You have a long experience with the Middle East. You studied the history, politics, culture, and history of the region. You served and lived in different Arab countries: in Libya, Egypt and recently in Jordan where you were ambassador for five years. What fascinates you the most about this region?
My interest for the Arab world started already as a child. Some of my best friends where partly brought up in the Middle East, where their father was the representative of a Swedish bank. I spent all my summers in their house, which was filled with carpets, arts and books from the Middle East. Above all it was filled with stories and with wonderful visiting friends.
Later, at university, I decided to join a Middle East Studies program. It was a multidisciplinary program with a focus on the Middle East region. And as so often in life, the more I studied, the more intrigued and interested I got.
What fascinates me the most is the combination of similarities and differences between this region and my own cultural background. Fundamentally much of our history and culture is a common heritage. Europe and the Middle East have always been intertwined – in good times and in bad times. On both sides of the Mediterranean I think we have a lot that we can learn from each other. But there are also many challenges that can only be overcome by cooperation.
The Middle East region, and not least Egypt, is also for me as a European, the cradle of civilisation. It is difficult not to be fascinated by the region’s rich history and culture, but also its beautiful and varied nature. However what I like the most is the people. There is a human warmth and generosity, and a colourful spark that fascinates me more than anything.
You were the Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Sweden in Cairo between 1999 and 2003. Coming back after 10 years, what has changed in the country and Egyptian society? Is it the same Egypt you used to know?
Let me first say that it is a real privilege to have the chance to come back to a place like Egypt. Returning has the advantage of being able to compare and to see developments (good and bad) with the perspective of time.
In some ways, it is a “new Egypt” I am coming to and I realise how much there is to learn and to catch up on. In terms of political developments, the last few years have been a roller-coaster-ride. Together with the rest of the world I have followed your start of a transitional journey with fascination – sometimes with admiration, sometimes with concern.
Some things have changed for the worse: the overpopulation; pollution and garbage; and growing socio-economic challenges. Other things have certainly changed for the better: the breaking of taboos; the increasing debates; and the political engagement are all very positive. And they are essential elements for dealing with the challenges and for finding solutions.
On a more fundamental level I think Egypt is still the same Egypt that I left. This is a country with such rich and deep historical and cultural roots that the basis remains the same. The Egyptian sense of belonging – the identity – is something that can help the country through the coming difficult years of transition. I hope it will be a process that will lead towards a democratic, prosperous and inclusive society.
As you start your new position in Cairo, what are the main challenges? How do you envisage Swedish-Egyptian relations in the coming phase? What will be the area of priorities?
At any new post, the first period is a “learning period”, a time to try to learn and understand as much as possible about the country, the society and the people. I enter this period with great humbleness. I will try to meet as many people as possible, from different parts of the society and different parts of the country. My aim is to listen and learn, but also to share my experiences and thoughts.
It is my very strong belief that we all can learn from each other. In every dialogue there is a chance to get new ideas and inspiration. Especially at this point in time, when Egypt faces a period of change and transition, as well as big developmental challenges, I believe that dialogues, exchanges and cooperation are essential. Sweden’s domestic political, social and economic journey over the last century, into a democratic society, with a strong economy and modern welfare-state, may offer some experiences that can inspire.
In terms of priorities I aim to build on the already very good relations between our two countries and to see how we can further the dialogue in different areas. This will include continued work on governance issues, as well as efforts to increase exchanges in every field from trade, to politics and culture.
What are your hobbies? How will you spend your free time in Cairo? What are your favourite places in the city?
My big interest in life is culture, in almost every form and shape. I like music, theatre, arts, design, literature and food. As much as I can I will try to explore and enjoy the cultural richness of Cairo and the rest of Egypt. I am also a passionate photographer and my camera a constant companion. I have had a couple of exhibitions in the past and eventually I hope to be able to do something also here.
Egypt has so many fantastic places to offer. Among my favourites in Cairo, are walks in Islamic Cairo, with a rest in my favourite mosque Ibn Tulun or a coffee at Fishawy; or just a stroll around Zamalek, discovering the many art galleries and design shops.