The Egyptian revolution: activist Nadeem Abdel-Gawad reflects on Egypt today
Last year, Nadeem Abdel-Gawad was preparing to graduate from the American University in Cairo. He was also about to return to Tahrir Square for the first anniversary of Egypt’s revolution.
“Either we succeed, or they will have to kill us," he said at the time.
Clearly, Abdel-Gawad is still alive. What’s not so clear is the state of the revolution.
“A lot of people are kind of lost,” he says today. “I happen to be one of them.
"Things are not as clear as before. The battle doesn’t seem to be the bad people vs. the good people. All we’re sure of and all we know is that many have been killed, and we don’t see anyone being convicted for these crimes. It doesn’t make sense. It’s a huge step after 18 days of idealism [of the revolution in 2011] that you’d have to face a reality where the collective consciousness did not grasp the whole transformation.”
The mood in Cairo today
“It’s tough,” says Abdel-Gawad, “even for activists. It’s hard to find one of them that is not tired. I don’t mean they would give up, but it’s really hard to go for two continuous years from struggle to struggle, losing friends. I can’t even count the number of funerals.”
Even his college graduation last February was marred by the death of a classmate.
“You’re there and you’re graduating and you should be happy, but you just lost a colleague in the Port Said Stadium [on February 1]. When his major came, his brother took the diploma for him.”
Since graduation, Abdel-Gawad has been making documentary films on human rights issues. in partnership with NGOs.
“I’m not taking a traditional path,” he says, “not a 9 to 5 steady [job]. Not all people understand what I do for a living. At the same time, it’s a lot more interesting. I’m a field guy. I don’t really like offices.”
When the constitution was being written, Abdel-Gawad was at work on a film about women's rights.
“I got a chance to travel to Upper Egypt,” he says. “and villages on the Delta. I interviewed women from different socio-economic backgrounds.
The four-minute film was seen in press conferences for the project as well as at the Journalists Syndicate and a talk show program on satellite TV.
“I try to focus on social and economic rights because I feel this is a priority. These are what were at the core of the uprising. They are not the priority of the political elite, the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salvation Front [National Front for Salvation of the Revolution]. After three years of calling for social justice and bread, I don’t know how we can make it more clear. Freedom to workshop, freedom of speech.”
Even in the midst of so much uncertainty, Nadeem does what other young people do everywhere.
“I see my friends. We go to cafes and have play station time. We do surprise parties for birthdays and party on New Year’s Eve. We are not on another planet.”
Most of his friends found jobs after college. Not all are satisfied. Unemployment is high even among college graduates. And, like everywhere else, many new graduates are underemployed.
The generation gap
When we spoke a year ago, Abdel-Gawad and I talked about how the revolution was to some extent a conflict between generations.
“I don’t want to over simplify,” he says. “but I still see it as a battle of [different] mentalities. The old regime, not just Mubarak, but the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood seem not to understand there has been a deep transformation in the culture. This is my problem also when it comes to the Salvation Front. The leaders are not young. They have a reformist mentality, not a revolutionist mentality. It’s old vs. new values [more than] a battle of ideologies or Islam vs. secularism. Values of staying silent when it comes to rights vs. speaking up. Values of respecting diversity vs. conformity.”
In the last year, Abdel-Gawad has found himself re-examining his life. As uncomfortable as it feels, the present uncertainty is important.
“I’d rather stop and rethink and act again,” he says, “rather than keep acting.”
Tahrir Square on Friday
True, he intends to participate in Friday’s commemoration of the revolution, but he says being in the streets is not enough.
“I still participate in events and protests,” he says, “but deep down I feel something is wrong in the approach. We need new approaches. Even if you’re going to protest, which is not bad, a new approach would be organizing yourself and building groups that are able to talk about alternatives and plans and deliver their vision and dreams to the Egyptian people.”
Abdel-Gawad is quick to remind us that what is unfolding in Egypt is not an isolated phenomenon.
“The transformation has to be universal,” he says. "This is not only about Egypt. It’s about the whole world. Envision a certain set of morals winning over the old regimes.
Social justice. Corruption. You can’t change something like that only in one country. Look at the movements in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Tunisia. Look at the common demands. Give it some time to grow up more.
“As we get deeper into the transformation,” he continues, “I hope that one day it will be that unless you act in a way that is moral and for the common good and enhances certain values, you wouldn’t survive in politics.
“A dear friend once told me that anything with more than three variables, its outcome is impossible to predict ,” he says. “There’s way more than three variables in this situation. Add to that the complexity of dealing with human beings and not machines—this is a mathematical rule—so I guess I shouldn’t feel guilty about all the confusion.”