The Man on the Street: an interview with Nehad El Gamal

Monday, March 14, 2011

When Nehad El Gamal, an Egyptian American human rights lawyer who lives near Chicago, flew to Cairo January 14, he expected to meet with clients and his legal team and then continue on to Kabul, Afghanistan. Instead he found himself smack in the middle of events that broke the iron grip of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak after thirty years in power and changed El Gamal’s feelings about the future of the country he had left fifteen years ago.

El Gamal grew up in a period of relative peace in Egypt; by the time he was old enough to be conscripted, there was no draft. He earned a law degree, then worked for a year as a government prosecutor before quitting, unable to stand the habitual corruption in the judiciary system.

He got his first job as a lawyer in the United States at the district attorney’s office in New York. Soon he earned a master’s degree in law from the State University of New York in Buffalo and was hired by DePaul University in Chicago. There he managed two international projects: he coordinated an initiative encouraging Arab states to sign the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and by doing so agree to respect international human rights, and another offering seminars and training in human rights law in Iraqi law schools. It was here that he began his career in human rights law and met the woman he would eventually marry.

El Gamal is a founding partner of El Gamal & Tawfik International Law Firm, which operates in Cairo and Kabul. Along with his work in international law and immigration law, El Gamal frequently lectures on international criminal law, human rights, and criminal justice.

The lawyer, who says he had never previously participated in a protest, was in Cairo for three weeks. He returned to his wife and daughter on February 4,suffering from bronchitis contracted when he inhaled smoke at the mass demonstrations. He also returned with determination to play a part in the future of the revolution he witnessed.

An animated man with a salt-and-pepper beard, dark-rimmed glasses, and an accent by turns heavy and imperceptible, El Gamal sat down with TriQuarterly Online February 14in Evanston, IL to speak about his impressions of the rapidly unfolding events in Egypt, his night in Tahrir Square, and what the events mean for him as an Egyptian. What follows is an edited transcript.

Tuesday, January 25

On a national holiday to commemorate the police forces, Egyptians took to the streets in large numbers, proclaiming the Day of Rage. This was the first day of mass protests.

TriQuartlerly Online: What did you do the first day that protests began?

Nehad El Gamal: I went to my office that day, and at eight p.m. I left; they said that all streets are blocked and there are big demonstrations. When I went home and saw on the news, I found out that it was really a big protest. I stayed home for two hours, I took my car, I went downtown, and I saw indeed it was a lot of youth protesting. On the 25th it was not that violent.

TQO: What were you thinking when you saw all of this?

NG: I saw protests before when I was at the university in Egypt, Cairo University, but it was not something like this one. The young people were willing to die, basically. They had something they wanted to achieve, and they were not afraid; there was no fear of police or tanks or weapons. They were very determined.  There were hundreds of people trying to push the police forces; if they got the tear gas they threw it back at the police forces. So that showed you that really they are not afraid of anything, they are willing just to die. It’s a wonderful feeling because, of course, it was very surprising to see these young people willing to die for this cause.

TQO: How did you feel seeing this?

NG: I never participated in a protest. I never was violent—I never liked violence. I cannot do these things. I like peaceful protest. Actually, ever since I was a kid I didn’t like to participate in any fights in school or in my neighborhood. I think it’s something personal, not something I picked up from TV or from reading. I believe everyone in this life has a goal, and maybe my goal is not participating in this protest or attacking police forces, but I should have other things to do.

Friday, January 28

On Friday morning, El Gamal woke up to find that Internet and mobile phone service in Egypt had been cut off. His only way to access information was TV –on Al Arabiya he first saw the full scale of the pro-Mubarak forces unleashed on the peaceful protesters.

NG: It was a very bloody day. And after the collapse of the police forces, all these looters came out onto the streets and broke into stores, and there was no police forces, there was no security. At that time people start to divide into two sides. Some people were for what was happening and said, “Finally the police forces collapsed—400,000 riot police defeated by these young people!” The other half blamed the young people, saying the result was that we didn’t have security in the country. People got attacked by looters, and their businesses basically got robbed and destroyed. And they set fire to some hotels in Egypt— I saw it myself as well.

