Editor's note: This interview is part of a new Democracy in Exile series, "Cities of Exile," highlighting the stories of activists, dissidents and others forced to leave the Middle East and North Africa and the cities around the world that have become their refuges and new homes.
He saw the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the election of Mohammed Morsi and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's coup. Then, he left the country. Ahmed Ghamrawi was a protester who also worked in and on the edges of the media during Egypt's revolutionary period from 2011 to 2013, primarily as a "fixer" for foreign journalists. Modest about the role he played, he has a story like that of so many other Egyptians, who sacrificed so much for the hope of a free and democratic country, where the popular demand for "bread, freedom and social justice" might be fulfilled. Ahmed does not lay claim to any leading role in the uprising. Rather, he is one of the many Egyptians who, despite his commitment to a better country, was so often forgotten in media coverage of Egypt's upheaval.
Now living in Istanbul, Ahmed still talks about revolution, including in Syria, which he covered as a journalist when he first arrived in Turkey in 2014. The culture of impunity that still reigns in Egypt leaves the country fragile, he says, even under Sisi's authoritarian regime. He also reflects on being Arab in Turkey, his hopes for the future, and watching a constantly evolving Turkish political environment in the city that has become his new home.
The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Where is home for you? What was your life there?
I'd start by saying I was born in Kuwait and mostly visited Egypt just for summers with my family in Giza. When I was a child, my family moved from Kuwait to Abu Dhabi, in 1991. I went to an Egyptian school there, but throughout my life, until 18, I was not in Egypt, so this whole "identity" thing didn't grow on me fully in that way.
At 18, I went from the Gulf to Cairo University, where I studied electrical engineering and spent six years, before graduating in 2009 and doing my military service for exactly one year and 45 days. After the army, it was 2011-2013, the revolution period, and I spent two years just running around with journalists, "fixing" as they call it.
Part of the revolutionary movement across the Arab world was rooted in a lack of opportunities for young people. What was it like for you as a new graduate in Cairo?
After university, I tried my luck with some engineering companies but couldn't find anything long term. I was doing service and maintenance for a few months with one firm, the Egyptian dealership of a U.S. company, Mercury Marine, that worked in yachts and boat engines. I didn't have a good relationship with the head foreman. We clashed a lot, and in 2011 eventually they let me go.
How did being in different countries—Egypt, the Gulf and now Turkey—relate to your idea of being an Arab?
Egypt is part of my culture—my parents, my school, my family are all Egyptian. We visited Egypt, but I don't feel it deeply. I am less Egyptian than many, and I guess I identify more with the wider Arab world and the region. It's a wider understanding of identity, maybe. Especially now, being in Turkey and some of the social attitudes emerging against us here. It's a solidarity: We're all Arabs, all as one.
I wanted to get out. I saw how the revolution was turning out—many people did. I had the choice either to stay and cover it, or decide it wasn't worth it and to leave.
- Ahmed Ghamrawi
When did you leave Egypt?
I was in Egypt for the Presidential Guard massacre, July 8, 2013. There was a rumor that Morsi was being held at the Presidential Guard compound in the middle of Cairo, close to Rabaa [al-Adawiya Square, site of the August 2013 massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters by Egyptian security forces]. People gathered outside in protest, and then in the morning they started shooting at them.
Two days after, I got a job offer with a German company in Dubai, and I left for a desk position there. I wanted to get out. I saw how the revolution was turning out—many people did. I had the choice either to stay and cover it, or decide it wasn't worth it and to leave, so that was what I did.
At the time of leaving Egypt, I had an offer from Al Jazeera and another outlet—they wanted to do a program, with a few weeks' work on a promising project about the revolution. I was looking forward to it, but then I thought, Is it worth it? I saw what happened at the Presidential Guard. I saw the sentiment then. This was in the first weeks after Morsi was taken in, when we didn't really know what was happening and there was a lot of confusion in the air. After not long in Dubai, I came to Turkey in 2014.
Have you stayed in Turkey since then? What made you come here?
I haven't left Turkey since I got here, though not totally through choice. I came to Turkey first because it was a place where I was safe being political and covering Syria more closely. By 2014, I was more interested in what was happening in Syria, and I wanted to start covering changes there. It was before the war had reached the level it did. It felt like there was political opportunity, there was lots more hope—everyone could see that. Even in 2012, even inside Egypt, people knew things weren't going right. The Turkish government supported the Syrian revolution, of course, but geographical proximity was the main factor.
What is your work in Turkey now?
First I did translation and prepared video stories, covering Syria and Iraq for a couple of years. That was followed by a mixture of NGO stuff, then restaurant and cafe work. It was grunt work for a while. I also did some work for advertisers, writing copy and translating—whatever I found. Now I work with a Turkish contractor who has a good business relationship with a company in Libya. On the Tripoli side, they look for subcontractors to give repair services for the Ministry of Energy, on government-operated power plants, factories.
I have my background in engineering and that helps with sales work and mechanical parts. It was a good break from freelance journalism, to get an office job and a routine, while I figured out what to do. In the end, I decided to stay, for two years now, so that's the longest I was in one place.
How does that triangle—of being in Turkey, being Egyptian, and working for a Turkish company in Libya—feel to you?
