new terminal is being built. New, and long overdue, services are being simultaneously introduced, including slicker transit lounges, and better limousine and shuttle routes. The airports in Sharm El-Sheikh and Luxor have also been beneficiaries of this philosophy.
Shafiq is a firm believer in seeking out foreign expertise to guide the industry along with its development plans. Early this year, he contracted foreign management for Egypt's main airports. The German Fraport company currently runs Cairo International, while the French Aeroport De Paris company is running five main tourist airports. Again, here, he has been criticised. "People used to negatively compare our aviation industry to other countries in the region. Now that we have hired foreign management to help us get to the levels they wanted, they are critical again. Don't they realise that those other countries did the same thing?"
At the same time, Shafiq says he will not copy neighbouring countries' models at face value. "After all, Egypt has deep roots in the industry. Egypt is a pioneer with considerable abilities, particularly at the level of qualified cadres. What we need is to improve these abilities and learn what we missed over the years. It is very easy to go shopping and buy whatever you want, but we'd rather work closely with foreigners and learn how to make the product ourselves."
His policies have resulted in positive feedback at the international level. Early this year, the World Bank agreed to contribute to Egypt's civil aviation sector for the first time, providing a $350 million loan to fund a major upgrade of the capital's airport, as well as a new terminal in Sharm El-Sheikh. The Japanese Cooperation Bank has also offered a $47 million loan to fund the construction of a new terminal in Borg Al-Arab, west of Alexandria.
Shafiq's controversial image also stems from his style. He has been criticised for monopolising the workflow and controlling all the different activities himself. At the national carrier, for instance, it is a well-known fact that although there are seven heads for the seven affiliated companies, in addition to the chairman who controls the mother company, it is Shafiq who manages the whole thing. "We have to build the administrative structure from the ground up," he says. "When the industry becomes more stable, with solid legislations and regulations, and everyone knows his duties and his rights, it will be easier to control the work via qualified aides."
As such, there have been complaints about excessively frequent changes in management, a charge to which Shafiq responds: "Any management that can not, for one reason or another, perform as expected, should step down to allow others to try."
Shafiq has always been known as a tough and ruthless boss. "I used to hear my colleagues say that about me, but I'm not angry with them. I have a lot of friends, and they all know that I do not tolerate mistakes for the sake of friendship."
That style has made its appearance several times since Shafiq began his ministerial mission. It was especially obvious in the way he dealt with EgyptAir's pilots, who have often threatened to go on strike in pursuit of more bonuses and better retirement benefits. "When I first take over any mission, I usually look at the most critical areas first." He calls the pilots his "sons", and says that early on, he informed them that they would get "everything at the right time, and to the best of the ministry's abilities." At the same time, he was able to provide a tangible lesson of how tough he could be. Just a week after the EgyptAir Tunisia crash, pilot Ali Murad allegedly unnecessarily risked the lives of 143 passengers when he flew to Luxor without permission in adverse weather conditions. Earlier, he had refused to allow Israeli troops to inspect his plane at Gaza, and was forced to fly back to Cairo without passengers. Although the press lauded Murad for that stand, EgyptAir suspended him for seven months. He only returned to work after a disciplinary court ruling absolved him of any wrongdoing. After the Luxor incident, Shafiq suspended, and then dismissed, Murad for good. "This pilot will never step inside an Egyptian plane again as a pilot," Shafiq says. "This has nothing to do with his 'heroics' in Gaza. He made a fatal mistake that cannot be tolerated."
Murad's colleagues got the message. Shafiq doesn't negotiate when it comes to the basics of work. This year, when air traffic controllers twice tried to force their management to agree to a list of financial demands, Shafiq again stonewalled. The controllers organised a sit-in in March asking for a 100 per cent increase in their net salaries and a 25 per cent increase over the next two years. Neither Shafiq nor the company's management agreed to even talk to the protesters. "If we negotiate under pressure, all the others will follow. We'd then lose control, and I would not allow this to happen."
Shafiq says he's trying to reduce the overall number of people employed by the government in the aviation business. "We have more than 4,000 employees at Cairo International alone, whereas airports with similar facilities only employ a quarter of that amount. Can anyone imagine the budget required to improve the financial conditions of thousands of employees who do not actually benefit their companies?"
When the controllers tried again in May, Shafiq again stood firm. Instead of negotiating, he dismissed four controllers, including two seniors, on charges of deliberately damaging their company's business. After three weeks, the controllers ended their protest without registering any gains.
The minister says he knows he may not always be right. "At first I try to do things the way I know best; if this proves unsuccessful, I do not hesitate to go back and try another way."

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