Faith and Hope in Egypt

Populist Muslim preacher Amr Khaled argues that economic development, religious coexistence, and international partnerships are keys to the country’s future

CAIRO REVIEW: What is your strongest memory of Egypt’s January 25 revolution?

AMR KHALED: I think the word and concept of “peace.” Of how much our youth did this revolution without any blood, how much they understood that Egypt has always been peaceful like that. This was a very important point. What our army and youth did in Tahrir is Egyptian civilization. My expectations were that there wouldn’t be blood. It was a critical time though. Anything could go a different way. I’m so happy [about] what happened.

CAIRO REVIEW: A specific moment that touched you?

AMR KHALED: How the army dealt with me. The last day, it was not simple. [President Hosni] Mubarak’s speech was unexpected and the people were so angry. At that time I was in Tahrir, so I met with one of the leaders of the army and he talked to me and said, “My sister [is] here, and my brother [is] here, I’m here. All of us are here. I will not shoot any of those [people], because all of them are my family.” His words were very warm. And I believe that he was trying to say he, too, is one of the people.

CAIRO REVIEW: How will Egyptians change?

AMR KHALED: The expectations for their future became very, very high. People in Egypt now believe in freedom, democracy, youth empowerment. In 2006, I talked to the youth. I told them, please send me your dreams for the country, what you want [to see] in twenty years from now. In one month, I got 1.4 million replies. You know what was number one? “We want and need jobs.” We need to respect ourselves, dedicate ourselves to work, create something.

CAIRO REVIEW: Will dreams come true?

AMR KHALED: To be honest with you, we need partners to create these huge numbers of jobs, after thirty years with no movement and the society the way it is now. We need to work. We need to move. We need to find solutions for problems. And the first challenge is to create jobs. So I believe we need partners. We need to feel that the West will not do injustice to us. There’s a deep feeling that the West took our raw materials to the West, and left us. The Egyptian youth gives the West evidence that our quality is very good. We don’t need [you] only to go to India or Singapore to start work and establish your programs and manufacturing. Come to Egypt. Give these youth opportunities. Open markets. We need buildings and projects. Give youth the opportunity to work.

CAIRO REVIEW: How do you view the role that the United States played during the events?

AMR KHALED: After the revolution, I’m not going to [make] speeches and talk about the past. Let’s talk about the future. Now, the word hope for the Egyptian youth became very important. If no one extends their hands to help the youth in freedom and economic issues, these expectations they have will transfer to the opposite. It’ll be depression. And I’m afraid if people don’t reach out to the youth, there will be problems. They will be ready to go to the extremes. So for all of us, we need to talk about coexistence through projects. Not words. Projects.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why did the youth revolt now?

AMR KHALED: Actually, they’re very patient. Thirty years is not a short time. It’s a huge time. But we said it too many times, we have a problem. And no one listened and respected people. The average age is twenty-two. Can you imagine those people? No one respects them? No one gives them hope? So much energy, but nothing to do? No freedom. No jobs. No place to play even football. Where will my energy go? So we can’t say “Why this day?” It was always going to happen. Many people were saying that.

CAIRO REVIEW: What was the revolution for?

AMR KHALED: Freedom. Just one word: freedom. Before January 25, for me to breathe freedom was impossible. I took the plane from Egypt to London to breathe the freedom. But now I can breathe the freedom in Egypt.

CAIRO REVIEW: How have Egyptians changed?

AMR KHALED: It changed [the] youth. For example, now religion is talked about [in] a different way. Not religion for religion. There’s a huge difference. Before January 25, because there was nothing to do in society, they were talking about faith. At that time, I was talking about faith for development. Faith for faith could lead to extremism. But to talk about faith to make you build, create, do something for society, people wouldn’t think like that. Now, people don’t talk about faith just for faith. Faith to do something for Egypt.

“I’m a reformer. My role is of a reformer using faith, using and talking about hope. My role is to give hope and big dreams.”

CAIRO REVIEW: What else?

