Minouche Shafik: Egypt’s most talked about woman

Nemat “Minouche” Shafik has been all over social media following news of her appointment as director of the London School of Economics

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

Nemat “Minouche” Shafik has been all over social media in Egypt for the past week following news of her appointment as director of the London School of Economics (LSE). The importance of the news not only lies in how prestigious the position is, but also in the fact that she is the first woman to be appointed.

Also, Minouche’s new appointment is the culmination of a series of achievements, the last of which is her current position as deputy governor of the Bank of England. Before that she was deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, vice president of the World Bank, and permanent secretary of the Department for International Development. Despite her remarkable career, Minouche seems to have started getting known among most Egyptians only after the latest appointment, which received a great deal of attention and turned her into an iconic role model.

Following the announcement of her new appointment, Egyptian press started running stories about Minouche’s life and career, many of which had titles like “Get to know Nemat Shafik: The first woman to head LSE,” “The story of the Alexandrian woman to become director of LSE,” “Facts you don’t know about Nemat Shafik,” and “An Egyptian to become LSE director.” Several of these stories highlighted Minouche’s choice by Forbes as one of the world’s 100 most powerful women in 2015, her naming by Queen Elizabeth II as Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and the statement she issued about the new appointment as well as quoting international media outlets about her influence in the world of economics.

Journalist Gamal Ziada finds the latest position to which Minouche was appointed an indication that Egyptian economists can reach a level of genius and experience that enables them to run the most vital international financial institutions. “This is similar to the case of Mohamed al-Erian, who was the CEO of PIMCO, the American company that manages assets worth more than a trillion dollars and is currently the chief economic advisor of Allianz,” he wrote. Ziada added that while it is not possible to ask people like Minouche and Erian to return to Egypt, there are many like them whose expertise can be utilized in running the Egyptian economy “with all its complications, bureaucracy, corruption, frustrating legislations and obstructive procedures,” as he put it. Ziada argued that Minouche’s latest achievement underlines the importance of resorting to people like her to fix the Egyptian economy. “We need to come out of our isolation and look for alternatives instead of always repeating the mistake of appointing people with no credentials and then suffering disastrous consequences.”

Two months before the announcement of her new appointment at LSE, journalist Soliman Gouda expressed an opinion similar to that of Ziada about the discrepancy between experts like Minouche and the supposedly inefficient officials chosen for high ranking economic positions in Egypt. For Gouda, Minouche’s position at the Bank of England makes her different from other Egyptians who worked at international financial organizations. “The difference between Minouche and Egyptians who assumed high positions at the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank is that she was a non-English woman chosen to work in an English bank, which means she proved more efficient than her English counterparts,” he wrote. Gouda noted that Minouche serves as a sad reminder of the huge gap between Egyptians like her and Egyptians assigned to handle Egypt’s economic problems. “Egyptian officials remain lacking in talent and expertise and that is why performance has been deteriorating by the hour and Egyptians wake up every day to a new disaster that finds no one to deal with it,” he said. “Nemat has rubbed salt into our wounds without meaning to.”

The time Minouche spent in Egypt is relatively short. She left for the US when she was four and returned as a teenager where she went to high school then spent one year at the American University in Cairo and left again to get her BA in economics from the University of Massachusetts- Amherst, after which she worked for the US Agency for International Development in Egypt for only two years. However, her education and career choices are closely linked to her Egyptian background, particularly the reason for her family’s departure from Egypt: “I guess the particular angle that I have on development comes from the fact that my family was nationalized,” she said in an interview back in 2001. “That experience of nationalization and struggling with the role of the state trying to take resources, to redistribute them, but at the same time not being very successful at it was a part of my childhood.” Her interest in Egypt was particularly demonstrated in the topic she chose for her PhD, which she got from Oxford University. “I did it on the role of the private sector and the public sector in Egypt, and so I was in some ways going back to that formative question from childhood,” she explained, adding that as part of her thesis she visited hundreds of companies and factories in Egypt in order to understand how the private sector works and how it interacts with the state.

On the other hand, the warm welcome with which Minouche’s new appointment was received by the media was treated with sarcasm by journalist and researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Osama Diab. According to Diab, Egyptians are so desperate to find a promising model that they exaggerate in emphasizing the Egyptian background of a woman who, he argues, is hardly Egyptian to start with. “Her relationship with Egypt does not possibly exceed the three times she visited it,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “But we have reached such a miserable state that we cling to any faint hope that Egyptians can actually be successful on the international level.”