SOHAG: “Blood has started rushing back to the veins of the Egyptians,” Amr Khaled gesticulates impassionedly as he stands at a podium, talking to a crowd of around 2,000 people. “And we have to start here, from Sohag, from Upper Egypt, which needs so much development. Can you breathe the freedom in the air after the revolution? You can now do anything you want: dream bigger, work harder. There are no limits.”
The crowd looks back uncertainly as they sit on the grass with the sun beating down on their heads, raises their hands when Khaled asks who is willing to take an oath to work harder than ever to make Egypt better, and disperses afterwards from Culture Square looking thoughtful.
“I’m glad he is finally allowed to lecture, after 10 long years,” says Ahmed Abu Samy, a 43-year-old gardener. “And that his first lecture after the revolution was in Sohag, which everyone usually ignores. We need development in everything: education, medical, and especially political awareness.”
Sohag was the first stop on Khaled’s list of cities to visit. On Sunday, he was set to go to Alexandria.
“I can’t believe I’m finally allowed to talk,” Khaled tells Daily News Egypt. “State security tried to stop us, but we went on ahead. Everything will change now.”
Khaled, who has long been known to be at odds with the previous regime, seems to be charging on full steam ahead. Last week he launched an illiteracy project in association with Vodafone Egypt, and in Sohag he re-launched his microfinance project, “Insan,” which had been stopped by the previous regime. The project aims to train 35,000 youth to work in groups of five each with a poor family for a year, creating a small project for them with LE 6,000–10,000, on the condition that the family re-enroll their children back in school and that they turn the project into a profitable endeavor.
The governorate of Sohag in Upper Egypt, approximately 500 km away from Cairo, has around 200,000 residents. Lying on the west bank of the Nile and nicknamed “the Bride of the Nile,” Sohag’s economy is largely based on agriculture.
Khaled’s lecture stressed on the importance of working hard, working together, being open to working with and coexisting with organizations with different ideologies, and dreaming big in order to develop Egypt.
“Egyptian people were in a freezer for 30 years,” he tells his audience. “Now you can thaw out and work. You have your dignity back, never bow your heads again.”
“Upper Egypt needs development,” says Mohamad Rasmy, head of Lifemakers Upper Egypt, an NGO Khaled started a decade ago, “and that is what we should be focusing on now.”
Development and politics though, seem to be taking an interesting twist.
Across from the square, Hajj Ayman pours sugarcane into glasses for his customers. “Does the revolution mean things will really change for us?” he asks. “I don’t think so.”
“We are a submissive people,” says 18-year-old medical student Samir Ahmed, “there weren’t even many protests here. It doesn’t really matter who is in power – our lives are the same.”
Political apathy is a problem in Upper Egypt, where a “omda,” or mayor, usually runs the town, and not the police, says 21-year-old Hossam El-Mar’ey, a fourth year medical student. “Police are always secondary here,” he says. “The rumor mill and political ignorance are dominant […] people need political awareness, and they need to see what politics can do for them.”
In less than 10 hours in Sohag, Khaled lectured to 300 members of Lifemakers, visited a church, gave a lecture to a couple of thousand Sohag residents, had lunch with influential members in the city, and met Wadah Hamzawy, the governor of Sohag. From here on out, he tells DNE, his schedule will be likewise jam-packed.
Does Khaled, who calls himself a “reformer,” see himself becoming active in politics in Egypt?
He laughs nervously: “It’s too early to tell in what capacity, but why not?” he says. “As long as it’s in the right place, at the right time, to help the community, then yes, I will become active in politics.”
Opinions in Sohag are divided over the potential entry of Khaled into politics. “He shouldn’t,” says 42-year-old university teacher Mohamad Abi-Elela. “His role is to motivate youth to dream and work hard, and to create development projects. Politics will ruin him.”
“Amr Khaled motivates me,” says 11-year old Basma Mahmoud. “I want him to be the president.”
Amr Khaled also met with Wadah Hamzawy, the governor of Sohag.