AMR KHALED: The world of coexistence changed since January 25. People would ask, “What do you mean by coexistence? Christians, Muslims? With the West?” Now it’s an acceptable word, because in Tahrir, Muslims and Christians were together and had the same dream. Coexistence comes from us having the whole dream: the freedom of Egypt. But how can we use this energy and build a new dream? We need a new economic Egypt. Egypt could be one of the top ten in the world. The last thirty years, what was the dream of Egypt? Turkey has a dream, Israel has a dream, Malaysia has a dream. What does Egypt dream? Nothing in the last thirty years. Where do we start? The dream has to be to build Egypt. Develop this country. We deserve to be one of the best countries in the world. We need partners. Let’s deal with the world. We don’t want to be isolated any more.

CAIRO REVIEW: What is your role in Egypt?

AMR KHALED: I had this role before, but now it will be bigger, insha’allah (God willing), to empower civil society through many organizations, like Life Makers or others. To work for the sake of this country, to empower the youth. Because I believe the straight line to solve a lot of the problems in our country is empowering youth in civil society, to do something to build Egypt. That’s my role now. And I will build it. A lot of youth organizations, Muslim and Christian, are working with me now. Ten million people are illiterate in Egypt. That can’t be.

CAIRO REVIEW: Did the Mubarak regime restrict your activities?

AMR KHALED: You have to ask me? They stopped all my activities. They feared that civil society would be active or achieve something, the basics of democracy. They understood that. They knew I didn’t talk about political issues. But what I was doing was the root of democracy and politics. They tried to ban anything like that. My microfinance project was stopped in 2008, the ‘Improving Lives Project.’ The aim is to give projects, not money, to families in Upper Egypt, in Mansoura, in many places. On one condition: your kids have to go to school. Each family would have five youths to support them to do the project. The aim is not only the microfinance or the kids, but these youths would be leaders in the future. And the project was for seven thousand families which means [about] thirty-five thousand youths would work with them. After we started with that, two hundred families, 80 percent, succeeded. They started to work, and so on. The British Council gave us support to train the youth who would work with the families. And suddenly, in one day, they [the government] stopped this project. We tried, but they stopped us. So we went to other countries with our Egyptian youth, to do it in other countries, in Jordan, Algeria, Sudan, Yemen. We succeeded with one thousand families. And we felt so sorry we had to [do] this outside of Egypt and not [in] our country. But now they have all come back to establish this project with a huge number of families and youth, to work in Egypt.

CAIRO REVIEW: Will you stay in Egypt?

AMR KHALED: I’m back to Egypt. No more UK. I’m based here. We have two new projects, the literacy project for ten million people in five years, which we’ll do with Vodafone. And the other project will be [the] ‘Improving Lives Project.’ We started this last week, not next month. We’ll work on it for one year. The number of youths who will work with us as volunteers is about seventy thousand.

CAIRO REVIEW: Are you going to get involved in politics?

AMR KHALED: I believe I have a political role since I started, to make the civil society more active. Now I think that I have a deeper role in political issues. But in the right time. With the right image. I’ll go to this role for sure, but step by step in the right way. It’s too early to talk about this now. Leave it at the right time and come back to me at another time to make another interview with me and I’ll tell you. Soon. Yes, I’m going to this role. But how much? When? Leave it to the right time.

CAIRO REVIEW: Do you consider running for president?

AMR KHALED: All the options are now open to us, it’s a matter of choosing where we can be of most benefit. One way might be through the creation of a political party, but not a religious party. A party which is based on social development through politics. There’s also the potential of taking other political steps that are bigger than creating a political party.

CAIRO REVIEW: What are your priorities?

AMR KHALED: Development, work. We have to pay the invoice of this revolution. It’s a great revolution. We did a great thing. All the world is watching. Egyptians are proud. But there is a great invoice [to be paid]. We need to create, work, make development. Egyptians have to prove, as we did with this revolution, we can make it different.

CAIRO REVIEW: What are your concerns?

AMR KHALED: Again we have to be patient. Thirty years. You want to change thirty years in five days or months? You need time. We need to support this economy. And to wait and be patient. It’ll take time. We have to talk to the people and trust the country. Trust the economy. We have to give a message to the world: Come to this country. Invest in this country.

CAIRO REVIEW: What else?

AMR KHALED: The challenge now can be coexistence between Egyptians—Muslims and Christians. I’m not very worried, but I hope [coexistence] will stay very strong like the time of the revolution. This is one of my hopes and dreams in the future. But what worries me still is the economy. This is the only obstacle I see. I believe and trust the army. I don’t think any threat will come [from] the army. And after five months, there will be civil society. Egyptians are ready for democracy. After what we did in this revolution and how mature Egyptians [are], there is no question. Look how cleverly and maturely they dealt with these problems. They’re ready for new elections, to choose the right person, in the parliament and [for] president. They’re very mature. Some people say, “They’re not ready for democracy.” How can you say something like that? All the world said, “We should take notes from Egyptians!”

