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The Egyptian revolution: Hisham El-Gamal on the challenges of maintaining hope

Hisham El-Gamal 

When I interviewed organizational consultant Hisham El-Gamal this time last year, he was full of hope. Egypt was nearing the first anniversary of its revolution. "Voices of Egypt," a film about his workshop that brought people together of different political and religious views, had gotten a great response.

As we near the revolution’s second anniversary this Friday, El-Gamal says there is a “sense of gloom [in Cairo]. People fear the future more than … [before] because it’s more vague. Egyptians are very polarized," he says. "We’ve lost our unity. The coming anniversary is a little scary. People don’t know what will happen.”

In a Skype interview last week, El-Gamal says he still believes in his film’s message of reconciliation.

“I still think it’s possible. If this doesn’t happen, whoever is in power will not succeed in anything. Taking to the streets every time you have a grievance isn’t going to solve anything. The opposition needs to strengthen its position, working on the ground, gaining people’s confidence. If they can’t get some significant seats in parliament, we’re back where we started.

“They have to show some sense of responsibility instead of just attacking the ruling party. They have to dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood and show that they are only saying ‘no’ when it’s important and makes a difference. Right now they say ‘no’ to everything the Muslim Brotherhood comes up with.”

One source of people’s frustration is the way in which Egypt’s new constitution was written.

“You want everyone involved in writing it,” says El-Gamal, “minorities—all different types of Egyptians, no matter what race or religion or politics. It happened at the beginning, but some withdrew from the committee—liberals and churches left because they protested the way the committee was run. When they found their efforts were futile, they left in protest. The constitution was not up to the expectations of people.”

What are people are talking about in Cairo?

“People are less interested in talking about politics,” says El-Gamal.  “They’re more concerned about … the basic needs of life, the economy, the planned increases in fuel prices. There’s a lot of anxiety and fear. The poor and needy are getting more poor and needy and frustrated and angry. The economy is in a continuous fall. Some have lost faith in the political process altogether. The next revolution will be the hungry people; that’s the big fear. I’m not sure when they will erupt. Still the political unrest is among the elite. Everything is growing under the surface.”

Some are leaving Egypt. “People who can invest or can buy another passport.  They’re going to the U.S. or Europe or Canada.” And he’s sad to see them leave. “Especially the Christians,” he says. “They are an important part of the fabric of Egyptian society, and I hate to see them leaving because they are afraid.

“I feel very drained in terms of my energy and what I can do.”

A hard thing to admit for a well-known public speaker, whose TEDxCairo talk, “The Magic Of Chasing Dreams” has reached tens of thousands. [Click CC for English subtitles.]

“When you speak in public,” he says, “people turn to you and ask tough questions. The message should be positive and one that emphasizes action and responsibility. Action. That’s a tough question. A layperson can do very little. You can vote and make your opinion heard. You can still demonstrate, but I think this is really a time for politicians to do something.”

At the same time, this is clearly not a time to give up hope.

His speeches, often to university students, continue to focus on “coping with change, being able to change the way you look at things, building on hopes rather than fears, keeping faith in what you believe.

“It matters a lot how you take a stance. You can complain, but then you leave your destiny in the hands of other people. It’s a time to be more active. Not a time for quitting. This is the actual time when your belief is tested. If you believe, it’s a good time to fight, and fight hard. The most dangerous time is this time when people start giving up on their hopes and dreams.”


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