Mohamed El Sawy

Ashoka Fellow
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Egypt
Fellow since 2009
This description of Mohamed El Sawy's work was prepared when Mohamed El Sawy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.

Introduction

Mohamed El Sawy is providing space and an enabling environment for citizens to enjoy the arts and to make more informed choices which will lead to systemic and positive cultural and social change.

The New Idea

In 2003 Mohamed established Sakia of Abdel-Moneim El Sawy (The Culture Wheel). Since then it has been operating as Cairo’s cultural hub, serving as an open platform where citizens can be exposed to different streams of thought, express themselves, and debate issues of interest. Through this platform, Mohamed promotes social consciousness by addressing contemporary and taboo issues that affect Egyptian society. This community center provides space for youth from different economic and social backgrounds to express themselves, debate issues of social concern, and participate in launching campaigns and awareness events.

Mohamed’s model for social change is built on a series of experiences and opportunities centered on enlightenment and self-expression. Those tools range from cultural, artistic, and sports activities to debates and knowledge-sharing events. Mohamed facilitates access to these experiences, training youth on how to make the most of them, and ultimately, provides the outlet where they can use them freely; his aim is to create a youth movement that embraces ethical values and freedom of choice.

The center is unique because it provides equal access to all Egyptians, whether as audience or as speakers and performers. Mohamed has also managed to simplify and familiarize Egyptians, young and old, with the notion of social activism, in a country where such a notion was exclusively for the elite and intellectual. The center also upholds the philosophy of involvement, adopting youth-led initiatives and encouraging participation from all in designing new activities. His initiative is distinctive as it is based on a business model, and financed by private sector support, membership fees, and ticket costs. The core activity costs are covered and sustainable.

Today, El Sakia is more than a “cultural center,” it is a home for new artists to perform and spread their message. The Sakia’s goals and functions transcend the art and cultural performances as Mohamed uses it as a center of excellence to illuminate the cultural scene. It is seen by youth and their parents as a safe haven for the exchange of ideas and exposure to the outside world. Mohamed is also adopting annual thematic campaigns to address social, ethical, cultural taboos, and problems that have plagued Egyptian society.

The Problem

Egypt’s rich culture and heritage have been a major driving force behind social change in the Egyptian community, most notably the 1970s student movement. The leaders of the movement were artists who conveyed the voices of the downtrodden and advocated a number of causes through their talents. Their impact resonated in society, mobilizing public opinion and guiding society to embrace progressive stands.

Unfortunately, a period of stagnation engulfed the cultural scene. It declined to become just entertainment and recreation for the general public, largely due to the great amount of censorship in the 1990s. Due to this limitation, youth do not have the means for self-expression that preceding generations had. Youth today represent 60 percent of the Egyptian population but are infected with apathy and pessimism due to societal marginalization and lack of active roles. Negative consequences of youths’ social and participatory deprivation include an increase in dropouts, adolescent pregnancies, and ultimately, youth migration. Coupled with troubled economic situations, the overall atmosphere has become a burden that prevents freedom of expression and has led disaffected youth to become no more than a reservoir of untapped potential.

Youth of renewed interest have turned to the citizen sector as a third pillar to gain the opportunity to actively participate in society. The Mubarak era has seen a new surge of activism, especially in the twenty-first century where the number of citizen organizations (COs) registered in Egypt reached 16,000 in 1999, providing potential space for youth to act. However, about 75 percent of these organizations work in social care, providing charity services to disadvantaged communities, and their limited scope is unattractive for youth who hope for more direct community involvement.

The new non-profit organization law of 1999 gave free access to COs to work in all fields instead of under their previous restrictions. With this improved access, many organizations became vehicles for social change by youth. Universities have also witnessed a revival of youth activism whereby conferences and clubs are providing outlets for expression.

Youth who tend to be major drivers of activism may exploit their roles as social change makers. The sheer number of organizations and youth initiatives worldwide attest to this claim. In contrast, the political, economic, and social systems in the Arab World have not evolved to accommodate youths’ needs in the region and thus their role remains limited. However, young people are now beginning to participate in campaigns and summits that address social causes. At the same time, some are led by youth.

A comprehensive and tangible youth inclusion program was nonexistent in Egypt before the appearance of Mohamed’s Culture Wheel Center. Though the Ministry of Youth’s Supreme Council for Youth and Sports coordinates the national youth policy of Egypt, together with other youth serving ministries and COs, they focus on culture promotion and sports training. Sports centers that are accessible in all areas suffer from a lack of funding, and do not offer a large variety of sports to the public. On the other hand, the more than 20 private sports clubs that do host a range of sport options remain elitist and inaccessible, controlling entry by membership.