CAIRO REVIEW: How do you move from a revolution to a democracy?

AMR KHALED: My son is ten years old. He was talking to me yesterday about the constitution. Can you imagine? Ten years old. We have to put the constitution in our houses. Kids, youth, must talk about our rights, our roles in society. Everyone’s talking about [that]. No one is talking about sports. I mean, I believe in football, but now people are talking about politics. It’s a new world in Egypt.

CAIRO REVIEW: Who would be a good president?

AMR KHALED: I believe that there are many people in Egypt, but no one would talk, in the past. They didn’t have a chance. Most of these people, you will find them, starting in the next months, talking to the people. So I believe that we have numbers of people. Not a few. Many. They will start to take their role. It’s too early to say this name or this name. Wait for two or three months. I know a lot of them. In the past, we were worried about minorities talking on behalf of the majority. Like the Muslim Brothers, and so on and so on. Now all society became active. We’re not worried about any minorities pushing all over the society. Many names mean the right democracy. And everyone in this society in Egypt can think and listen. Many opinions.

CAIRO REVIEW: What are you thoughts about the Muslim Brotherhood?

AMR KHALED: We’re talking about a civil country and government. Religion is very important for the people in this area of the world. But faith for what? Faith for development would be helpful for the future. I believe we are talking about faith, and faith for all, Muslims and Christians. Faith can encourage and motivate the people to build a country. This is what I think will be the future and role of faith.

CAIRO REVIEW: How does Islam affect democratic practice?

AMR KHALED: The model I choose to put is faith for the sake of the country. Maybe some people have another model. And maybe I don’t accept it, or find it’s not the right time for the country. But I think my model is needed right now. But I told you, after the revolution, the majority became active and positive. In the past you had to choose [between] government or Muslim Brotherhood. And people don’t like the government. But now a lot of players have new ideas, good ideas. All people want everything to change. I don’t think there will be a fear. You can go now to the Internet and read what Egyptians and youth are saying. They’ve changed. Revolution is not a simple word. It did a lot to change the minds. Especially the youth. They’re ready to change very quickly.

CAIRO REVIEW: You view on the Muslim Brotherhood?

AMR KHALED: During the time of the revolution, they didn’t try to do anything against the mainstream of the people. They were part of Egyptian revolution and they didn’t try to take it for themselves. And at same time, they said “We won’t run for presidential elections.” I think they won’t do anything against the sake of Egypt. This is in the past. Now, wait and see. This is a very critical [issue], so let’s see. But there’s no fear. People became very positive. I can’t tell you that now. Wait and see what will happen. I was in Tahrir Square. Supporting youth through my Facebook page. More than two million youth followed us on this page. We have to listen and accept what our youth want. This is their freedom and country. We have to support it.

CAIRO REVIEW: How do you label yourself?

AMR KHALED: I’m a reformer. My role is of a reformer using faith, using and talking about hope. My role is to give hope and big dreams. To talk to [young people] about their dreams in the future. Send me your dreams. Hope and dream. I want to believe in them and give them. I have a message for the Arab youth, especially now in Tunis, Algeria, Yemen, Libya. All of us have to respect your dreams: you are a treasure. You’re the treasure— not the oil, the gas. You have to dream and think. You will change your country and make a better future. And at the same time, you have to accept others. My message to Arab youth, you need others. You need coexistence. Extend your hands.

Amr Khaled is an Egyptian preacher who reaches millions of Muslims through televised sermons on Arab satellite channels, and is the founder of development organizations such as Life Makers and the Right Start Foundation. Originally an accountant by training, Khaled began giving talks on religious topics in the mid-1990s to small groups gathered in private homes. Soon, his sermons in mosques were drawing thousands of Egyptians and his innovative development projects were getting results. Pushed out of Egypt by President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Khaled won legions of new followers with regional television programs that encouraged young Arabs to improve their prospects. Khaled has been active in Egypt’s transition and indciated that he does not rule out running for president. The Cairo Review’s Ethar El-Katatney interviewed Khaled in Cairo on February 23, 2011.