Thomas Friedman (ALU ’74), Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, Author and Pulitzer Prize Winner
What brought you to AUC?
I’d gotten interested in the Middle East in high school. I started taking Arabic as a freshman. In college, at Brandeis, I majored in Mediterranean studies, which was their version of Middle Eastern studies. I wanted to learn Arabic as fast and furious as I could. The Center for Arabic Study Abroad was the crown jewel in the field. So in the summer of 1974, between my junior and senior year at Brandeis, I went to AUC.
What struck you about your time at AUC?
Great teaching—I had a fantastic instructor. The delightful students, both undergraduate and graduate students. And the environment. I remember sitting in the courtyard off Tahrir Square—the beautiful trees and green grass. It was an island of serenity and good ideas, of people aspiring to build a better Egypt. You felt like you were in the beating heart of the Middle East, in a place that elevated the best ideas, the highest goals. I only have fond memories of it.
What role has AUC played in the region?
You know, I’ve lived in Beirut; my wife went to the American University of Beirut. I think of those universities—AUC and AUB and the American University in Iraq—as outposts of liberal values and free markets and modern education. They’ve graduated several generations of Arab scholars, statesmen and women, businessmen and women — all grounded in the values of rule of law, consensual government, respect for and empowerment of women, and democratic norms. As a country, America isn’t always at its best—but these universities represent the best of our values. They’re beacons.
What do you see ahead for Egypt?
Well, the way the Arab Spring played out—that knocked the country for a loop. You saw a lot of instability and uncertainty. President El-Sisi came in with the mandate to stabilize the country. But stability isn’t an end in itself. It should be a springboard to more open, participatory, consensual government. The forces that drove the Arab Spring—those aspirations—haven’t gone away.
What contribution can AUC make?
A university like AUC is a kind of topsoil in the garden of Egypt. It provides the foundation out of which a free market and democratic principles can grow. Like every garden, it depends on its wider environment. Those principles have to grow in a time and a way that’s consistent with their surroundings. So you cultivate the soil, and you renew your hope for the garden.
Mourad Wahba ’80, ’82
In 1993, after six years of teaching in AUC’s Department of Economics, Mourad Wahba joined the United Nations for what he thought was a quick stint as a senior officer in the Office of the Secretary-General. “I went to the United Nations, originally planning to stay for one year to add a practical side to my academic interests,” he said.
Twenty-six years later, Wahba is still with the United Nations, now as assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and assistant administrator and director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the United Nations Development Programme. In this position, which he started in February 2017, Wahba is working on using Egypt’s “critical” voice to emphasize peacekeeping priorities inside and outside of the region.
Wahba feels his path to the United Nations was shaped by his experience at AUC, both as a student and professor. “AUC is an excellent preparation for anyone wanting an international career,” he observed. “The wide variety of people you meet and the habits of working with students and professors of many nationalities is a good basis for those who would thrive in international environments.”
Looking back at his years at AUC, Wahba most values the University’s “exceptional” resources that helped him — particularly the AUC Library, which Wahba said developed his intellectual curiosity and a research discipline — as well as the connections he made over the years.
“The student body was diverse and filled with brilliant minds from whom I learned very much. …I think what inspired me most were the conversations with colleagues from all over the world.”
Now, in his position at the United Nations, Wahba is committed to identifying the major issues and priorities that are integral instruments in shaping the Arab region. Some of the challenges he detailed were climate change, particularly important with the series of droughts experienced; the accessibility of jobs for youth; as well as non-governmental institutions.
“I hope to strengthen the role of civil society, especially the role of women’s organizations, as this sector will truly factor into progress for our region,” Wahba said.
To make progress in these areas, Wahba must collaborate among all sectors and networks, working closely with governments, donors and colleagues in the United Nations, reaching out to non-state actors in both civil society and the private sector.
“The work is challenging but extremely interesting. … Egypt plays an important role at the United Nations and is a strong voice for development. The Egyptian permanent mission to the United Nations is very active.”
Mohamed Shelbaya ’90
“You are taking me down memory lane,” said Mohamed Shelbaya ‘90, the CEO of Pepsico Egypt, when asked about his AUC experience.
From meeting his wife 24 years ago at AUC to slam-dunking as a basketball player in its courts, Shelbaya recalls countless memories at his alma mater.
Traveling the world as a professional player on the basketball national team and his education at AUC, are what endorsed Shelbaya’s key positions at Pepsico starting as the sales and marketing director in 1999 to becoming the CEO of Pepsico Egypt. “It’s been a long time since I graduated, and AUC has always been dear to my heart, it’s shaped my character and where I am today,” he says.
The global identity is Shelbaya’s favorite part about the University. “You can be a bit shocked at the beginning when you enter [a classroom] with all these different nationalities, all coming from different walks of life. … under one umbrella, the AUC umbrella,” he says.
Studying last minute for exams and looking for the best notes together with Madame Azhar’s crashing the basketball court and screaming repeatedly “AUC doesn’t lose” are among Shelbaya’s funniest memories at AUC that would make him “always ready to come back to this place.”
Because of this secret combination, “AUC has shaped the lives of youth for 100 years and stayed one of the pivot education spots in Egypt and the Middle East” and will continue to teach, inspire and graduate “more and more talents and executives coming out to serve this great country and … anywhere they go,” he added.
Exclusively from a professional, his key to success is to never give up. “Whatever life throws at you, don’t give up, pursue your dreams and don’t let anybody put you down.”
Fadwa El Guindi ’60
The first day of school for Fadwa El Guindi ’60 began rather unconventionally. She walked out her front door, unbeknownst to her parents, and followed her older brother to school — at 2-years-old. When her parents eventually received a bill from her brother’s expensive private school for El Guindi’s enrollment, they went to the school, sure there was a mistake. There wasn’t.
“The school told my parents, ‘you would do someone like this a disservice to keep her home — someone who wants to be in school. But, she’s also 2 so she needs her naps.” They let her stay.
Those beginnings set the tone for El Guindi’s academic and professional life. Now, El Guindi is a prominent anthropologist and an acclaimed author, documentary filmmaker and scholar. Despite her distinguished career standing, El Guindi describes herself as mostly “mischievous.”
Having skipped three grades before attending AUC, El Guindi was younger than her peers but was at the top of her class. Though she was at the top of her class, the administration often threatened to expel her due to her rule-breaking — even on her graduation day. “It’s not that I want to antagonize, I just can’t help myself,” says El Guindi, laughing. “I’m very active and my brain is just going faster than normal.”
As an anthropologist, El Guindi’s research involves fieldwork with Arab, Nubian and Zapotec cultures and Arab-Americans. She previously served as distinguished professor of anthropology and head of the Department of Social Sciences at Qatar University, and was also a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Southern California and Georgetown University. Her expertise on the Middle East brought her to the White House under Bill Clinton, and she frequently gave lectures to diplomats assigned to the Middle East at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State. Currently, El Guindi lectures internationally and has recently been elected as a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science.
El Guindi says that although her career path is unorthodox, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “You can’t plan every single molecule of your life,” she says. “Some things happen and you have to take some risks. Life will flow with you.”
Tarek Momen ’11
Electronics and Communications Engineering
After graduating from AUC with highest honors in electronics and communications engineering, Tarek Momen decided to pursue in becoming a professional squash player. He is now ranked third worldwide on the Professional Squash Tour. He also won the silver medal at the World Championship held in Chicago this year.