TQO: Were you frightened?

NG: No.

TQO: Why not?

NG: It’s my country. I took a walk, and I saw so many looted businesses, no police at all, some hotels near the pyramids area set on fire and no one there. Tourists  and foreigners escaped. All that happened on Friday evening, Friday night.

Saturday, January 29

In a speech delivered shortly after midnight, Mubarak announced that he had fired the cabinet, but refused to step down himself.

TQO: Describe for me the scene on Saturday when you are walking. Is it cold, is it warm? [pagebreak]

NG: It was warm—a warm day. There were no police around.

TQO: Do you usually see a lot of police?

NG: Usually there are traffic police. No traffic police were there. No toll police. You see some tanks, you see the military. They don’t do anything; at that time the army and the military had instructions not to intervene with anything. They were in my neighborhood Saturday. I live in the area where there are all the casinos and nightclubs, and basically the looters came at night and they started to steal the money from these casinos and the nightclubs, and the military was just watching, because they didn’t have any orders to intervene at that time. It was sad of course to see all these destroyed buildings and destroyed businesses. And you don’t know what’s next: Is it going to be a military government? How will the government retaliate if these young people will keep going, if they will continue? How will these looters come after the protesters? On that day, the most important thing for everybody is to secure himself and to secure his family and secure his house.

TQO: How were people doing that?

NG: Every block basically, in the residential areas and the business area, people got together. Like all my building people, the building next to us, the building just beside—every block would get together downstairs, and whoever has a stick or a knife would block the streets so no one can get hurt. And on that day they started the curfew too, from about six p.m. to seven a.m. So we were there on the street twenty-four hours.

TQO: And you took a shift as well?

NG: Of course, on that day I stayed from six p.m. to six a.m.—twelve hours staying on the street with other people.

TQO: What was that like?

NG: Just all the men basically went out. This is the last thing you think possible, that you are not safe in your own home. But we heard in other neighborhoods that looters come and shout from downstairs, they say, “Throw out your stuff, your jewelry and money, or we will go up and take it ourselves!”

TQO: Were you afraid then?

NG: No, I was not afraid. I was just more caring about my mom. I was staying with her at that time in Cairo. So I left her in the apartment and went downstairs with other people to protect our street.

TQO: What were you carrying, what were you holding? Twenty-four hours is a long time.

NG: Yeah, we were just sitting on the street with other people.

TQO: With knives?

NG: Some people have knives, some people have sticks, some people have guns. I had a gun. And you know you read that all the police stations got destroyed—the looters basically stole the weapons from this police station. You hear that they have weapons, they are all criminals, they are convicted felons, and if they come to our neighborhood they will do something, you know. So all of us, a big number of people, are downstairs, blocking the street. I brought down a gun. It was actually my dad’s. He had it when he was an officer, and I inherited it after he died, but it doesn’t ever leave the house because I don’t use guns. At the time we had to have it to protect ourselves, so I was not really nervous about carrying it. That was something I had to do, because it was about death or life at that time.

TQO: So what did you eat in those twenty-four hours?

NG: We took shifts, so I would go upstairs to my apartment, eat, and come back. Some people actually bought food and sent it down to us and made tea and sent it to us, hot tea, and it was really nice, it was very supportive of the operation. And you know what, it’s like here in the US: sometimes you don’t know who’s your neighbor, you don’t really see them. But in a few days, everybody knows each other. We met downstairs, and we see the police officer with the army officer, with the super, with the baker—all people coming together just to have one goal, to protect each other. It’s a really good feeling.  [pagebreak]

TQO: What about the conversations you were having?

NG: Some people were with the uprising or the movement or the revolution, and I was one of them, supporting them. I didn’t like even to hear a small bad word about them. In these first days we were going back and forth, who was supporting and who was not supporting. I was supporting the revolution. And this was when young people were asking for support from Egyptians, the whole country, for millions of people to come to the streets of Cairo.