Art has always been viewed as the vehicle to spread new ideas and initiating new trends. Artists brought about social changes globally and nationally, when even listening to controversial artists such as El-Sheikh Imam sent youth to jail in the 1970s in Egypt. Yet, it seems in recent years that new talent is finding it difficult to break through both in sports and culture. Due to the lack of demand, cultural venues are limited in the capital and many artists have been reduced to performing “underground.” As a consequence, Cairo’s artists suffocate in the isolated areas they are forced to perform in, or have to pay for exposure in private venues. In the absence of outlets for creative expression, social ailments such as smoking and drugs have also spread among the population.

Different entities and organizations aim to provide the path for culture and arts in Egypt. Although the Ministry of Culture is the self-acclaimed guardian of arts and culture, it funds cultural projects by setting up “Cultural Palaces” in every region. This system is too bureaucratic to actually help independent artists. The Cairo Opera House, although unappealing to youth, on the other hand, does cater to the cultural scene. Hosting international artists remains its focus. Its Hanager Arts Center and the National Museum for Contemporary Art temporarily serve as spaces for local artists.

Several private establishments, such as galleries, have also been part of the Egyptian cultural scene. Their scope of influence seems as limited as their audience. Despite all the efforts, these establishments do not fulfill youths’ need for self-expression and acknowledgment. In addition, they remain exclusive spaces which are not conducive to youth-led initiatives or innovative changes.

Recognizing the absence of a driving force for social change, Mohamed established Sakia Abdel-Moneim El Sawy (The Cultural Wheel) to use culture as a tool to restore youth to their natural rights. The wheel’s ongoing activities result in widespread revival of youth autonomy and restore culture and art as a mainstream interest. This is through young emerging artists’ holding their first shows, artistic workshops, gallery expositions and more. This has increased the public’s thirst for art, finally giving artists the chance to emerge into the mainstream and even develop a cult-like following due to their performances at Sakia. In addition, the center is a place for academic seminars, conferences, movie screenings, and art-development workshops to cater to the needs of new talent. Educational programs are also offered including skills pertinent to the labor market.

The Strategy

The Sakia has been described as the Hyde Park of Egypt, providing a speaker’s corner in a culture where youth are usually silenced and discouraged from speaking their minds. By providing the space and tools for enlightenment and self-expression, Mohamed helps them become more conscious of their actions and more responsible for their consequences, and hence, breaks the barriers for young Egyptian’s participation as active citizens in their societies.

The Sakia is a pioneer in raising social awareness and instilling behavioral changes that encourage the community to become more conscientious and adopt ethical values. Mohamed constantly launches campaigns to fight social aliments, informing the center’s members and the general public of the hazards of certain habits and advising ways of combating such habits.

Between the years 2001 and 2003, Mohamed was starting his campaign with a group of friends to make Zamalek more environmentally friendly. Zamalek, a traditionally fashionable residential area, had recently been surrounded by squatters and plagued by garbage dumps under bridges. As he considered the space, Mohamed immediately envisioned it as a stage with lights, actors, and artists; an outlet for creative expression for a thriving young public to be exposed to alternative and new cultural and artistic experiences, exchange ideas, and promote overall social and cultural change.

Mohamed established the Sakia of Abdel-Moneim as the first privately owned cultural center in Egypt. Bringing the Sakia to the comprehensive center that it is today was not an easy task. Equipping the venue and isolating it from surrounding noise and pollution proved to be a long and expensive process. At the same time, convincing both artists and audience members to attend a cultural center “under the bridge” was not easy. Renowned artists were not enthusiastic about performing in a new cultural center with unconventional premises, nor the elderly, accustomed to traditional venues, such as the Cairo Opera House. Yet with the gradual build-up of credibility, continuous optimism and perseverance, El Sakia now has a full calendar for months in advance and often apologizes for fully-booked performances. Through word-of-mouth and advertising in youth venues such as coffee houses, and bookshops, new artists and new members are constantly attracted to the center.

The center now boasts of receiving 500,000 visitors per year and serves 25,000 members; it holds 1,000 events annually and has a vast repertoire of debates, workshops, concerts, plays, movie screenings, and shows. The Sakia has followed a financially sustainable business model since its inception.

Mohamed uses culture and arts as “tools” for self-expression, dialogue, and mobilization of the masses. For Mohamed, art is a megaphone through which citizens can express themselves and get their messages across to others, a mirror where they can critically examine their behavior, a banner which they can raise in the face of practices they reject as well as a way of delivering less preaching messages of social change. Mohamed’s goal is to create a participatory cultural environment leading to positive social change. One does not merely sit, passively absorbing culture at El Sakia. Young audiences are exposed to principles of mutual respect, good personal and environmental health, and democracy. Those breaking the rules of no smoking or aggressive behavior are given “red cards” and can be expelled. With no VIP treatment, no seats are set aside for “dignitaries” and everyone pays the same price for tickets.

