An Interculturalist in Cairo

Suzie Greiss has lived in Canada, Europe, Africa and Asia. She is a cultural anthropologist who has tirelessly worked to strengthen cultural understanding and partnerships in Aid projects. Recently appointed by Hosni Mubarak as a Member of Parliament, Suzie continues to push for the rights of women and the protection of the environment.

Could you describe Egyptian culture in its current form?

It is a very diverse country in terms of culture because of the exposure Egyptians have had through the ages with invaders and occupiers that came from different parts of the world. We are located in a region where there are a lot of passages onto and from the North East and Europe. We have influences from Europe.  Greeks,Italians and Jews lived here up until the early 1950's. We also have French influences because of Napoleon's invasion. In addition to these external influences, we are an Islamic country; at least the constitution says that Islam is the religion of the majority. However, we are not Islamic in a fundamentalist sense.

You yourself are a Coptic Christian?

Yes I am.

It might be a bit of a surprise to many readers, who aren't quite familiar with Christianity to knowthat there are some 7 million Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Coptic Christianity is one of the oldest churches in the world. The Coptic Church is based on the teachings of Saint Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero in the first century. The Church still survives very much as it always has in its liturgies and its hierarchical system. The hierarchy is likely the influence of Egyptian culture. Egypt is a very hierarchical country, perhaps due to the influence of our geography. The Nile is the source of life and around the Nile everything happened, so for that reason there existed a very highly centralized system.

How do the Christian and Islamic cultures co-exist?

We are very much integrated. We Copts and Muslims live side by side, there is no separation. Admittedly, the war in Iraq and the Palestinian situation has led to more tensions at times.

In your opinion, have these regional tensions and wars led to a surge in Fundamentalism, for lack of better word?

Yes, there is a growth of Fundamentalism and in fact, in last year's parliamentary elections, we saw 88 deputies elected from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Is the Muslim Brotherhood not an outlawed political movement in Egypt?

Yes they are outlawed. Our constitution forbids having any political party based solely on religion, but the Muslim Brotherhood candidates ran as independents.

Would you say that regardless of religion, all Egyptians are Egyptians first?

We all think of ourselves as Egyptians first; however, because the troubles going on in Iraq and Palestine, this image is being challenged. Unfortunately, I feel the West often sees us as being Arab and Muslim terrorists.

That's a pretty broad-brush to paint you with.

It is. I believe that many people think Muslim and Arab are synonymous. But of course we are not all Arabs, we are Egyptians. Many countries and cultures are now clumped into one homogeneous group called "Arabs"; Egyptians, Moroccans, Tunisians and so on. None of these countries are Arab countries, but because they have Islam, they are considered so. It is ironic that the most populous Islamic country is Indonesia – they are not Arabs either! So you have these misconceptions going out to the West and we really need to work on explaining the diversity and complexity of our cultures to them.

In most cases, are the similarities stronger than the differences?

Absolutely! You will always find similarities; we're all human. We have a lot of things in common. Cultures are different, but we need to respect each others' cultures, accept the differences, and then work on the similarities. Once you dig into another culture, it unfolds before you and you discover so many wonderful things that in the end, you feel attached to it. Thetis my experience anyway.

Do you think your choice of studies, and later your choice of career, was influenced by the diversity of Egyptian culture?

My choices were guided or influenced by two things: when I was young, it wasn't common for a girl to go to medical school or go into sciences. I grew up in a family where my mother did an awful lot of volunteer work and she was very much involved in social development so I took after her. I wanted to work in development. When my children were growing up and I was posted abroad with my husband, I could not really work but I did a lot of volunteer work. Later on, once the children were older, I picked up my career again.

You worked for several years at the Canadian Mission in Egypt, with the Canadian International Development Agency's (CIDA) Program Support Unit (PSU).

Yes, I worked there from 1993 until 2005.

You and your colleagues worked very hard to maintain an intercultural component to the PSU?

Yes, I believe that many projects have failed for the simple reason that the people did not understand each other and did not know how to work together. It's that simple.

It sounds simple but it’s not simple in practice, is it?

At the PSU, we were right in the middle of all of this; we saw teams of Canadians coming to work in Egypt. They had agreements, they had beautiful projects with designs that they had developed with some very high level Egyptian officials, and then they would come to implement the projects and the problems would start. Often, these projects were developed with a Canadian frame of reference. You agree on something and expect the following day that this will take place. This is not the way things happen in Egypt. We have to establish a relationship with the people first, then you start working. It’s very important to get each side to understand each other and what each one’s expectations are of the other. And you have to have someone to facilitate this process, and that is what we were trying to do. I've described it simplistically, but this was the basis of our work.