TQO: How did you hear about that?

NG: I saw it on Al-Jazeera, before it got banned.

TQO: You were watching on TV.

NG: Yes. I saw that there was a call for millions of people to come. I talked with just my friends, people who were my age, like forty. None of them wanted to come. I told them, “At least if you are not supporting the revolution, don’t be against them.”

TQO: Are they also professionals in Cairo?

NG: Yes. But I don’t know—still some people did not believe because they didn’t see these people, these young people. If you see them, if you meet with them, if you talk to them, you will be 100 percent certain that they will achieve what they want.

Tuesday, February 1

Mubarak announced  in a televised address that he would not run for reelection, but continued to refuse to step down.

NG: For example, when the young people asked on January 28 for millions of people to come to the Tahrir Square, the Liberation Square, I was there at eight o’clock in the morning, because I felt that these people need support. These young people have no political agenda; they really love the country. So on Tuesday I went to the protest. When I arrived it was very peaceful, millions of people chanting and dancing and asking for Mubarak to leave.

TQO: So did you walk there, or did you take the subway? When did you encounter this crowd?

NG: I took the subway.

TQO: Was there a subway that entered into Tahrir Square?

NG: Actually they shut down the Tahrir subway, so I had to get off at the station before Tahrir Square. I got out of the station and I had to walk on the bridge over the Nile to get to the square. At that moment I really didn’t know what would happen, if it would be violent or not. But I had to go, I had no other option. You see, the thing that made me really happy that morning, I was in the subway getting off the subway station and in front of me is a man with three daughters, the eldest maybe nine years old, the youngest five, the one in the middle like seven years old. And they are taking a bag of crackers, a big bag of crackers and biscuits, and going to the protest. I felt very happy to see that I’m not the only one to believe in the movement. Some older people with families are going too, so I start to believe that really it is working. Many, many young people are on the subway, old women, old people—all the people. I got to Tahrir Square at eight a.m., and it was not that packed. So I called a friend of mine—she is one of the people who started the protest. They were going to be there in one hour.

TQO: How did you get in touch with her?

NG: By phone—mobiles were working by that time. So I was walking downtown. I saw some businesses that were stolen. Adidas was one of them. All empty shelves, not even one pair of shoes. [pagebreak]

TQO: So tell me a bit about the sensation of being there. Is the sun already up? Have people already had their morning prayer?

NG: Yes, people had their morning prayer at dawn, maybe five o’clock.

TQO: Is it smoky?

NG: I can smell the smoke from tear gas and fires that had been burning around the square (that’s why I got bronchitis). I was very concerned about the future of the country at that time. “What will happen next?” This was always the question. All this destruction, all these tourists who left the country—in nine days you have one million tourists who left the country—big financial damage, reputation damage. No, the reputation damage was not at that time, but three hundred people got killed. Mubarak has been here for thirty years—will it be easy to make him leave the country, or will he retaliate? What will the military do—will they get involved or will they be neutral? Will they protect civilians? So I waited for my friend Heba; she came down to Tahrir Square with some young people, four or five of them, and we started to protest.

TQO: Were you carrying signs? Were you chanting? What were you saying?

NG: I had a sign saying that Mubarak should leave.

TQO: Where did you get it? Did you make it?

NG: Actually when I was crossing the bridge there was some people distributing them.

TQO: Tell me a bit about your friend’s role. How did you know her—is she a childhood friend?

NG: No, actually she is a friend of my wife. We lived in Egypt from July 2009 to June 2010, and my wife  Jennifer used to work with Amideast, a US organization which encourages Egyptians to get scholarships to the United States, for example from the Ford Foundation. Heba was one of the applicants, so she was working on her English, and Jennifer took up her cause and helped her to get out of Egypt. So Jennifer gave me her number and said, “You know, when you go there just call her and check on her and see how she is doing. She should be going to university in September in the US; she got an acceptance to study women’s studies.” So I called her, and she said they are participating in the protest and organizing the protest; I said, “OK, I am coming to support you!” It is motivation for me to go and find people I know and be with them in the protest. Some friends of mine promised me that they would join, but they never called, so I was there alone. Then I met with Heba and her friends, and we started chanting and shouting.

