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Mona Mowafi Headshot
Nadine Farag Headshot

'Our Egypt' for a New Era

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Last week, ahead of the trial against former President Hosni Mubarak and members of his regime, the Egyptian military gave orders to clear lingering protesters out of Tahrir Square. A diversity of Egypt's emerging political groups had initially planned to maintain a sit-in that began on July 8th through Ramadan, intent on keeping the pressure for transparency and reform on the military. Yet as Ramadan approached, approximately 25 political groups agreed to leave Tahrir, both anticipating the difficulty of keeping demonstrators in the Square under Cairo's hot summer sun while fasting, and facing overt coercion by the military to leave.

Dozens of protesters, however, refused to leave. Many of them were family of the Revolutionary martyrs, insistent on their right to peacefully commemorate their relatives' sacrifices by pushing for transparent trials of former regime members, including Mubarak himself, accused of ordering the killing of their loved ones. One week earlier, in a bold political statement, Islamists went to Tahrir to demand their voices be heard in debates surrounding constitutional reforms and the religious nature of a future Egyptian state. Today, protesters have reneged on their suspension of the sit-in, and 57 groups are calling for a renewed presence in Tahrir next Friday, August 12th, marked "Friday for the Love of Egypt," to protest the military's continued brutality against civilians accused of nothing other than demonstrating their basic rights to free speech and public assembly. Egyptians from a range of political and social stripes are expected to attend.

With the many competing messages that have emerged in post-Mubarak Egypt, the media has struggled to keep up with the rapidly shifting political topography and has largely focused on the various demands of the myriad groups (will the leftists or the Islamists prevail?). But beyond the political scorecard, a rich parallel story is unfolding. On a recent trip to Egypt, what we were struck by most was the transformed understanding about the role of citizenship in this post-revolutionary era. This transformation has been epitomized by the on-going presence in Tahrir Square, and has redefined the role and meaning of the Square in the public imagination in the process. Not only has Tahrir become a place of choice for Egyptians to go voice their discontent; it has also become a physical space where citizens go to incubate, and demonstrate, a renewed sense of ownership in their country.

This shift is a clear departure from the tired collective psychology that had permeated public discourse for decades. Since the socialist days of Abdel-Nasser and through the Mubarak era of crony capitalism, Egyptians steadily lost a sense of ownership and pride in their country. Public property was often treated as "theirs," referring to the government, while only personal property was cared for with the pride of what is "ours." In the process, the country's physical infrastructure deteriorated severely, along with the people's morale. Egyptians, known for their sense of humor and ebullient approach to life, had gradually developed a helpless and static outlook about their role in society. What we have witnessed, though, is a shift in popular psyche towards a more hopeful and dynamic view about what is possible moving forward. This sense of possibility is redefining what it means to be Egyptian.

The emerging psychology of 'Our Egypt' is transcending the political sphere and is prompting innovation in economic and social development as well. One sign of progress is a growing willingness to invest in sustainable development rather than relying on pure charity. Marwa El-Daly, an emerging leader in social enterprise and development in Egypt, conducted a comprehensive study of Egyptian philanthropy in 2005 and found that $1 billion was given annually by Egyptians to Egyptians, but 90% of this money was given as direct charity rather than on projects that focus on permanently uplifting people out of poverty. This, she notes, was partly a consequence of rampant corruption and lack of confidence in institutions. Egyptians came to understand that if they did not oversee giving with their own eyes -- providing money, food or clothing to a poor person they knew personally, for example -- then the likelihood of their money being stolen or misdirected by corrupt practices was almost guaranteed.

But the changing narrative about what it means to be Egyptian is producing greater opportunities for investment in a New Egypt. We met dozens of Egyptians passionately pursuing creative solutions to challenging problems with an optimistic belief that they can retake their country. We visited social entrepreneurs working to alleviate poverty, improve health and education, promote the arts, and get Egyptians involved in improving the sanitation and aesthetics of their neighborhoods. We listened to imaginative and committed individuals tell us about their work on community empowerment -- teaching about what it means to be a good citizen, and promoting participatory approaches to development in order to foster a sense of ownership in a New Egypt. What we witnessed was a belief that it is now "our turn" to build 'Our Egypt,' and that no Egyptian can afford to stand idly by and let this chance be stolen from them once more.

Mona Mowafi and Nadine Farag are Egyptian-Americans currently working on a new project to promote social entrepreneurship in Egypt. They recently returned from a one-month trip to Cairo.

Mona can be reached at mmowafi@post.harvard.edu. Nadine can be reached at nadine.farag@post.harvard.edu.