A bewildering 40 minutes with Abdel Moneim Youssef
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