Whether you're working on bilateral development projects or in business, you have to understand the cultural context and help the people work together. And this is a two-way street; local partners have to understand their foreign counterparts' culture as well. And we see improved results from these types of partnerships. People involved in them also see results; they recognize the importance years later sometimes.

How did you become a Member of Parliament in Egypt?

It took me by surprise. I was not interested in politics.  However, I did have a role in the community doing volunteer work and teaching but I had a career in Development. I think sometimes that you are just at the right place at the right time and that waste case and point because I had an opportunity to meet with the President's wife, Mrs. Mubarak, very briefly at a fundraising event. Then, later on, there were elections held in Egypt and very few women or Christians were elected. The President has the right to appoint up to 10 members of Parliament, so I guess I fit the profile! I was actually only a few days from retirement when I got the call informing me of my appointment. 

As a parliamentarian, what is your role? Do you have a portfolio?

As in any Parliamentary system, we do a lot of work in committees. I chose to work on the Health and Environment Committee and I also represent Egypt in the International Parliamentary Union.  So there are a lot of activities going on for Parliamentarians internationally and although I don't have a constituency to represent, I still have a lot of demands on my time from people looking for jobs, or people who have other problems that need solving. This keeps me very busy.

How would you describe the status of women in general in Egyptian society?

In many respects I have to say that we have gained much ground in recent years. The problem is not due to religion, because Islam gives women a lot of rights. However, it's the culture that still presents a lot of resistance to equal rights to women; We have equal say when it comes to government jobs. But this still can't be said for jobs in private sector.

Because business is mainly controlled by men?

I don't think it's a question of businesses being controlled by men; we have very strong labour laws here that protect women. But sometimes it’s these very laws that cause the problems. For example, men prefer to hire other men because they won't have to worry about maternity leave; they see this as a drain on their profits. But generally speaking we are treated equally, our Constitution guarantees this. You run into more problems in the upper-Egypt region, because the culture tends to be much more traditional and conservative. There is also a lot of poverty and so they really cannot afford to send their children to school. So they will send the boys rather than the girls. I am working very hard to open more good schools and make education more accessible to young girls and women living in rural areas.

Do you consider yourself an interculturalist?

Yes, I do consider myself an interculturalist.

And what is an interculturalist?

For me, the first part is to appreciate the dimensions other cultures offer. I have lived in so many different cultures and this has enriched my life very much. My life was enriched by the fact that I lived a little bit in India, Japan, Canada, Tanzania, Zaire, and Madagascar. All of these experiences have had an impact on me and changed me as a person.

The other part is helping people deal with cultural differences. We worked so hard at the PSU, and it was a real challenge at times because you had to continuously fight for limited resources. We pushed hard because we could see a lot of money being spent on Aid projects in Egypt and we knew that in many cases, it would just be wasted if you didn't get this common understanding between partners, both Egyptian and Canadian. And understanding and appreciating each other's cultures is a big part of this.

Given the current global environment, with increased tensions and conflicts between countries and cultures, what do you believe are some of the things that we should be doing from an intercultural perspective?

We should be focussing on the strengths and what all of these cultures have to offer; we should be learning from each other. Because I think what we are seeing now is total separation and fear. There is much of this fear between Western cultures and the Islamic world. There is a lot to learn from Islam and there is much to gain from it. And Islamic nations can learn from the West as well. But this process cannot take place by force, as you often see it happening now. You cannot simply impose your ways or export them. Things have to fit within the local context, and if you understand the context very well and if you work hard at it, you can adapt. Given today’s communication technologies, we cannot ignore each other anymore; everything is open and immediate.

And often, the immediacy does not allow time for reflection?

Yes, it seems there is not much time for reflection. And it does not allow time, or make room for dialogue, which as an interculturalist, I think is very important.

Suzie, what are your priorities in the coming months, what will you be working on?

Besides my work as a Member of Parliament, I also work with an NGO called The Association for the protection of the Environment, (A.P.E).It is an Egyptian NGO, and the mission of this NGO is to protect the environment through addressing solid waste management issues and by empowering women. We work in a community of garbage collectors and we've been there now since 1984. It's a large NGO, we work with about 400 people, 250 of which are women and young girls. This work blends in well with my work as an MP. Also I am involved with the National Council for Women and working for women's rights in Egypt.

Thank you very much for this interview Suzie Greiss.

You're very welcome.