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Cairo Beyond the Headlines

The premier AFAR Experiences program kicks off in Egypt, introducing travelers to influential locals who are reimagining—and remaking—their country.

Egypt today is a place of great hope and uncertainty. The euphoria that followed the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak last February has given way to the realities of rebuilding a country that faces serious problems—including unemployment, illiteracy, and religious intolerance. But Egyptians are embracing these challenges with an energy that had been suppressed for decades under autocratic rule. And they are doing so with a national pride that draws on 5,000 years of history.

While foreigners tend to hear only about the struggles and conflicts taking place in Cairo, there are many other stories unfolding in this vibrant city of 20 million people. To get a deeper sense of life there, a group of 35 travelers—a diverse delegation of AFAR readers and staff members— journeyed to Egypt at the end of October. We connected with leaders that AFAR Experiences brought together: architects, businesspeople, filmmakers, professors, musicians, and politicians. We talked candidly about the thorny issues the country is facing. We listened, and we asked questions.

Over the course of three intense and fun days, our group met Cairenes who are shaping the future of their country. As we visited churches and mosques, shopped in labyrinthine bazaars, walked through Tahrir Square, and shared meals with our Egyptian hosts, our understanding of the place grew more nuanced. And it became even clearer that as the largest nation in the Arab world, the second-largest economy in Africa, and the home of one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, Egypt has a crucial role to play on the world stage. During our time in the perpetually busy and sprawling city, we saw artists paint ceramic tiles, we danced to trancelike Zar music at a cultural center in a former slum, and we watched a puppet show on the banks of the Nile. At the renowned Egyptian Museum, we saw ancient treasures that have always drawn travelers to Egypt. We engaged in conversations at dinner tables and over drinks, and we felt the warmth of Egyptian hospitality.

The Cairo trip was the first of what will be many AFAR Experiences events. We at AFAR Media want to bring the spirit of this magazine to life and help travelers see the world in new ways. These meaningful experiences provide exclusive, intimate access to fascinating destinations; offer the opportunity to connect with locals; and spark immersive discussions with visionaries, from political leaders to entrepreneurs to cultural innovators.

By the time the AFAR Experiences Cairo event came to a close at a party overlooking the Giza pyramids, members of our group had developed a deeper understanding of life in Egypt. We learned firsthand about the dreams and the fears of individual Egyptians. We got beyond the headlines and got to know the real people engaged in the debates that are redefining a country. Seif Fahmy, one of the AFAR Experiences speakers who works in public policy and business, summed up the event perfectly: “The best way to get to know a country is to get to know the locals of that country.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. On the following pages, you’ll meet some of the locals whom we met in Cairo and learn, as we did, what they’re doing to shape the Egypt of tomorrow.—The Editors

AFAR Experiences Cairo

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JAWAD NABULSI
Activist, entrepreneur, founder of the Nebny Foundation 

On January 28, 2011, Jawad Nabulsi joined the protests in Tahrir Square and was shot near the left eye with a rubber bullet. After traveling to several different hospitals in search of a doctor who could stitch his wound, he realized that other protestors also needed help finding medical care.

The next morning, still recovering from his own injury, Nabulsi, 29, leveraged his social media contacts to recruit volunteers for an emergency call center that would link injured protestors with hospitals, help locate missing persons, and find funds for medical treatment. Within hours of its launch, the center was logging thousands of calls.

Nabulsi is an entrepreneur with experience in management consulting, media relations, small business incubation, and restaurant development. He is currently working in an impoverished area of Cairo called Manshiyat Nasr, where 1.2 million people live with little access to health care or education. Through the Nebny Foundation, Nabulsi has started a program that aims to build international support by pairing foreign donors with specific streets in the neighborhood, a sort of adopt-a-block program. Craftspeople and contractors are working together to improve housing facilities and make homes more functional and safe.

“Here you can help so many people,” Nabulsi said after leading some AFAR Experiences participants on a tour of the area. “Anyone with any skill can help. And at the end of the day, you’ve changed peoples’ lives.”

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SEIF FAHMY
CEO, economic development advocate, political leader 

The first round of parliamentary elections was slated to take place in Egypt in late November. Those elected will name a commission to write a new constitution. Seif Fahmy is a former member of the NDP, Mubarak’s ruling party, but he left when efforts to reform the party failed. Now he is a leader of the new Etihad (Unity) party, one of many groups participating in the elections.

Etihad’s platform emphasizes establishing the rule of law, improving education, and reforming health care. “Many people can say what they are against,” he says, “but they have no plans for how to build the country.” Fahmy sees agriculture, tourism, and the Suez Canal as the main engines for economic growth. “Egypt has been running without a vision for 60 years,” he says. “Can you imagine Coca-Cola running without a vision for 60 years?”

When Fahmy spoke to the AFAR Experiences group at the Cairo Marriott, he expressed his optimism. “This is a great country,” he said. “Our people are our greatest asset. We have a young population that can be put to work— 45 percent of the country is under 40. Things will get better.”