TQO: What were you chanting?

NG: Different things. We were chanting, “Leave, Mubarak!” “Dissolve the parliament!” “To freedom!”

TQO: How did the chants change? Did they suddenly just change?

NG: No, actually, in the square about every 50 feet there is a group of people, and in every group they have their own signs and chanting, and if you like this group you can join, or join this other group. But it was an agreement among the whole square that there are no religious signs.

TQO: Was that an unspoken agreement?

NG: No, the organizers, Heba’s friend and others, who did this protest from the beginning, said we need a secular government, so when anyone comes and doesn’t know the rules and does something religious, my friend comes and says, “Please stop, because this is a protest about secular government, not about religious government, and this is a secular movement, not about Islam or religion.”

TQO: Did that surprise you?

NG: No, not really, because I knew that the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t really take part in organizing this revolution. Despite the government with their TV channels who would always accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of initiating this revolution, it is not true.

[pagebreak]

TQO: So how are you feeling? Are you less apprehensive now?

NG: You know what, these people are entirely different. They are not negotiators; they don’t know the art of negotiation. They are not diplomats; they not only speak their mind, they speak their heart. They want just one thing: Mubarak and his regime to be out. That’s it. No negotiation about it. Even that night we stayed the whole day and the whole night until Mubarak came out and said he is not going to run for another election.

TQO: So you stayed the whole night? How did you find out about Mubarak not running again in the square during the night?

NG: On the telephone with my friends. I told them, “That was good, you achieved something! Now you can work with what you achieved.” But they were very exhausted, in the street, staying in the street, sleeping in the street, for eight days. They couldn’t think about the next step. And they said they will sleep on it till the morning, and in the morning they will get together, the organizers, and they will see what should be done—what the next step should be.

TQO: What was it like at night?

NG: Nice. People have blankets, pillows. I couldn’t sleep; I was just talking and walking. It was a curfew that day, and it was not secure to walk to my house. Actually the most secure place was the square.

TQO: Is this before they set up the barricades around the square?

NG: No, after.

TQO: You felt really secure inside.

NG: Yeah, the military is protecting you from outside and people are protecting you inside, so no one is going to get to you.

TQO: What was it like to eat inside?

NG: Some stores were open; some people were very nice to bring their extra food and water. The nice thing is you see people with garbage bags, picking up the trash. People were very civilized. So we stayed till the morning. I had breakfast, a falafel, in the morning, people started opening up their businesses in the morning because they thought that after Mubarak’s speech there was hope.

TQO: This is a silly question, but where did people go to the bathroom in the square?

NG: Some shops were open.

TQO: Were there children and women also who were there for the night?

NG: Yes, sleeping in tents even, in blankets. On the first day, it was mostly just young people. Then you see millions of Egyptians, women, kids, you see like four-, five-month-old babies—it was like really all categories of people were there. [pagebreak]

Wednesday, February 2

NG: So I had breakfast on that day, got the newspaper, and I took a walk downtown. People opened their businesses. I was optimistic.

TQO: Were you still with your friends at this point?

NG: They left already. I took the subway over to my house.

TQO: What is the first thing your mother says when she sees you? Is she home?

NG: Oh, I called her and told her I’m safe. I went up the stairs; I took a shower of course, had some tea. I decided not to watch the news; I put in a movie. I watched a movie for an hour and a half, I don’t remember the name of it.

TQO: An American movie?

NG: Yes, American. Nicolas Cage, one where a girl was pretending that she was his daughter. And I went to sleep at eleven am.

TQO: Did you sleep for the day?

NG: I got up at three or four. I turned the TV on, and I found the last thing I imagined that would happen—the looters attacked the protesters. I was shocked. I felt sad, it was like a pain in my chest, like my heart was bleeding. So I called my friend and asked, “Heba, what’s going on?” She said, “People are getting injured and they are fighting, and they asked all the women to leave Tahrir Square.” And all the fighters stayed till seven o’clock in the morning. I couldn’t sleep that day at all.