Mohamed’s Sakia is based on three axes: Introducing tools of social change to youth, creating a platform for open debate and dialogue among the young public about traditional and taboo subjects alike, and raising social awareness and instilling behavioral changes in local communities.

Mohamed promotes tools for self-expression, enabling Egyptian youth living in silence and repression to voice their frustrations and participate in shaping their society, freeing a generation that has been taught to think within confined frameworks and follow established ways. Mohamed has chosen to adopt thematic awareness campaigns every year, discouraging passive or negative behavior and encouraging individuals to take change in their own hands. The campaigns work on eliminating harmful societal habits and perceptions and promoting proactive behavior. El Sakia’s campaigns are annual and all its activities fall under the year’s theme. The messages are direct in the form of lectures and debates and also indirect, in the form of concerts, theater, and art exhibitions that advocate the same cause. So far, Mohamed has celebrated the year of the Arabic language, the year of Rights, the year of Minds, and so on. Some of the center’s activities revolve around art as it serves to ignite creativity and proves to audiences that things can be done in an unconventional manner, thereby, encouraging them to shift paradigms and think out of the box.

The center has managed to change the behavior of youth on its premises and on the streets. It continues to encourage responsible behavior and asks people to leave the center when they do not respect others’ freedom. El Sakia transcends the exclusive restrictions of traditional cultural houses and dialogue salons. All artists and intellectuals are finally given the chance to share their thoughts on stages and podiums at no cost and without being subjected to traditional censorship and prejudice. Audiences of all ages have started incorporating culture and knowledge-sharing into their daily lives. Mohamed is creating new vehicles for social change.

An example of the plays that El Sakia puts on is a puppet show produced to raise awareness on the lives of street children. Through the main characters, Mohamed asks people to rethink their behavior and consider other solutions for street children, and alerts parents about how quarrels and problems at home may lead a child to run away to the street. Mohamed pioneered putting up ads in 2007 to benefit a campaign on sexual harassment, yet some were pulled as they were deemed too provocative. However, Mohamed believes that the only way to solve problems is by talking about them. The center is now comprised of many units, including halls and open air spaces equipped with stages, cinema screens, various types of audio-visual aids, a library, a children’s library, an electronic library, a music library, an affordable cafeteria, and a garden by the Nile. El Sakia’s financial sustainability depends on three main sources of income, sponsorship, membership fees, and entry fees which are shared with the artists. Mohamed managed to attract sponsors on his own and has covered all costs incurred by El Sakia.

To increase his center’s outreach beyond its venues, Mohamed has launched a magazine, El Sakia El Warakeya and an online radio program “The Sound of Sakia,” which conveys the center’s messages to the public and its members.

Expansion is currently one of Mohamed’s main objectives. He has already established branches of El Sakia in two neighborhoods in Cairo (soon to be three) and one branch outside Cairo. He is in the process of developing plans for nationwide expansion through franchising.

To help those wishing to found other “Sakias” Mohamed is documenting his experience in cultural management in a manual entitled, My Will, My Recipe, which considers logistical arrangements, licensing, administrative arrangements, management of artistic projects, in addition to the general code of conduct of El Sakia. The manual is in addition to the academy for cultural management he has started. During the next three years, Mohamed will also launch a project to establish community-based cultural centers on a local-scale; those centers can be hosted within neighborhoods anywhere in Egypt, on rooftops or gardens. Mohamed will provide cash, in-kind funding, and technical assistance, in addition to some artistic material to facilitate the spread of culture in remote neighborhoods and to instill the notion of culture as a basic necessity, not a luxury. Mohamed’s future plan consists of establishing 100 Sakia centers by 2018, in commemoration of his deceased father’s 100th anniversary.

The Person

Mohamed’s inspiration has always been his father: Abdel Moneim Al Sawy was a journalist, novelist, and Egypt’s Minister of Culture in the late 1970s. He taught Mohamed the power of creativity, self-expression, imagination, and unconventional thinking.

High school years at the German School in Cairo introduced Mohamed to his two life-long passions: Marathon running and puppetry. In marathons one runs alone and not in a race. Mohamed believes he owes his perseverance, determination, patience, and long-term vision to marathon running. Managing El Sakia he seldom depends on standards set by others, but believes that the center’s potential sets its own barometer, bypassing all expectations. Puppetry trained Mohamed’s creativity and innovativeness at an early age, and it is through puppetry that Mohamed now gets many of his messages to the public.

Prior to Sakia, as co-founder and owner of Alamiya Advertising Agency, a successful private company, Mohamed organized comprehensive sports and cultural events for children and youth through his agency. The organization’s aim was to spread sports and culture among youth. Alamiya was the first to introduce automobile desert rallies and spring parades in Cairo.

In 2003 Mohamed decided to turn a garbage dump under a bridge in his company’s neighborhood into a public cultural venue and founded El Sawy.