Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 July 2011
Issue No. 1055
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'We haven't moved yet'

What should Egypt's priorities be in the post-revolutionary period, and what is the role of religion in public life? Popular Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled gives his answers in conversation with Ingrid Wassmann

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'If you ask me what Egypt needs most of all now, I would say education. This is my number one priority. Forty per cent of Egyptians cannot read or write. Can you imagine! Illiterate. So, by combining microfinance with education, we are addressing the illiteracy problem'

What should Egypt's priorities be in the post-revolutionary period, and what is the role of religion in public life? Popular Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled gives his answers in conversation with Ingrid Wassmann

Currently you run two development projects, "Life Makers" and "Right Start Foundation", and you host a TV show called Bokra Ahla. What would you say are your priorities today in a post 25 January Egypt?

My priority now is to build. Unfortunately, at this time in Egypt there are a lot of people in conflict, as we saw just a few days ago in Cairo. I choose that we build: build, and build and build. Build in development projects such as the "Improving Lives" project, which is for the poor but is not charity. That is not our aim. We tell them we will give you a project worth about US$2,000 but only under one condition, and that is that your kids go back to school. So, in reality it is two projects in one: microfinance and at the same time fighting illiteracy. And because we know that if we give these projects to the poor people and don't help them manage them, we also have three to five volunteers involved, one to make a media campaign for the project, one to take the kids to the school, another to look after the health of the family. Currently in Egypt we have around 1,000 projects, and last week on Bokra Ahla we asked people to work with us in a new place for which we need LE 1 million and 1,000 volunteers. We got this in four days. So this is an example of what I am doing. I want to build, not to give money. To make the people work. Amr Khaled will not give money to the poor. Amr Khaled will give them projects and initiatives.

Your motto has always been to motivate people in order to bring about "nahda" -- a renaissance -- to the country and eradicate illiteracy and poverty. Is this still true today?

If you ask me what Egypt needs most of all now, I would say education. This is my number one priority. Forty per cent of Egyptians cannot read or write. Can you imagine! Illiterate. So, by combining microfinance with education, we are addressing the illiteracy problem. These first 1,000 projects are like a pilot, but our aim is to bring 10, 20, 30 similar projects to other villages and cities across Egypt. It is very difficult to say now that we are starting a national project because to be honest there is no government. It is a very difficult time in Egypt. But it will become a national project. We are starting from the base, step by step, at the grassroots.

You have said in the past that you do not rule out running for president. If you do not present yourself as a candidate in the upcoming elections, what would be your reasons for abstaining?

First of all, to take the decision to run for president, you need to have a vision of what Egypt will be like at the time of the elections, and no one in Egypt can tell you what the future is, or what will happen tomorrow in this country. It is too early to say if I will run, but I am not excluding the possibility. For the past 30 years, Egypt has been like in a refrigerator. Now, each day in Egypt we have a new vision and we are in another mood, so it is very difficult to ask me now to give an answer. But the platform is there. We would focus on youth, women and civil society. Many believe that what we are doing will support Egypt. But if I take the decision to run, my aim would be twofold: to increase education and to attract foreign investment.

What do Egyptians need most today?

Egyptians now need two things: an action plan and a leader. We don't have either of these two and without them, whatever we do, nothing will change. We need a strong leader and an economic plan, an education plan, a health plan, for the next five years, for the next 20 years. We don't have that. We need a dream. Can you imagine that Egypt for 30 years has not had a dream? Malaysia has a dream; Turkey had a dream; Iran had a dream; Israel has a dream. We don't have a dream.

What would be your dream for Egypt?

To be one of the 20 leading economies in the world, because with a strong economy the country can have a strong health and education system and good ethics. We have a huge problem with the manners and ethics of Egyptians over the last 30 years. We need to work hard in these three areas.

Are Egyptians ready to take on their share of responsibility to make these dreams come true?

From my experience, if you give Egyptians a very clear aim and a specific goal for a specific time, they will reach it. But giving them just a dream, though we need that, without a clear plan, will result in their not doing anything. For example, two years ago we started an anti-drug campaign to say stop using drugs in the schools, at clubs, etc. The campaign lasted five weeks. The aim was very clear. We wanted 7,000 users to start drug treatment, and we needed to distribute one million stickers against drugs and organise 5,000 events in schools. In the end, we distributed six million stickers, organised 50,000 events, and had 12,000 drug users go to the rehabilitation centres in five weeks. That is the Egyptians for you.

But do you think this happened mainly because you led the campaign and you are very popular?

As I said, we need leaders. We need someone to motivate the people and to show them what has to be done. Once they believe and see what it is, they will do it. What did president Nasser do? Just this. He motivated the Egyptians and told them "we need to do this." He did not live in coexistence, though. He started a clash with the Arabs and the West. But he did have a dream. But it is not enough to have a dream: you also have to coexist. This way, you will find partners to support you to make your dream come true.