TQO: What did you do?

NG: I went downstairs to sit with the people for protection. That day the National Democratic Party started to organize pro-Mubarak protests. It’s really disgusting. And then my neighbors, they were splitting, taking Mubarak’s side. They felt that Mubarak, with these looters, will win, that they will defeat the protesters. I was very upset.

TQO: So you’re arguing with your neighbors?

NG: One of them even says, “The protesters get money.” They get money from who? “From foreign countries like the US and Israel. You know why they are staying in the Tahrir Square?” Yeah, why? “Because they give them Kentucky Fried Chicken and fifty pounds.” Fifty pounds is like nine dollars. And he didn’t know I had participated in the protest. I told him, “You know what? I was there from eight o’clock in the morning to ten o’clock, twenty-six hours. No one gave me KFC and no one gave me fifty pounds.” “So there was no food in the square?” he asked. And I said. “Yeah, they were bringing food from their homes! Like biscuits, things like that.” And he said, “Yeah, you see, the people pay for this.” I called Heba at that time; she was with the women who had to be evacuated from the square. I said, “Heba, you know what? Unfortunately you and your friends are dying for people who don’t appreciate your sacrifice.”

TQO: What did she say when you said that?

NG: She said she knows. Unfortunately. So that day I didn’t sleep at all, until seven o’clock in the morning. I called Heba again at one point because I heard on the TV that the looters had petrol cans and were going to throw them from the roof in Tahrir Square—basically they were bombs. I told Heba to please tell her friends this is what I heard. She said that no, they are not leaving Tahrir Square, they are not afraid. Because they know if they die in the Square tonight, they will die. But if they leave Tahrir Square, the government will pick them up separately from their homes after they leave. This is the safest place to be. [pagebreak]

TQO: Were you at any point afraid that the telephone or mobile lines would be shut down again?

NG: Of course. And all the rumors that the police would come back strong, that they would kick in all the people’s doors that participated in the protest, that they would monitor them. I didn’t believe that. Because how are you going to monitor these millions of people? I saw them with my own eyes. How are you going to arrest all these people? This is the Egyptian people. It’s not one thousand, it’s not two thousand. And seven in the morning the looters left the scene. They increased the military, and at that time I believe the government looked very bad before the international community, and they had to do something—they had to find the people who are responsible for this chaos. And amazingly, the TV, some private channels, the Egyptian channels . . .

TQO: Not state-owned?

NG: Forget about the state-owned. It’s better not to listen to it. My mom has two TVs on in her room, one in the living room and one in her bedroom, and sometimes she watches the state TV, and I tell her, “Don’t listen to it because all they say on the TV are lies.” There are some private channels on Egyptian TV and in live interviews, people start to say it loudly: “o and so and so and so are responsible for this chaos.” They are accusing the minister of information and the chief of the parliament of organizing this chaos and paying these people to go and attack the protesters. So it was very, very obvious that the military should do something.

Thursday, February 3

NG: And at seven o’clock in the morning, all these people went home—the looters, that is—and the protesters again went to Tahrir Square. And I knew that the end is coming very soon.

TQO: Tell me a little bit about how you knew the end was coming soon. What were the signs?

NG: The signs were that we looked very bad in front of the international community. The prime minister took responsibility; he said whoever is responsible for that will be tried—he started to talk about justice. The military increased its role to protecting protesters. It’s some steps in the right direction. That was Wednesday, no, Thursday. So that day I felt that people at least were safer. I left on Friday.

Friday, February 4

TQO: Was that when you were scheduled to leave?

NG: I wasn’t scheduled. I wanted to stay but my daughter wanted me, she is two years old and very attached to me, and she started to get physically sick.

TQO: Were you worried about your family there?

NG: No, by that time I was sure that these people are protected; it was not going to happen again. When you see this unity of people in the neighborhood, and the unity of the people in Tahrir Square, and the government starting to basically lose the battle—even its statements are not strong anymore—that means that protesters had the upper hand.

