Despite canceled flights and a lack of a credit card, Jawad Nabulsi drove a rented car eight hours from Chicago to make it to Chautauqua. That persistence is what got him to the Amphitheater 45 minutes prior to Tuesday’s morning lecture. It is also what got him through Egypt’s turbulent recent history.
Nabulsi, who was named by ArabianBusiness.com as the No. 1 most powerful Arab under 40, is the founder of the non-governmental organization, Nebny Foundation.
Robin Wright, a foreign affairs journalist and joint fellow at USIP and the Wilson Center, joined him on stage. Together, they discussed his advocacy work, the Arab Spring and the future of Egypt.
Egypt is the intellectual and political trend center of the Middle East, Wright said. It is also the largest country of the 22 Arab nations, accounting for one-quarter of the world’s 350 million Arabs. Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel as well as one of the first to undergo the Arab Spring. However, it reflects the many problems of the region as well.
“What happens in Egypt spills over across the region,” she said.
Egypt is home to the largest baby boom proportional to its population, Wright said. It is one of several Arab countries that are youth-dominated. The average age of people in Yemen is 18, in Saudi Arabia it is 26 and, in Egypt, it is 25. Nearly 70 percent of the Egyptian population, which totals 90 million, is under 30. Its capital, Cairo, has a population of 20 million alone.
Education is severely limited, as Nabulsi said 70 percent of students enrolled in school are illiterate. As a consequence, youth unemployment is as high, which increases youths’ tendency to be radicalized. Egypt’s economy, largely dependent on tourism, makes its inner turmoil especially hard on the country’s livelihood.
Nabulsi, an affluent and upper-class citizen, went to college in Nova Scotia, Canada, and was there during 9/11. It was an event that hurt Arabs and Muslims everywhere, he said. He returned to Egypt in 2006.
“If I, who is educated, privileged and has access, do not go back and help my people, then I am in denial,” he said.
The revolution, which began in January 2011, “did not just happen,” Nabulsi said. It was the result of internal problems that built to a “tipping point.” In fact, it was Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, that first gave him hope for change in his home country.
A simple Facebook event generated thousands of protesters in Egypt’s streets on Jan. 25, 2011, chanting “Freedom, bread and social justice,” he said. Three days later, police opened fire on the crowd.
“You would just see people falling, and now that I think about, people didn’t run away,” he said. “There were people who died beside me, but for some reason, we just kept going. So what happened? Before midnight, I got shot in my left eye, and I lost my left eye.”
The police used bird shots and specifically aimed for protestors’ eyes. In the aftermath, there were more than 1,500 cases of blinding, and the Hosni Mubarak government shut down all communications. This only further fueled the revolution, Nabulsi said.
It took him almost seven hours to find a hospital that would treat him because the government had instructed many to refuse service to revolutionaries. Through the recruitment volunteer doctors, he and others were able to establish a call center to treat over 1,200 people.
“This proved to us that we can handle something that the government should have handled,” he said. “This showed us how dysfunctional the country was.”
Advocacy gives Nabulsi purpose. Every hour in the slums of Cairo provided him with the opportunity to help and offer advice. He was proud to provide children with the learning they so craved, he said.
“I can tell you the feeling I have inside me is not me being humble. It’s selfish, but I feel happy,” he said. “I swear [helping others] was the first time in my life that I felt my life has meaning.”
Nabulsi has been out of Egypt for two years, furthering his education in the U.S. While he is abroad, his foundation is run by an overwhelming majority — 90 percent — of women. Since volunteers rise by performance, he said it was a clear indicator that the future of Egypt would be written by women.
The organization currently serves 150,000 people with a focus on economic, environmental and health issues. In many cases, Nabulsi said families’ incomes have increased by 30 to 40 percent and are reinvested in education. To him, this reinforces the Egyptian people’s desire to get educated. The Nebny Foundation educates 1,200 elementary students every year.
The political situation in Egypt remains dire, Nabulsi said. Many of his friends are in jail or exile. Its first democratically elected president in half a century was overthrown in another military coup in 2013. Despite the current regime’s hegemonic hold on the country, there is not yet a groundswell for revolution. As Wright explained, sometimes stability is desired at a cost.
However, Nabulsi maintains hope things will get better. What change does come will come from grassroots movements, he insists, and not from illegitimate governance.
“I feel that the majority of the Egyptian youth have a certain amount of confidence that is unprecedented,” he said. “Because all our parents said that Mubarak would never leave. Nobody even imagined it. And he’s in jail today.”