Twenty-one-year-old Nadeem Abdel-Gawad hopes to attend his graduation ceremony at the American University in Cairo next month. But that depends on what happens in Tahrir Square this week.
On Monday, when we spoke via Skype, he described how it felt this time last year to be part of the uprising that ousted then-president Hosni Mubarak.
“January 25  was like a dream,” he said. “It’s hard when you spend most of your life with a dream of freeing your country, and everyone said, ‘you are crazy, nothing will change, be grateful for your education and leave Egypt.’ All these people telling me we can’t do anything, 30 or 40 people on the stairs of the syndicate, and a month later thousands and then millions [of people]. It really had a deep effect on me. I learned a lot. No matter what happens, there is magic in this world, somehow. We create our own reality; we are the reality. People always say ‘be realistic,’ but they forget we create this reality.”
Nadeem isn’t sure what led him to his first protest, but he said he has always been interested in politics, though even today, he is not a member of any official movement.
“It was rare to find anyone active in politics. People were either afraid or frustrated. I was raise by people who broke this wall of fear,” he said, referring to his father, a lawyer, and his mother who is the director of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance. Both participated in protests at the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate a few years ago.
He remembers them discouraging him fro joining demonstrations when he was 10 or 12 years old.
“Between high school and college, I started taking my own decisions,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Nadeem majored in Political Science. When he entered American University, he was stuck by how much freedom there was, and in his second year, he became involved with other students in a political awareness campaign.
“We were just telling people about their rights in the constitution and the emergency laws, because thy are often misused,” he said. “We told people what the state was and how it worked, it’s structure and function.”
They wanted to hold a mock presidential election and run 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed El Baradei as the candidate for the opposition. American University’s Office of Student Development said no to that idea, but allowed them to hold the mock elections with students running instead of public figures. The result: a student won on a platform of eradicating poverty and cleaning up corruption.
When American University students joined student leaders form other universities and tried to form an Egyptian Student Union, they were stopped by National Security.
“The student movement came together in Tahrir Square—something solid and nation-wide. Leaders were being formed there. We entered [the square] on January 25th after fights with the police. The numbers were larger than expected. As tear gas bombs were being fired, youth were at the front lines, trying to protect the children and old people in the back, people trying to get water, the volunteer doctors. What you had in the square for 18 days was an organic system, like a body where every cell knew what to do.”
Like many other Egyptians, Nadeem was disappointed in the months following Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.
“Mubarak was toppled, but not his regime,” he said. “So now you have not just the corruption at the top but also the opposition. Everybody was playing his part.”
“The revolution in Egypt is a generational conflict before being a conflict between ideologies,” said Nadeem. “There are two different Egypts: the youth connected to Facebook and the older people [who believe] that this is some sort of international conspiracy funded by foreigners.
“Throughout the last year, divide and conquer was the game of the regime. In Tahrir Square, we were really united and successful. After Mubarak, they tried to divide us.”
On the morning of November 19 last year, Nadeem was scheduled to go to an employment fair. Instead, he followed news on Twitter about people gathering to protest recent police brutality and went to join them in Mohamed Mahmoud Street.
A fateful choice. Not long after he arrived, Nadeem was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.
Wary of getting taken by an ambulance to a bad hospital or getting arrested, Nadeem took a taxi to the hospital recommended by his father, who had just happened to call Nadeem minutes after he was injured. He imagined something along the lines of Grey’s Anatomy—“everyone running to help me,” he laughs—but what he encountered was a fair amount of indifference and even hostility.
He was in luck. Not long after Nadeem arrived at the hospital, an activist who was well known was admitted with the same injury, and the hospital, fearing bad press, found him a really good doctor. Both he and Nadeem were treated quickly. Nadeem’s eye was saved. The other activist wasn’t so lucky and lost his eye.
“This violence gave life to the revolution again,” said Nadeem. “It was a wake up call for people that the regime had not fallen.”
When I ask him what he learned from his experience in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Nadeem said, “Positivity, perseverance, and—I don’t know—I refuse to give up. Since that day, the revolution became more personal, not in terms of vengeance, but since then, I have this really weird bond with the revolution and with everything. I’m not a politician anymore. I can’t go back … [and] think politically. I can’t tolerate any immoral act under the umbrella of being political. For 6 days you had some of the really best youth in Egypt, the purest, the most aware—not necessarily educated, but conscious, morally aware. And they were being killed and injured. And most of the big political parties did nothing—because the elections were taking place—under the name of politics.
“Everything has become personal,” he continued. “Every time we lose somebody, it’s like a brother or a sister.
“On Wednesday I go back to the square,” said Nadeem. “Either we succeed, or they will have to kill us.”
And who will join him in Tahrir Square?
“The youth” he said. “We are the green new leaves in this poisonous forest. Human beings have basic rights—dignity—I will not live again in a state where a policeman can torture someone, and no one does anything.”
And his parents, what do they think?
“My father is now acting like a father, and not a revolutionary when it comes to me" he observed. "He tries to use political analysis that would make me stay away from the square. My mother is supportive, but of course she has her weak moments.
"One day, a group of youth were attacked by thugs, and I was going to help. She kept shouting and crying on the phone and telling me not to go.”
As I finish this, I notice an email from a colleague in Cairo, someone who knows Nadeem’s mother. He tells me that Nadeem and his friends decided to camp in Tahrir Square tonight, and that his mother went to get them a tent and sleeping bags.
Are you in Egypt? Are you marking the anniversary? How have the uprisings affected you? Please comment.