x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Voices of Egypt's revolution

Nine Egyptians look to a new life after protesters forced the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. They're hopeful of change but worried about the right time frame to usher in the transition to democracy.

Abdallah Kamal at the office of Rose Al-Yusef. JD Perkins
Abdallah Kamal at the office of Rose Al-Yusef. JD Perkins

'We have a golden opportunity'

Mohamed Sawy is a columnist and the founder of Culture Wheel, a gallery, music venue, radio station, magazine, cafe and library. He was born in 1956 in Cairo and studied architecture at Helwan University. In 1980 he founded Alamia Advertising. In 2003 he started Cultural Wheel in the empty space under a bridge in Zamalek. In 2009 he received the German Order of Merit and became an Ashoka fellow for his work at Culture Wheel. He has just been nominated for the position of culture minister.

We have a golden opportunity to change the whole environment of culture. Our role is to try to make programmes that never die. It's a normal human emotion, even in love, you get very excited, and then things get quiet. I'm a marathon runner, you don't want to start really strong and then stop the race. You'd rather take a pace you can keep till the end of the road.

In the past our programmes went around the regime, which chased away anyone asking for change, or expressing themselves critically. We are changing our programme, people are coming up with ideas, imagining the future, never stepping back from the maximum. Our policy has been and will continue to be polite criticism. These young people are full of ideas you saw it in Tahrir Square.

I don't want to sound arrogant, but I was always saying there is a huge lack of cultural services in Cairo, a city of 18 million. There is so much to do and we are looking forward to giving everyone space for expression.

We are hosting many groups here after the revolution. It has become a small Tahrir Square. I would be proud if in a year's time a political party existed that could say, "We had our first meeting in Culture Wheel", but even if we have nothing to do with it, if Egypt has become a free nation, this will be paradise. My dream is that I and the sweeper on the street have the same rights.

The feeling that you can walk in Paris and are sure no one can touch you, as long as you stay within the law, this never existed in Egypt. This is very precious and I hope we achieve it and never let it go."


'I am 61 years old and I was never happy like this'

Mahmoud al Wardani, born in Cairo in 1950, is a novelist and cultural journalist. He published his first short story at the age of 18, and his first collection of short stories, Walking in the Garden at Night Time, in 1984. He is the author of 15 fiction and non-fiction books, six novels and three collections of short stories, besides his work on social history. He describes his writing as modern abstract. He was awarded the Sawiris Foundation Prize in Egyptian Literature in 2009. Imprisoned for student activism in the 1970s, al Wardani was also involved in the transporting of bodies of soldiers killed during the 1973 war with Israel. He took part in all 18 tumultuous days of the revolution with his three daughters.

The most important thing is that the revolution actually happened in Egypt. This revolution is a unique historical moment; people did it without any leadership and overthrew the regime. I am happy for once in my life. I'm 61 years old and I was never happy like this, and I want this revolution to continue. Egypt will be rejuvenated as youth is the driving force behind the revolution. Youth will take their rightful place in leading this country.

The old society that was based on repression, restricting freedom of expression, in the fierce grip of state security investigators, is falling apart. The regime is falling apart and the new one is forming. It is impossible to turn back. We need a change in everything now, the press, television, culture. I believe that the blood of martyrs wasn't spilt for nothing.

The intellectuals should grasp their freedom now. They belong to the Union of Writers, a sick entity. They should restart this union and transform it into a platform to defend writers' rights, freedom of expression and the rights of all the different political and intellectual streams like communism or leftism or rightism or liberalism, and so on.

Society is waking up from the oppression of the past 30 years. When the police disappeared, it was people who organised themselves and protected their homes. This experience won't vanish. People became aware of public matters, it is important now, everyone is responsible for their country and they can influence it. The core change has happened.