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MOEZ MASOUD
Interfaith activist, TV host 

As the founder of Cairo’s al Tareeq al Sah Institute (Enlightened Path Institute), Moez Masoud is an imam who focuses on the very modern challenges of religious deradicalization, interfaith dialogue, and Islam in the world at large. He is one of Egypt’s most influential and progressive religious leaders, managing to quote both the Koran and Bob Dylan lyrics in his oratories.

His talk shows—which reach millions of Muslims through TV, radio, and online seminars—reveal the human, compassionate side of Islam. He explores everyday situations and moral dilemmas from a contemporary Muslim perspective—a practical approach that resonates with many Egyptians. He has attracted a following among those who don’t want fundamentalists to be the face of their religion.

Masoud is a graduate of the American University in Cairo and is currently pursuing a PhD in psychology and religion at Cambridge University. He played a prominent role in the revolution both as a protestor on the ground and as a voice in the wider media.

When Masoud spoke to the AFAR Experiences group at the historic Sultan Hassan Mosque, he said, “The revolution of January 25 will bring a close to the era defined by 9/11. It was an era when Muslims could not be who they wanted to be. Now we have a chance to be who we want to be.”

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BASSEM YOUSSEF
Comedian, heart surgeon 

Bassem Youssef is Egypt’s Jon Stewart, a comedian and political satirist who keeps society on its toes—all while maintaining his day job as one of Cairo’s top cardiac surgeons. After the revolution, Youssef’s five-minute Daily Show–style YouTube videos, filmed in a makeshift studio in his Cairo apartment, earned him a following among young, politically engaged Egyptians. His YouTube channel soon became one of the country’s most popular. A TV deal followed, and last June, Youssef’s half-hour program, The B+ Show, premiered on national television.

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MOHAMED DIAB
Filmmaker, activist 

In the provocative films he wrote before the revolution, screenwriter Mohamed Diab wasn’t afraid to tackle societal taboos. All five of his major box-office hits are social commentaries that reveal a keen understanding of contemporary Egyptian life. Diab’s directorial debut, Cairo 6, 7, 8, which premiered right before the January 25th uprising, made worldwide headlines by exposing the sexual harassment pandemic in Egypt.

Postrevolution, Diab is focusing his efforts on activism and political campaigning. He’s hopeful about the future of his country, mainly because of the bloc of young voters who he thinks will come out in large numbers for the elections. “The large youth population instigated this revolution,” Diab says. “They will be the driving force for change in the future of Egypt.”

As a politically active artist, Diab has philosophical goals about what comes next: “I envision an Egypt that preaches tolerance, respects every individual, and encourages young people to create and innovate.”

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MOHAMED EL SAWY
Cultural promoter 

You can feel Mohamed El Sawy’s personal warmth throughout El Sawy Culturewheel, the sprawling center he founded in 2003 as a one-stop venue for music, art, and theater. An architect and engineer by training, El Sawy has a deep love for all aspects of Egyptian culture. He is a puppeteer, a musician, and a craftsman, as well as a supporter of the free exchange of ideas.

El Sawy’s dream of a town hall and community center for the new Egypt became a reality during the revolution. The Culturewheel, which is built under a bridge on the site of a former dump in the Zamalek neighborhood, hosted debates and presentations, all in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect.

El Sawy’s goal is to provide a platform for Egyptians to become even more thoughtful, active, and engaged citizens. Since the revolution, membership at Culturewheel has grown to 87,000 members, and El Sawy is currently in talks to open more cultural hubs in other Egyptian cities.

“Our nation needs a lot of light,” El Sawy said before performing a puppet show for the AFAR Experiences group. “What we are trying to do here [at Culturewheel] is put light on issues by helping artists, and inspiring writers and painters of every kind. We offer space for anyone who wants to express himself.”

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RIHAM BAHI
Professor, women’s rights activist

“Women supported the revolution,” says Riham Bahi, an assistant professor of economics and political science at Cairo University. “Now we will see if the revolution supports women.”

As a professor, Bahi challenges her students to approach texts from a modern, media-savvy perspective. Her research interests include relations between the United States and the Muslim world, as well as feminist readings of the Koran. She received a Fulbright Award and holds a PhD from Northeastern University.

When Bahi surveys the state of women in Egypt, she sees cause for concern. Women actually made progress on some fronts under Hosni Mubarak, the deposed dictator, and now she fears that those gains will be lost as Egyptians react against anything associated with the old regime. For instance, one of the first proposals of the transitional government was to revoke laws making it easier for women to file for divorce. For Bahi, women should not have to choose between their faith and their rights. “Muslim women want to have gender equity within Islam,” she says. “There is no way we would put religion aside for gender justice. We want both. We want justice and piety.”

Profile photographs by Rena Effendi. Header image by Frank Schulenburg/Flickr. This story appeared in the January/February 2012 issue.