It's all connected in the end. I remember being excited about Libya too, after Ghaddafi. We were at the Libyan Embassy in Zamalek in Cairo. We had Libyan friends; I spoke to one of them recently. He is in France now. His life is a long story, like everyone.
Libya is still very corrupt, still kind of a black hole. There are many militias around and few services. It's sad, seeing sewage not treated properly in Benghazi, and when lights and electricity go out. Libya is an oil-producing country. They shouldn't be suffering these kind of infrastructure problems.
In the end, it's all one kind of hope. We are all on the same side. This includes Turkey, and everyone in the Mediterranean region.
How do you feel about how Turkey changed since then, for Arab activists and exiles, and in general?
I think the biggest change was 2015, after the elections. Turkish people might not like it, but I don't see it so much as the Gezi protests [the wave of demonstrations against the government's plan to "redevelop" and demolish Istanbul's Gezi Park]. It was more the 2015 deal between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to join in government, and the AKP deciding they would drop pro-Kurdish and left-wing allies for right-wing allies. This was a fatal choice.
Locally at least, for now, the people in power could have chosen a different alliance, but they chose the right-wing path, and this has not been good. Then the MHP split anyway, so now the Iyi Party and its founder Meral Akşener are becoming popular. I don't think trying to get the right wing to your side ever works in the long term.
Basic liberty, where we can exist without facing random acts of injustice from people in power—this is what we need in Egypt.
- Ahmed Ghamrawi
What is your perspective on Turkey mending relations with the Sisi regime?
Of course it's beneficial to have good relations between two countries like Turkey and Egypt. There's a lot that can be done. We're already top exporters, and there's a large volume of trade, regardless of all the political talk and what is said in Egyptian media, and perhaps Turkish media.
None of this makes a lot of difference for me, however. Sisi is still there, and this situation in Egypt, where police officers have impunity, is still there and this is what caused the revolution. In January 2011, when people demanded the fall of the regime, it was after some really gruesome police torture videos that went viral. The lead-up to the revolution saw three big cases of police violence—that was the main trigger of the revolution. And as long as that hasn't changed in Egypt, as long as this system remains in place, it will be very difficult for people to have a normal life. Basic liberty, where we can exist without facing random acts of injustice from people in power—this is what we need in Egypt.
More international attention is falling on Egypt's prison population and prison conditions, and prisoners like Alaa Abd El-Fattah.
It's horrible. In the end, it is all in the hands of a few officers. If the officer decides that they want to kill a person, or that they want to push them towards suicide, in the way that it is perhaps happening to Alaa now, nobody can stop them—unless some big intervention happens, some foreign pressure that leads to more people being released. We've seen this a few times, especially to those with dual citizenship.
Alaa was one of the first who got me into politics. I was following his blog, and learning about the situation in Palestine. He was a big icon to me—him, his family and the sacrifices they all went through for Egyptian democracy. They were an inspiration to me. He and people like him were what encouraged people out onto the streets on Jan. 25.
The Biden administration cut Egyptian military aid by 10 percent, as a protest against "human rights concerns" including the prison conditions. Is that meaningful?
Not really. I don't think it makes a big difference, no.
From here in Istanbul, how do you see the Sisi regime and its hold on power?
I think it is important for people to realize that the Sisi regime is very fragile. This is a symptom of all regimes in the region: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. All the regimes right now are very fragile. It is sort of boiling, like nothing is stable or rigid or firm around them.
How does Turkey fit with that, as a country that has a more liberal-democratic culture than others, but also has its problems?
Here in Turkey, there is the advantage of democratic structures, set up from above perhaps, and the reforms of Atatürk. This seems to have benefited Turkey a lot. The municipalities have a role, they have a function. In Arab countries, it isn't like this. Here there is democracy at the local, municipal and regional level. The system that is here is working; good or bad, at least there is a system, and it is a functioning system. Transportation, rubbish collection—these basic services exist, and you can't compare that to elsewhere. In Egypt, the transport system, the traffic, is a nightmare. Lebanon had its protests over rubbish collection. Turkey has these basics in place.
On the other hand, for Arabs right now there is a lot of media hostility in Turkey. I don't know what can be done other than talking about the issue, learning more Turkish, engaging more. This is the politics for me here. This is my cause.
You work for a Turkish company, and being Arab and speaking Arabic is a big part of that work. It seems you are building a life here that shows the value of integration.
I hope they see it that way! [laughs] I actually see it that way.
You worked a lot with Western media in Egypt as a fixer. What was the support for you like from those news organizations, especially afterwards?
People did what they could, but there hasn't been much. It didn't have a lot of impact on my life, but I didn't really ask people for support either. During the revolution in Egypt, some reporters were very understanding and open-minded—they were receptive to us, they observed what was happening, they shared bylines. Others had their own stories already written in their mind. They came for a quick assignment. One week they are there, file five stories, and then they go back.
How do you see Egypt in 10 years? How do you want to see it?
Something different to this.
And for yourself, in Turkey?
I want to run for local office in my neighborhood here. If I get Turkish citizenship, then I'll do it for sure. I'll run for local elections. It's a conservative area, but every neighborhood here is different. It's very diverse.
How do you feel about the revolution in Egypt and your role in it? Are you happy with your decisions?
Mostly yes, I am happy. My part wasn't that big though. Revolution is a numbers game, and I was a drop in the ocean. I wasn't that effective or in some ways affected. But I'm OK with my choices. I have no regrets.