Mas­ter mud­dler

A be­wil­der­ing 40 min­utes with Ab­del Moneim Youssef

Executive Magazine - - Economics & Policy -

Ab­del Moneim Youssef is not your av­er­age public ser­vant. If there is one com­pelling im­pres­sion from meet­ing him in per­son, it is that there is much more to him than meets the eye. In this sense, his of­fice at the Min­istry of Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions is re­veal­ingly un­re­veal­ing: large but func­tional, not overtly more guarded than the premises of other Grade 1 na­tional of­fi­cials, and adorned with me­mora­bilia — fit­tingly in his case, blown-up images of his­toric Le­banese phone cards dec­o­rate the spa­cious wait­ing area.

But the bu­reau­crat has cer­tain at­tributes that pit him as quite ex­cep­tional for a public ser­vant. For one, he sin­gle­hand­edly holds a tremen­dous amount of power over the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions sec­tor. He is at once direc­tor gen­eral of op­er­a­tions and main­te­nance at the Min­istry of Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and chair– gen­eral manager of state owned fixed line op­er­a­tor Ogero, which acts as an in­ter­net ser­vice provider while si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­ing re­spon­si­ble for sell­ing in­ter­na­tional ca­pac­ity to the pri­vate sec­tor.

The man is also in­cred­i­bly elu­sive. Reach­ing Youssef re­quired go­ing through spe­cific chan­nels that are not usu­ally re­quired for jour­nal­ists to meet public ser­vants.

Then, there are the opin­ions peo­ple hold of him. Every­body in­volved with telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in Le­banon seems to have one. Some view him as highly self in­ter­ested, oth­ers re­gard him as no dif­fer­ent from any other gov­ern­ment em­ployee — and some of those in the know even pro­vided Ex­ec­u­tive with two con­flict­ing views, de­scrib­ing him as “ex­tremely smart and charm­ing if he wants to be,” but also go­ing as far as al­leg­ing that he must be “a ma­niac” or have a “crazy con­spir­acy the­ory” — speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity, of course.

But for any­thing tele­com sec­tor re­lated, Youssef is the go-to per­son. He is Mr. X — or Ms. X, as Ex­ec­u­tive termed the the­o­ret­i­cal, all know­ing, un­known tele­coms guru. He is the one who should be able to — and cer­tainly is able to — an­swer ba­sic ques­tions on the minds of the Le­banese. Ques­tions such as why has the new fiber op­tic in­ter­net back­bone not been turned on yet? Why isn’t Ogero grant­ing in­ter­na­tional ca­pac­ity to pri­vate sec­tor ISPs? Why is our in­ter­net so slow and ex­pen­sive?

Be­fore Ex­ec­u­tive en­coun­tered Youssef, we were told he had a knack for de­rail­ing a topic by ei­ther los­ing his in­ter­locu­tors in de­tails or with his charm­ing per­son­al­ity. Sit­ting down with him, it quickly be­came clear that he was not go­ing to give us any in­for­ma­tion — much less a straight, se­ri­ous an­swer. Youssef can talk, knows how to waste time and is a mas­ter of de­flect­ing in­con­ve­nient ques­tions. Be­sides not al­low­ing record­ing equip­ment, Youssef would craft his an­swers in a way to not only avoid the topic, but also be un­spe­cific to the point of mak­ing gen­er­al­iza­tion into an art form.

When asked why the new fiber op­tic net­work con­tracted in 2011 — which now con­nects the bulk of the cen­tral of­fices in Le­banon as well as many of the coun­try’s heavy users such as uni­ver­si­ties and hos­pi­tals — has not been turned on, Youssef im­me­di­ately re­torted on the se­man­tics, not the sub­stance, of our ques­tion. ‘Heavy users’ is a mean­ing­less term, he shot back, em­bark­ing on a di­a­tribe ar­gu­ing that the term was “not even a word.” If you look up ‘heavy users’ on Google, he said, it would yield no re­sults. He went fur­ther to say that ‘heavy users’ was only a term used by peo­ple in Le­banon, to de­scribe a con­cept that does not ex­ist in the rest of the world’s par­lance.

Ex­ec­u­tive of course does not know when Youssef last googled the term, but we can con­firm that a March 2015 search yields high level in­ter­na­tional tech­ni­cal sources as us­ing the term ‘heavy users’ in im­por­tant dis­cus­sions — such as the net neu­tral­ity de­bate — and for con­sid­er­able time in ex­actly the same way in which it was en­tailed in the ques­tion posed to him.

To a ques­tion about why our new, state of the art fiber op­tic back­bone had not yet been switched on to carry

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