'We still have lots of work ahead'

Dr Nawal el Saadawi, 79, is an activist, writer, lecturer, doctor and psychiatrist. An inspiration for the feminist movement, she has written more than 40 fiction and non-fiction books on the subject of women in Islam. She has consistently campaigned against female and male circumcision in Egypt. Her radical views and writings cost her her position at Gamal Abdel Nasser's ministry of health, her freedom during the Anwar Sadat regime, and exile to the US during Hosni Mubarak's. In 1996, Dr el Saadawi moved back to Egypt. She symbolically ran in the 2005 presidential elections, but stepped down due to the stringent requirements for first-time candidates. She took part in the Tahrir Square sit-in, and even hitched a motorbike ride home when looters scared off all the taxis. She has seen Egypt transform from colony to independence to military rule to democratic hope.

I met many educated and revolutionary women in Tahrir Square who could run for the presidency. This is a revolution of young, mature, educated men and women of Egypt. They deserve to be president of Egypt, and not George Ishaq, Ayman Nour, Amr Mousa, Mohamed Baradei, Ahmed Zuweil or any of those people who have ties with the Mubarak regime.

The revolution is political, economic, cultural and social. We changed the patriarchal class system; we changed culture, and even morality. This revolution is an inspiration.

We still have lots of work ahead, especially when it comes to women's issues. We are on the way to a real democracy but there is the possibility of a U-turn. This Egyptian constitutional review committee that is headed by Tarek El Bishry should be changed because it doesn't include young people, neither women nor other professionals apart from lawyers. The constitution is a social contract and not only a political one. The whole constitution should be changed socially and politically, not just some provisions, to have a secular civil constitution. It's in your - the young people's - hands. We need to educate people about secularism.

We are trying now to re-establish the Egyptian Union of Women to have political, economic and social power, so we can protect our rights inside the revolution. We know from history how women's rights were ignored even after revolutionary transitions.

The role women play in politics depends on us. We achieved the revolution through unity - unity is power. If the revolution was not united, it would have failed. And so it goes for women; we should establish this union and empower it, we should break taboos.

Our dreams should be big.


'The state of the 1952 revolution still exists'

Abdallah Kamal, born in 1967, is a journalist, author and politician. He is chief editor of Rose Al-Yusef, a member of the Shura council and the general secretary of the information office in the National Democratic Party. Kamal studied journalism at Cairo University in 1987. His first article appeared in Rose Al-Yusef in 1985, and after 20 years he was elected chief editor. He has written five non-fiction books. His interest in Egypt's affairs range from religious extremism, sectarianism, democratic reforms, political performance and the media to international affairs. Kamal became a member of the National Democratic Party in 2003 and the Shura council in 2007.

There is no one anywhere, even in Egypt, who has a confident vision of what's going to happen. This applies to the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square, those who rode the wave, the United States and various regional powers. What will happen in Egypt will be the outcome of leadership's ability to manage negotiations. It is a youth revolution that brought down the administration. I disagree with those who say that it brought down the regime. The state of the 1952 revolution still exists. We still have a republican regime, we have an unamended presidential system.

"There is no parliamentary state because the amended constitution is not leading to it. To have a parliamentary state you need to amend two main clauses in the constitution, the clause on the presidency, and the clause on executive authority. The concept of a civil state in article 5, which deals with preventing the merger of religion and politics, we should not touch. It's the only guarantee to prevent religious streams pressuring election results by using big slogans. There are no political parties in Egypt that could establish a parliamentary system. To reach there, Egypt needs at least 10 years.

There are several changes that will affect the future. There is the potential of the young revolutionaries becoming an organised political force. To do so they should abandon their revolutionary zeal, if I may say so, and study the importance of current social programmes.

The Muslim Brotherhood always repeated the same historical mistake. They foresee achieving a political victory, and they fail. This happened in 1954, during Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 elections. Now they assume again that they have won, or they have a chance of victory. The whole world is afraid of them. They don't have the answers to all questions.

The left has risen, at least on a political and journalistic level. A harmony is developing between the elite of the left and the working-class's rhetoric. Egypt didn't have clear left-wing rhetoric in the past. If convergence happens between them and the working class, this will lead to the creation of leftist political parties.

The tempo of change is controlled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. They say six months until presidential and parliamentary elections; however, to have the elections and a referendum on the constitution requires at least a year and not six months, and the stages must run one after another.

