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Egypt protesters find unity difficult to maintain

A crisis center helps the injured find doctors and the worried find the missing. The volunteers bonded quickly, but now find that they have different goals, a reflection of the splintering across Egypt.

March 16, 2011|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cairo — The twentysomethings answering the phones and offering advice to Egyptians waking up in a new world couldn't settle on a name for themselves.

"Why can't we just agree on what to call the call center? It's the source of constant debate. Every day, every hour," said Nihal Nasr El-Din, a researcher for a feminist organization who lived in the center for days, tending to calls every waking hour. "Let's just settle on 'call center.'"

The volunteers at this ad hoc crisis center — hipster artists and university students, suburban office workers and pious Muslims — had come together last month in the giddy passion of a revolution.

During cigarette breaks and chatter between calls in the rooms and lobby of a drab, down-market tourist hotel, they realized how differently they saw the revolution's goal. Should Egypt be an Islamic state, a liberal democracy, or something else?

But even as their viewpoints diverged, the volunteers marveled at the close ties they formed. As they found doctors for the injured and helped families locate the missing, some became best friends, some even fell in love.

"Anyone would have protected the other from a gunshot. Anyone would sacrifice himself to protect the other," said Mohammed Kenaway, a pharmacy student at Cairo University.

Many of the volunteers turned to the call center after hearing about it from friends or seeing its founder, Jawad Nabulsi, on television. It seemed a natural next step in their life-altering political awakening during the protests of Tahrir Square. Some had slept there night after night, embracing each other to keep warm. None wanted to go back to their old jobs and preoccupations, their old lives.

The call center provided a chance to live with clear purpose and fulfillment for a bit longer.

Its goal was to provide aid to protesters who suffered misfortune as they pushed for change. Nabulsi had himself struggled to find a doctor when shrapnel in Tahrir badly damaged his left eye.

Volunteers recorded callers' problems, used contacts in the government to track down the missing and compiled lists of doctors and others willing to help with whatever was needed.

But their work to spur President Hosni Mubarak's removal and the promise of free elections had come to seem like the easy part.

The volunteers — about 300 of them — realized that they were participating in a rare moment when bottom-up politics was dominant. Yet the uncorking of political expression also tore at the group's cohesion, much like what was happening to the fractured opposition as a whole as it began to move unsteadily into a post-Mubarak era.

"In Tahrir Square, there was total agreement: No one represents the revolution, we all represent the revolution," said volunteer Ahmed Mamdouh Zaki, a trainer in a customer service center for U.S. companies.

"But in the call center," he said, "everyone started coming out and saying, 'I represent the revolution,' 'No, I represent the revolution,' 'No, I represent the revolution.'"

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Political participation among young Egyptians was dismal before the uprising, even by the standards of the Middle East. Very few of the call center volunteers had ever voted. And many had imagined moving abroad.

"I had decided to move back to England and spend my life. You have a lot of freedom, everything is fine there," said Kenaway, who models his personal style on actor Richard Gere. "But when the revolution happened, I now have a lot of things to do for my country. Now I feel it is my country, not the regime's country."

Because Egypt was a place with a nascent political culture, organizations like the call center had little structure to build upon. No one initially claimed leadership, believing that the strength of the group was that it did not depend on a charismatic figure who could be vilified or corrupted.

"There are thousands of leaders for this revolution," said Nabulsi, who is from a prosperous family and drives a Ferrari. "Whenever they try to kill one, 300 more appear."

Still, an absence of leadership led to some practical issues.

"When we got there, we found [the volunteers] wanted to do a good job, but it was a total mess," Zaki said.

The volunteers were spread across the floor taking down information on paper. Not all of it was loaded into a computer database, and the data that did reach the database were improperly catalogued, making it impossible to properly search through the cases.

Because of his call center experience, Zaki became operations chief. By chance, additional seasoned workers volunteered as they were laid off from their regular jobs. As the unrest blocked the roads to many of these Egyptians' offices, wait times for American callers ballooned and companies moved their calls to contractors in other countries.

"They may be truly the heroes here," Zaki said. "Because of the revolution, they were out of their job, but instead of blaming the revolution, they joined it."

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