Hassan El-Laithy has been a diplomat for thirty years. Photo: Colleen Petch
TWO years ago, from his office in the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs in Cairo, Hassan El-Laithy was watching a revolution sweep his country.
He was not worried about his job, but was constantly thinking about his daughter protesting at Tahrir Square amid a stoic crowd measured in the hundreds of thousands.
''I lived through the 18 days of the revolution and I was very worried about her,'' he says.
His daughter survived, even though hundreds died, and the country kicked out president Hosni Mubarak and put the long-time leader on trial for murder.
Two years later and El-Laithy is ambassador to Australia. He has been in his job for five months.
Unlike the January 2011 revolution, which he watched from close range, he is now viewing the evolution of his country from thousands of kilometres away.
''We haven't seen the best of Egypt since the revolution but we've had positive change,'' says the 57-year-old El-Laithy, sitting in his Yarralumla embassy.
''We've started the democratic transformation.''
Islamists dominated constitutional elections which followed the revolution, fuelling fears in Western nations about the future of the country. Now many observers see democracy in Egypt as more of an experiment than a permanent destination.
According to one International Herald Tribune writer, President Mohamed Mursi will lead a ''soft authoritarian'' government similar to Mubarak's.
Many Egyptians themselves seem sceptical too.
A Pew Research study released this week said 44 per cent of Egyptians thought their country was better off now that Mubarak was not in power, while 26 per cent thought the nation was worse off, and another 26 per cent said things were neither better nor worse.
In his calm, measured tone, ambassador El-Laithy, a long-time diplomat, explains that he is a firm believer Egypt is on the right track. He says the expectations of the revolution were high and it will take longer than two years to fix all the country's problems. (There is a long to-do list, according to Pew. In order of priority, people want a fair judiciary, improved economy, uncensored media, general law and order, freedom of speech, honest elections and the separation of religion and state.)
''I'm a strong believer in the Egyptian citizen,'' El-Laithy says.
''The great majority are for the interests of the nation.''
El-Laithy, like most Egyptians, is a Muslim, and recent research by Pew has shown six out of 10 Egyptians want their laws to strictly follow the Koran.
This is a fact that perhaps took some Western observers by surprise. About a third of Egyptians want laws to be in line with the principles of Islam but not strictly follow the Koran.
''Just 6 per cent say the Koran should not have an influence,'' says the Pew report.
''Older Egyptians are especially likely to believe laws should strictly follow the Koran: more than two-thirds of those 50 or older (68 per cent) agree with this position, compared with about half (54 per cent) of 18-29 year-olds.''
And a similar split arises by education. Almost 70 per cent of those with a primary education or less want to follow the Koran strictly.
Fifty-five per cent of the college-educated want the same.
Egyptians with a secondary or college education are now less likely than in 2011 to believe the country's laws should strictly follow the Koran.
On the other hand, among those with a primary education or less, the percentage who hold this view has increased.
Apart from religion, another major debate exposed by the Pew surveys is the financial state of the country.
From his Australian post, El-Laithy is likely to play an important role in fixing the economy. Since the revolution, tourist numbers to the country have dropped 40 per cent, he says.
This is a big blow for Egypt, a country that welcomed about 13 million tourists in the year before the uprising (including 3 million from Russia and a million each from Germany and Italy).
El-Laithy is in the process of pulling together a delegation from Australia, partly made up of resort owners and operators who might want to set up resorts in Egypt which are particularly attractive to Westerners, or even to Australians specifically.
''If you don't have big ambitions you won't have big achievements,'' he says.
As part of the trade mission to Egypt before June, he wants to include farmers who can teach Egyptians to grow sheep for meat and wool, and agricultural specialists who know about reducing the use of irrigation water.
There is also the chance he could take experts in solar and wind energy.
El-Laithy has spent most of his three-decade diplomatic career overseas.
After graduating from Al Azhar University in the early 1980s he worked in the diplomatic institute at the ministry of foreign affairs but soon moved away.
He worked as a staffer at the Egyptian embassies and consulates in the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Germany, Nigeria and Namibia.
From 2001 to 2005, he served in his first head-of-mission role in Austria and later became ambassador to to the Slovak Republic.
The father of one speaks English, German and French and played squash for 20 years until a knee injury stopped him.
He took up tennis to replace squash but soon had a right elbow injury.
Today his activities are confined to spectating and playing chess and bridge.
And watching the transformation of his country from afar.