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Needed: Skilled Mediator for Egypt

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Along with the announcement earlier today that Hosni Mubarak has stepped down as president (dictator) of Egypt was an announcement by Egyptian state radio that Naguib Sawiris, a wealthy and widely respected businessman, has agreed to act as a mediator between the opposition and the authorities in carrying through the political reforms. Who is Naguib Sawiris, and what are his qualifications to mediate a complicated and critical transition of power from the old Egyptian regime to a new government?

Mr. Sawiris has been ranked the 60th wealth world billionaire. He is described as outspoken, flamboyant, and charismatic. A Coptic Christian, he holds a Diplom (similar to a Master's) in Business Administration and Mechanical Engineering from the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, Switzerland and the Abitur (diploma) from the German Protestant School, Cairo, Egypt. He has made his fortune building a telecommunications company specializing in low income countries.

Forbes Magazine reports that Mr. Sawiris has been a vocal critic of the Mubarak regime and has expressed admiration for Mohamed ElBaradei. He is reportedly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nothing in the public reports about Mr. Sawiris suggest that he is trained, experienced, or skilled at mediation. He is probably a good business negotiator. However, the skill set required of a mediator engaged to mediate a transitional government is far larger than simple business negotiation. Having a strong personality, charisma, and flamboyance can be of use at times to a mediator, but a master mediator must know when and how to turn up and turn down his or her personality. The public available information does not suggest that Mr. Sawiris possesses this discipline.

As I discuss at length in my forthcoming book Elusive Peace, we can no longer afford ad hoc mediation or ad hoc mediators acting in the international arena. The results in Egypt are profoundly important: For the first time in the modern era, the population of a predominantly moderate Arab Muslim nation have deposed a dictator. The shockwaves are rolling throughout the Arab and Islamic world. And while, ironically, the Iranian regime is brutally suppressing the wave of opposition while applauding the Egyptian revolution, other Arab populations are questioning the continued legitimacy of repressive, autocratic regimes. The transitional process in Egypt will show the world either a brilliant, if difficult, journey to democratic reform or a disastrous descent into a military junta.

The mediator selected to work with the process must therefore be of the highest skill and integrity. Not a retired diplomat or foreign head of state. Not a retired military general. Not some other international notable. Instead, the mediator must be just that--a professional mediator whose life has been dedicated to understanding and working with difficult intractable conflicts. Preferably, the mediator should be an Arab. Certainly, the mediator should be seen as impartial, neutral, and highly skilled.

If Mr. Sawiris is the only available choice in Egypt, I would advise him to bring a circle of professional mediation advisors. One telephone call to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, for example, or to the Carter Center, could bring the resources that will be necessary in the coming Egyptian dialogue. Without professional mediation support, the likelihood of a successful mediated transition to democracy will be greatly reduced. Egypt cannot afford this; the Arab world cannot afford this; and the world cannot afford this. Let us hope that Mr. Sawiris wisely chooses to enlist the help of professionals in his new role as the Egyptian mediator.

Douglas E. Noll is a lawyer turned peacemaker and author of Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Can Better Resolve World Conflict, to be published by Prometheus in April 2011.