08/30/2013 05:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Egypt, Through the Eyes of a Protester: An Interview with Wael Nawara


You don't know until you see it. Because you're just one person. These were huge, huge crowds. You can sense the vibes on social networks but still sometimes they can be deceiving. You don't really know until you go and find out.

I was there

Wael Nawara was there when the protests first started in Cairo in January of 2011. As we speak, he quickly rattles off an additional set of dates -- the 5th of December 2012, then the 26th of June, the 30th of June and the 26th of July 2013. It is clear that he has been no stranger to the events of this summer.

"These are just people; not political parties, but self-organized protesters," Nawara observes, making it a point to underscore just how organic these protests have been.

In fact, the Tamarod (Rebel) movement has been underfoot for quite a while. "They organized for about three months," Nawara says noting that he signed the original petition against former President Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood on the 2nd of May.

It was a petition that would go on to amass some 22 million signatures. When its core demand for early elections went unanswered, the protesters demanded the removal of Morsy. The army stepped in and installed the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court as the interim president. In response, Morsy's supporters waged a wave of protests which in many cases turned violent, triggering the government crackdown last Wednesday.

A chorus of many voices

Nawara talks about how the landscape of the demonstrations extends beyond those seen in Tahrir Square or in Giza to the outskirts of the cities, to even the most rural of villages.

The demographics of the protests are likewise more complicated than the simple dichotomy between anti-Morsy and pro-Morsy protesters might suggest.

"The truth is there were so many different movements that became sort of disenfranchised; there were so many different people out there protesting," he says.

According to Nawara, one such disenfranchised group is women.

"If you listen carefully to the chants arising from the Tahrir demonstrations, you would distinguish an overwhelming high pitch announcing the women's presence," he says.

Nawara explains that women know they have more to lose. He recounts how a village woman told him that after Morsy's election, the Brotherhood and Salafists had come and harassed her and her sisters into dressing differently, threatening to kill her son if she disobeyed.

Then there is the sectarian nature of the conflict. As a point in case, Nawara describes the attacks on Christian churches during the last month as "astronomical."

Just as complex are the assailants. "Egyptian Islam is much more moderate. Radical extremist brands promoted by the Brotherhood and their allies are alien to the Egyptian people and land," he explains.

He describes this "alien force" as extremist and marginal despite having surrogates throughout the country -- not to mention ones also outside of it.

An Existential Conflict

So what are we to make of all of this? "For Egypt, this is an existential conflict," Nawara insists. "They [the Islamists] do not have this concept of nation state. They do not recognize the idea of a homeland either. They believe that the homeland is Islam. They have very little understanding or acceptance of a country or a state like Egypt. This is not a political conflict about who rules but rather about what to rule -- the state of Egypt or the Brotherhood's state."

Nawara sees the conflict as much larger than just a civil war between two groups, but one too that brings into question the future of the state -- the land -- itself. "We have to understand that at the end of the day the land wins and that the people have to adapt to the land, creating a unique culture which enables them to survive," he posits.

A huge cluster of power in search of one voice

For now, Nawara admits that whether what we're seeing was a coup, revolution or "recolution," matters little to Egyptians.

On where the blame falls and what needs to happen next he is more clear.

He establishes first that it is not the military but the political forces of Egypt that are culpable for the current situation.

"Since November 2012, following Morsy's disastrous unconstitutional decrees, General al-Sisi warned several times of the dire consequences of failing to create political consensus. He also publicly warned people who were calling for the army intervention that this would not be easy. So I really blame the Muslim Brotherhood and other political forces," he explains.

Those political forces, Nawara argues, have arisen as a result of what he terms, "crowd democracy -- a self-organized movement that was successful because it managed to develop a set of demands that met consensus by trending through the virtual world and the streets."

But the problem with this kind of democracy, Nawara observes, is that it can quickly "become disassembled so that all you have is this huge cluster of power without one voice."

In the weeks and months ahead, these forces will need to find one voice of authority from among the masses if it is to accomplish what Egypt needs most.

The way forward

Nawara outlines two basic objectives for an inclusive political process: an open forum for dialogue between all parties and a security solution.

He insists that new Islamist parties should disavow terrorism, disassociate themselves from alliances with worldwide terrorist networks, including terrorists in Sinai, and instead take up integration as a goal so that they can function as transparent political parties that operate under the rule of law. "We have to separate a terrorist organization which is terrorizing gas stations and government administrations, burning churches and so on from protesters who have credible demands that we have to listen to and sit down with," Nawara explains.

And for that, timing is of the essence.

"The good thing is that the pro-Morsy protesters are only a few right now. Of course the danger is that if this goes on, those few can multiply in number. When you shut down the political paths, I think that works to radicalize the more moderate Islamic parts, people who were originally peaceful."

What is obvious is that a reset is needed soon. But for now, he surmises: "I think we're in it for a couple of weeks."