Thursday April 16, 2018 By: May Allam
Despite the countless challenges women in Egypt face, many succeeded in breaking the social and gender stereotypes. They ventured in fields that have until recently been dominated by men and received national and international recognition. They are holding influential and prestigious positions worldwide and becoming role models for the younger generation.
With a PhD in International Law from the University of London, Ambassador Namira Negm became the first woman to assume responsibly of the Office of the Legal Counsel of the African Union. Her accomplishment was a new milestone not just for Egyptian women, but for women in Africa and around the world.
The former Egyptian Ambassador to Rwanda has also worked as the Head of the Anti-Corruption Unit at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt and the Legal Advisor to the Egyptian mission to the UN in New York. She lives in Addis Ababa with her husband, Mr. Khaled Taher, a freelance journalist and writer.
Women of Egypt: What attracted you to this career and what do you like most about your job?
Ambassador Namira Negm: I loved representing Egypt as a diplomat in multilateral forums but now I work for 55 Countries. The idea of trying to be a good representative is enticing. As my career started with international law, and I managed through the years to negotiate many legal instruments on behalf of my country, now it is thrilling to be able to do that for the entire African Continent.
WOE: From your experience as ambassador to Rwanda, how do you suggest Egypt can strengthen its ties further with the African countries?
NN: Egypt has all the potential to expand its cooperation with African States in many fields. To strengthen the cooperation with Africa, Egypt has to reach out in the form of trade and investment in the continent. For example, Egypt has points of strength that can benefit many African states; this includes medicine, oncology, pediatrics and radiology, eradication of Malaria, mining, education, industry; but it has to build a strategy for partnership based on equality and cooperation.
WOE: Exports of Rwanda to Egypt are half of Egypt’s exports to Rwanda. What do you suggest is the cause of that?
NN: The reason is the competitive Egyptian prices. Rwanda is receptive of business; Egyptian traders have to know what Rwanda offers in order to introduce it to the Egyptian markets. The Egyptian products are not fully known in Rwanda such as furniture, carpets and linen. This is why, when I was in Rwanda, I published articles calling for having a cabinet minister or a state minister for investments in Africa.
WOE: Has Rwanda been reluctant to further ties with Egypt because of the political instability of the country during the 2011 Revolution?
NN: Political issues are always there, but the lack of enthusiasm towards Egypt started before 2011. The revolution wasn’t the reason behind slow development in the relations between countries. The main reason was the continuous disregard to African countries in the last few years preceding to 2011. Countries that came out of conflicts wanted Egypt to assist them financially but Egypt disregarded this, so they diverted their attention towards those who will help them building their countries.
WOE: How did your Excellency work to change this and further enhance relations between both countries?
NN: As an ambassador, the first to assume that responsibility under the new government in Egypt, I managed to convince the government in Rwanda that Egypt under President Elsisi is seriously willing to cooperate with all African nations. Showing the willingness, by trying to attract Egyptian investors to Rwanda, increasing the visibility of both countries among their population and government proved successful. However, I believe the Ambassadors pave the way for the rest of the institutions and the private sector to work in order to ensure sustainability in the political relations.
WOE: As a female ambassador, what kind of challenges have you encountered in your career?
NN: That is always a tough question. Male chauvinism is the main challenge. We are still living in a culture where it is debatable whether women can do it or not. Condescending opinions of people around you because of gender is still a major issue.
During my career, I worked with supportive leaders and others who did not believe in the capacity of women to work. Sometimes male peers had a hidden solidarity code, so when one encountered a problem with a female colleague, they all came together against her. Sometimes, you are subject to envy if you are female, young, single and successful. Although the income of many women go to support their families, male colleagues do not understand that. They only see that they have families to support with disregard to the financial responsibilities of their female colleagues.
WOE: What was the moment/moments in your career that you thought your efforts and hard work were worthwhile?
NN: There were few moments of those. When I got posted to NY based on merits and specialization. Also, when the Minister of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Rwanda thanked me for my work in the presence of the President and the Egyptian MFA. And when I presented the first submission ever made by the African Union before the International Court of Justice in the advisory opinion in The Chagos, I felt like the long sleepless nights preparing for it were absolutely worth it.
WOE: What are the misconceptions people have about your work?
NN: I would start by saying that most people think that our work is more fun and parties rather than real hard work. They usually see the glamour of the work but not its difficulties. Unfortunately, in Egypt, people barely see diplomats in real life because they never exceed 1000 individuals in service at any point in all ranks, from diplomatic attachés to ambassadors, in and outside of Egypt. A harsh example would be that I only earned 4700 pounds before I left to Rwanda, a salary no family could live on.
There is this incident that happened to me during the first presidential visit to Rwanda, when I asked my husband to assist me with the media. The Embassy in Rwanda has a small team. We received support from the Ministry, but the delegation was large in number. We were responsible for various arrangements, and we had no media specialist in the Embassy. My husband accepted to do the job for free. Yet, after the summit was over, we were scrutinized and some of the media people said I paid him from the Embassy funds to do the job. They were unaware that I did not have neither the authority nor any funds to do so.
Another misconception about our job is people thinking that anyone can do it. They forget that to join the diplomatic corps, we sit for exams, we receive a lot of training, and we accumulate experience over the years until we reach the level of ambassador. Yet you find many people saying, I can do this or that better than them. We are a very small number in the community and many knows nothing about us except through how we are portrayed in the media.
WOE: In the areas of development and education, what new ideas and projects do you suggest African nations could adopt to advance in these fields? And where does Egypt stand in comparison to other African countries?
NN: Specialized education, especially vocational training, the entire continent is in need of it.
With regard to development, Egypt is doing its best and as we can see in the last quarter there is a considerable increase in Foreign Direct Investment. However, when it comes to education, I believe there is a lot we need to do to change the way we receive education: we need to build a generation that is capable of critical thinking and have more exchanges with prominent African educational institutions.
WOE: How does your role promote feminism and the role of women in the political arena?
NN: Well, in the African Union, there is a goal to have gender parity. I am the first woman to assume the responsibility of the Office of the Legal Counsel. This is a job that was dominated by men since the establishment of the OAU. I think, if I manage to be a role model, hence I can become their advocate to work hard, and they will eventually reap the benefits.
WOE: What advice would you offer young women who are considering this career?
NN: Trust in yourselves and your abilities. Do not shy away from fighting the world to reach your goals. Be ready to sacrifice and don’t ever give up what you love for the sake of what others want or expect of you: “The light is within thee, so let the light shine”
Photos courtesy Dr. Namira Negm and African Union.
Check Dr. Namira Negm’s Facebook page here
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