In your dream for Egypt, what role do women play? Do women have the rights they need to fulfill this role?

Unfortunately for women in the Middle East, not only in Egypt, there is a lot of injustice. Not just economic injustice, everything. And unfortunately these injustices are also in the name of Islam, and Islam does not say that. These are bad traditions. Some people use Islam to say this is Islam when it is not. This is unacceptable. And because of this, you will find that not many women take the chance to be leaders in society. Give me ten names of women leaders in the Middle East -- Bahia al-Hariri, Queen Rania, who else? I have trouble giving you ten names. Why all these injustices? If we start giving women the option to become leaders and to take initiatives, I believe that many things will change in the Middle East. I work a lot with women. For example, in 2007 I asked people on my TV show to send me what their dreams would be for 20 years time. I got 700,000 dreams and 60 per cent of them were from women. Now on Facebook, we have more than three million fans and more than half are women.

Why do you think so many women listen to you?

Because I respect them. I believe that they can do a lot, and I respect them and part of my programmes talks to them directly.

Will the rights of women change after the January 25 Revolution?

Nothing will change after the Revolution until we decide that we want change. We removed the obstacles, but does this mean that we have started our plan? No! We have done one good thing in removing the obstacles, but we haven't moved yet.

When will things start to move?

We first need a plan and a leader.

What kind of advice do you give women when you talk to them?

My first message is to start civil society work. Don't stay at home and do nothing. Even if you are at school or at university, in the summer you have to work. I was just recording my message for Ramadan, and this is exactly what I say. Do, go, and don't say that Islam says no, I can't work with men, etc. I give examples from our history of how women have worked and what they have achieved.

Should women play a more prominent role in the politics of this country?

They should even run for president. Do you know that there is a story in the Quran about a queen who was the leader of Yemen? Her name is Balqis [the Queen of Sheba]. The Qur'an says that she was fantastic as a leader.

Where do the "bad traditions" that you refer to as the cause of injustices against women come from?

They come from the Arabs' daily lives in some countries of the Arab world.

You have interviewed presidential candidates on Egyptian state TV like Amin Nour and more recently Mohamed ElBaradei. Do you see either of these two, or Amr Moussa or Mohamed Salim al-Awwa, as the next Egyptian president?

It is simply too early to say who will be the president or even who will be the candidates in the presidential race. A lot of things will change. Who can say that the elections will even be held at the right time? Today, we have an important football match -- Ahli versus Zamalek. This morning the media said that the match has been cancelled, and only two hours ago we heard that the match will go ahead. We are only talking about football, not about the presidential elections. We are currently in an unusual situation. Nothing is static. Egypt was static for 30 years. Now it is very, very dynamic, more than we can afford.

What kind of government would you like to see in Egypt after the elections?

For sure a civil government. I don't believe in a religious government. What is the meaning of a religious government? We only need a civil government. Islam will give us values, and these values are our roots. But we will not eat and attract tourism thanks to verses from the Quran. I believe in what [Turkish president] Abdullah Gèl said when they asked him whether his party was an Islamic party. He said that he represented a civil party, because it believed that Islam was a very high thing whereas the party would fail in certain areas and succeed in others. It is very wrong to make mistakes and say this is Islam. We respect Islam, our values come from Islam, but let us work as a civil government.

You recently said in an interview that "if people don't reach out to the youth, there will be problems. They will be ready to go to extremes." What did you mean by that?

I believe that if you don't give people, and especially the youth, the chance to work, if you don't give them the chance to dream and to work, the alternative is that they will go to extremes. And this is not only the case in Egypt and not only in Islam. If you don't give me a role in life, I may deviate.

What will give Egyptians hope today?

To succeed in a concrete project and see results in the short term. This is what I am trying to do with Bokra Ahla, but it is very difficult. It needs a government. We need to set goals, to have confidence and to trust each other.

Where does your hope and energy come from?

I get it from my religion. Nothing except faith can give power and energy, and this is the real faith, the faith that gives you hope. This is what I am trying to give to the youth through the Internet and our projects. They are very fresh and ready to do anything for the sake of the country, without any hidden agendas.

You also once said that "faith for faith could lead to extremism." What sort of faith do Egyptians need now to rebuild the country?

Faith that gives energy and hope to build in my opinion is the meaning of faith. But faith to pray, to wear the hijab, and to read the Quran, and then to come to a full stop, can lead after 10 years to extremes. I am going on the Omra to gain energy, to come back to Egypt, to build, and to accept others, because part of my faith lies in a world of coexistence. This is my understanding of my religion and my faith.

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