I wanted to stay. But I think I still can help, still can do something, from outside the country. Everyone can take a part in the revolution. Some people will start it, some people will continue, and some people will continue even after the revolution ends. It’s not the end—Egypt still needs a lot of work. We keep going.

So when I came back here, though I’m a lawyer, I said, “Forget about the constitution, forget about laws, forget about the parliament. It’s about the revolution. Forget about the constitution—it’s not made by Egyptians, the people did not create this constitution, you don’t have to be governed by this constitution. People now have the upper hand, they have the loud voice to say, ‘We don’t need this constitution, let’s have a new one.’ “ [pagebreak]

When El Gamal returned to the United States, his first plan was to suggest to Egyptians and Egyptian Americans in the US that they either return to Egypt, to send a sign that Egyptians around the world support the protesters, or donate a round-trip ticket to an Egyptian who could not afford one themselves, but nothing came of it.

Thursday, February 10

NG: On Thursday I was in downtown Chicago and watching the news. When Mubarak gave a speech, it was very frustrating. It’s like Mubarak is delusional. After three weeks he basically apologized to the family that lost their loved ones, saying “last week,” but the prevoius week no one had died, so you don’t know if this speech is recorded or what. Some people even realized that in the first half he reads from the monitor and the second half he reads from a paper.

TQO: What are you thinking as you watch this? Are there people crowded around you?

NG: No, it was just me and a friend. I was very frustrated. I was like, how come Mubarak doesn’t listen to these millions of people? I was very sure that this is the end, people will never return or go back, people would continue—it’s a matter of one day, two days, one month, but this is the end. And the thing that made it more complicated was that the vice [president] came in and said, “Go, it’s over, go home.” Who are you to tell these millions of people to go home? People don’t even accept you as a vice president. They didn’t hire you, they didn’t elect you. These millions of people out there are not kids. Even if you think they are the young people who started the revolt, they are not just the young people anymore. There are old Egyptian people, young kids, old men, women, Christians, Muslims—all of them want Mubarak and his corrupt regime to get out. You get the message? I knew it in my heart, it was a matter of time.

TQO: Did you speak to people on the phone after Mubarak left?

NG: Of course. My sister, my mom, my friends. All of them were very happy.

TQO: What did they say was going on? Were you tearing up?[pagebreak]

NG: I called Heba. At that time she was with the eighty thousand who headed to the presidential palace. She couldn’t believe it, she was crying on the phone, she didn’t believe that he would do it.

When Mubarak left Cairo, El Gamal began looking for a way to participate in the transformation of his country. Believing that Egyptians from all over the world could contribute to the continuing success of the revolution, he put a message on his Facebook wall offering free legal services to anyone whose relatives were killed or injured in the revolution by pro-Mubarak forces.

Four victims and their families have already approached El Gamal’s partner in Egypt, and the responses he received led him to expand his vision. He is now setting up a  group of lawyers in Egypt who will help not only people hurt in the recent revolution but also those who were tortured or were discredited for their political views in the last thirty years.

NG: We call it “My Right,” or “My Portion.” Because if you talk about reconciliation, then you must talk about justice—you can have no reconciliation without justice. We are talking now about justice.

TQO: Did you ever see yourself playing this kind of role in Egyptian society?

NG:  No, but it’s time.

TQO: What do you envision for the future of Egypt?

NG: I called my partner in the law firm on Saturday. Mubarak had just left on Friday. Saturday he went to the office in the morning, and he told me, “Something strange is happening in the streets.” I said, “What?” said he told me, “People are cleaning the streets. People are not shouting in the traffic! Remember we used to hear our parents telling us about Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, how people were nice and dealt gently with each other? This is exactly what’s going on.”

People start to feel responsibility, the ownership of our country. People care—before, they didn’t care; they thought that whatever they do, it wouldn’t change the country. A few people made millions of dollars and spent it abroad, and at home some people could not even afford their meals, food for their children. So why care about the country? But now people begin to feel ownership. I’m very optimistic.