Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Why I Protest: Wael Nawara of Egypt

Writer and activist Wael Nawara, 50, is the co-founder of the Ghed (Tomorrow) party, established in 2003. He spoke to TIME's Abigail Hauslohner in Cairo about becoming involved in the protests and his interest in increasing Egypt's exposure to the global economy. Here are excerpts:

TIME: What event made you an activist? What made this a personal thing for you?
Wael Nawara:
I was living abroad for some time. And then I was stationed here in the Red Sea for about a year, and this is when I decided to come back to Egypt to try to improve things in some way. I started by focusing on the economic side of things. I went to the U.K. and got an MA in international marketing. By the year 2000, I started feeling that it was useless to work on improving the economy if you didn't have significant legislative political reform, because economic development opens the door to corruption and it becomes impossible to work within the margins of the law because the law is not legitimate. I started writing about this idea of the parallel state — with the failing of the formal state [in health care and the social safety net] where the failings of the formal state gave rise to the parallel state. I think in the end, it was the parallel state that won. For example, in the media, it was the bloggers and Facebook because people lost faith in the state media. We even ended up having a parallel parliament. What made things worse is the [then ruling National Democratic Party] hijacked the EJB — the Egyptian Junior Business Association. I started a political party with a number of my friends from that association, but we met Ayman Nour, who was starting another — al-Ghed — and then we sort of joined forces and worked together ever since.

What was the most memorable moment of the revolution for you?
The whole thing to me is like a series — like a movie. But I think on Feb. 11, in the evening, after Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak was stepping down, and I saw like 80 million people in the street. And that was comforting. That was a kind of referendum on the revolution after the fact. And people were celebrating — I don't think I've seen Egyptians so happy in my life. People were chanting, "Raise your head up high. You're an Egyptian." To me it was a relief, because I've always felt partially responsible — because if things went bad, then we would have started something that went bad.

What was the most important lesson you learned?
Something I discovered: this collective conscience. We'd never had this huge gathering of hundreds of thousands of people. To have that many and be able to say still that we want this only, and we won't move unless it's fulfilled. And people would go and negotiate with Omar Suleiman and reach a concession and then come back thinking they were big shots and then were forced to recognize the fact that they were not the leaders of the square; and they apologized. People had to realize for the first time that [there were no leaders]. There was a much bigger collective mind in the square, that stretched to Suez and elsewhere. The thing is, people in the square were not watching al-Jazeera until much later.

What was the worst thing you saw during your participation?
The worst thing was on Jan. 28. I was on the Nile. We were caged in [the Boulaq district] for about five hours, and we were gassed continuously. And many people fell, and new people had come from Imbaba [another district]. And these people did not participate in Jan. 25 [the first day of huge protests], so we didn't know what to expect. But they were quite civilized. But after being gassed for so long, they started being violent. And then I was really upset, and this is when I thought that things would get out of hand. They were gassed continuously and then got really angry and started setting things on fire, and I was really sad that this was happening. I think also police brutality was very upsetting. They always take people off the sides [of the crowd], kidnapping them and beating them. Five or six people would be beating one person really brutally. Seeing so many people who fell dead or injured because of attacks was also very disturbing. And I caution everybody in the days to come — when they make a decision — that there are people who die as the result of the protests, that you have to be really sure [of the protests]. I think there was a turn also in the revolution, that some people started just using the revolution for personal glory in a way. But I think also the biggest problem was that [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which currently rules Egypt] lost the confidence and trust of the people quite early on.

How did friends and family regard your participation in the protests?
There were many instances when I lost my job or important business because of being in the opposition [before the revolution], got arrested, things like that. I got defamed in the newspapers and things like that. So I was asked by many people to stop: "You're not going to do anything; you're just wasting your life. You're a parent, and you should be with your kids." My wife was quite supportive, and that's very strange because I thought she was quite the opposite of this. But my wife joined protests on Jan. 28 in Nasser City and on subsequent days in Tahrir.

Did you think the revolution and the protests were going to be successful?
Since the elections of 2010 it became very apparent that the recklessness of the regime in running the election in that way and getting 95%+ while the NDP was really hated. I thought that was the beginning of the end. And I remember even writing in my blog that the regime was a train heading into the terminal. We hadn't arrived. Of course it was only [after] Tunisia, when they started the revolution, we sent out support messages in December and so on. And as it gathered momentum, it became clear that this was like a user's manual in how to topple a regime peacefully. Since around the 16th of January, there was an opinion poll in [the newspaper] Masry al-Youm, and the public opinion was for revolution. The Internet at that time was huge. Twitter was small but purely for hardcore activists. While Facebook was for larger mobilization. I was not sure what would happen. But I kind of changed my business plans, canceled some meetings. I have a son who studies in Canada, so I transferred some money to Canada because I didn't know if I would be alive. I took it very seriously and made preparations, as in, What happens if I die?

What was the most frightening moment for you?
All the time. In the minutes of an attack, you feel you'll get crushed in a stampede. At one point, maybe around 5 or 4:30 on the first day, they started throwing tear gas really bad. And I and a small group started advancing in one line against the flow of the stampede. But then people came behind us. And so that was a bit scary. We tried to make a first line to get people back to the square. On the 28th, there was a genuine fear of chaos. I thought, "Oh my god, we've started something that could lead to chaos." Because we had already witnessed in Tunisia that the regime had released thugs and that neighborhood watches had [to be set up]. [But] we had a parallel state anyway, so it didn't matter if the formal state was toppled or failed because Egyptians were ready. Within the square, within 24 hours, there were hospitals. From the very first hours of Jan 25. So that kind of self-organization was amazing. And it was a moment of discovery that I think many people doubted. Many people say today, "You don't look so desperate after parliamentary results." But there is nothing worse than Jan. 28 in the evening, and I think I had the same fear around the 9th of February when many labor groups and separate governorates began to have separate uprisings. And I thought the country is slipping into chaos. And that was one of the reasons that from the very first moment, Egyptians were calling for the army to step in.

How did your participation in the revolution change you as a person?
Maybe things will go bad for a while, even three or five years. But I discovered things about people that I didn't know about. I think in a way it's comforting, that whatever happens, in the end, things will turn out all right. Because the relationship between people and authority in Egypt has changed forever. And that in itself is the guarantee, the guarantee that people themselves have discovered that they can change and stop authority from going too far. I think that self-discovery changes everything. So I can't say that I've been transformed as a person after the revolution. But I think I learned new things, became more confident in the future of Egypt.