The Planetary Scientist Leading a Peaceful Revolution in Egypt
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the best ideas to remake systems sometimes come from the unlikeliest of places.
Jetlag is no match for Essam Heggy. He is agile and alert as we walk through the Knowledge Summit at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Dubai, where he joins hundreds of leaders to “assess the state of the Arab brain.” But his demeanor belies a deep reservoir of indignation. He is furious. With? The Egyptian government’s brutish agenda, which has, he says, resulted in a legacy of illiteracy, disease, poverty and violence.
This 41-year-old planetary scientist worked on the famous Rosetta mission — which landed on a comet 447 million miles from Earth— but is exercising his brain in the political realm these days. Heggy turned his energies toward remaking Egyptian politics after serving for a year as scientific adviser to interim president Adly Mansour. Heggy was responsible for promoting research and education in water, energy, food, nuclear technologies and other scientific issues. But he resigned in 2014 over an issue he saw central to his scientific dignity: The Egyptian army claimed to have built a device, called Complete Cure, capable of eradicating HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases and viruses.
The incident became known as the “kofta scandal” because, in an official announcement video, the supposed designer, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Abdel-Atti, famously declared that he could take AIDS from a patient and feed it to him as kofta (meatballs) for nourishment. According to Heggy, the president, prime minister and the highest heads of the army sanctioned the devices in a scam to curry populist favor in a country that has the highest rate of hepatitis C infection in the world, according to the World Health Organization. It was his first time speaking out. “I knew it would be war,” he says, reflecting on his refusal to endorse the bogus device. “I was warned that if you make a statement on this, this will not go. You should not be defying the minister of defense.” The president’s office and other officials involved in the scandal did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
Since then, Heggy has been speaking loudly and openly about a series of topics — illiteracy, religious intolerance, disease, terrorism, corruption — many of which he sees as symptoms of a larger problem: a society lacking scientific reasoning. (At least 24 percent of Egyptians older than 15 are illiterate, according to the country’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.) Now, in advance of the 2018 elections, Heggy has taken up a new cause: challenging Abdul Fattah el-Sisi in the 2018 presidential elections.
How will they fight terrorism without education? You can’t kill someone who wants to die.
Heggy wants to upend the one-man-rule that has defined Egyptian politics for the past six decades by giving voters the choice of a full leadership team hailing from Egypt’s diverse communities. Under the proposed presidential plan, which he announced at the end of last summer through Arabic media and two public Facebook pages, the presidential candidate would have a law background, the vice president would come from the minority Coptic Christian community and the prime minister would be a woman. Voters would also choose the cabinet and advisers. Various popular Egyptian figures have praised the initiative, including Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, who said on Twitter that Heggy’s team could pull Egypt out of its current crisis.
The son of a well-known artist father and a chemist mother, Heggy lived a standard life growing up — a middle-class kid with a stutter. Education, in his telling, brought him to new heights. After earning his Ph.D. in astronomy and planetary science at the Sorbonne in France, he spent 14 years working through complex Mars, moon and other manifold missions.
With the aesthetic of scientific rationality on his side, Heggy has grown bolder about critiquing the regime. After the December bombing of a Coptic cathedral in Cairo, he blasted el-Sisi on Facebook for his attitude toward science and education. Last October, the president told a group of students in Sharm El Sheikh that the government can’t afford to put more money toward education. “How will they fight terrorism without education?” Heggy asks. “You can’t kill someone who wants to die.”
But Heggy’s idea may amount to only a shiny theory of elected governance; in practice, many say it has a slim chance of passing. Timothy Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, says the existing regime would have to cede their cushy system of patronage and personal benefits to Heggy’s system — unlikely. Even if they are unhappy with el-Sisi, “they almost certainly wouldn’t want to replace it with what [Heggy is] describing,” Kaldas says.
That part of his career, though, is light years away from the terrestrial problems he faces in Egypt, namely a brutal incumbency that routinely rapes, tortures and electrocutes perceived dissidents as young as 14, according to Amnesty International. Kamal Boutros, Heggy’s friend in Paris, worries about the scientist’s safety. If things don’t work out, he will continue his work as a scientist for various U.S. space agencies, though he may foreclose the opportunity to return home ever again. But he figures there’s much to gain and little to lose. “So, if we succeed, that will be a major change. And if we fail, well, then nothing will change.”