The elections need an elite. Names of candidates must be known. And if the elections take place now, the Muslim Brotherhood will win as they are the most organised minority. A strong element of society wants to wait until the elite are ready. Regional powers also advise Egypt to slow its transitional tempo so elections won't produce unrepresentative results. That was what Mubarak was talking about, it's impossible to have a transition in such a short time frame. Mubarak was slow and the council is hasty under pressure. I think we will reach a tempo somewhere in between so we can define the outlines of the revolution.

Despite their political demands, the young revolutionaries don't have social or economic significance. Political parties are not based only on political slogans, they must be socially and economically targeted, announcing an economic and social direction. What are the social programs, what's your vision for these changes, how you can treat problems of poverty, how you can solve unemployment, what's our relation to globalisation and with the international economic system, how do we administer the system of subsidies, how to solve the rising price of petrol and electricity - there are tens of questions.

They just raise the slogan of justice, but how to implement this justice?

'The authorities should try to use people's enthusiasm'

Mohamed Abu Leila, born in 1956, has been director of the National Circus since 1997. He was one of four performers selected to study in Moscow in 1975. He graduated with a baccalaureate in aerial gymnastics in 1979. He is now working on a free theme park for underprivileged children. Although administrative work takes up most of his time, he still has a performer's presence.

The post-revolution atmosphere reminds me of the 1973 victory against Israel, people were happy, filled with patriotism, they cleaned the streets and helped each other. They were ready to do anything, just like what's happening now. The authorities should try to use people's enthusiasm.

Up to now we don't know who the next minister of culture will be. What should happen is that they develop a plan for each department of the ministry and the minister should make a 20-year plan. He should take interest in all departments, theatre, art, circus, opera, et cetera.

I'm pessimistic. The president was deposed but the bureaucratic system survived. We want a core change. The people who are on top are over 70 and 80, their way of thinking is not futuristic. The youth so far proved to be keen. The leaders should be on the same level as them. But will the young clean the streets until then? Until they find the leaders are incompetent and set in their ways? If the leadership possesses enthusiasm and vision, they will replace corrupt elements. But the leadership is silent.

The government used to say that the people are not ready for democracy, but the young's actions prove otherwise. The young have new ideas, but the question is about execution. They don't have the economic or executive ability to put their ideas into practice.

What makes me sad is if the country won't use the youth's spirit of enthusiasm now and prepare young people to manage various sectors. It will be a youth movement and not a revolution.


'Cultural legislation should be amended'

Emad Abou Ghazi has been general secretary of the Higher Council of Culture since 2009. Born in 1955, he studied history at Cairo University and received a master's degree in medieval documents. Since 1983 he has been an assistant professor at Cairo University. From 1999 to 2009 Abou Ghazi was a head of cultural committees in the council. He is the author of several studies on Egyptian history. He has a number of essays and research on the Arab-Israeli struggle and cultural planning. In the early Seventies he participated in the student movement during the war with Israel.

We are in the moment of transformation, and in this moment all possibilities are open. I hope that Egypt will move to a democratic society and to a true civil state, and we turn into a parliamentary republic where the flow of authority will be in a democratic and peaceful form. I am not sure if that will happen or not, but I hope so.

On the political level, the new constitution must allow the formation of different parties and be open to anyone, providing they don't have paramilitary wings. Give freedom to the press and the media so the establishment of newspaper and TV channels is available to everyone. There should be a right to create non-governmental organisations without obstacles. Also, the penal statute has articles in force since the British occupation, and those are articles restricting opinion, thinking and expression.

On the cultural level, there is cultural legislation that should be amended, for instance the Control of Works of Art Act, so the function of censorship is changed into a system with two main missions - the protection of intellectual property, and setting the age limit for viewing literature. In a sense the work is not banned but age-restricted.

The last point in cultural legislation is cancelling the censorship of foreign publications. In the Egyptian legal system there is no censorship over Egyptian publications, but if a foreign publication comes into the country it has to be censored by the ministry of information. This system should be scrapped. We face this problem annually during the international book fair. In the matter of offensive material, that should be judged by a judicial body.

I hope we are moving in the right direction - but it depends only on us.