Watch the video of Sarah El Ashmawy’s talk at TEDxExeter 2014.
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Sarah is a minority rights activist and Egyptian. In recent years she has been trying to reclaim her sense of identity as an Egyptian, instead of listening to the pernicious message that she should pursue her rights as an individual, not as a member of a people.
As a student, she was talking to a friend about the revolution in Tunisia, and didn’t think it would happen in Egypt… but of course she was wrong. She left the country one week before the revolution, and then had to watch from the sidelines, and had a love-hate relationship with it! She realised she had been disconnected from her country for 20 years, and decided she would return and have random conversations about the revolution. She discovered others also had this bitter-sweet response. One contact described how the government took him in for his anti-regime writings. Until the uprisings in Tahrir Square.
Before the revolution, everyone was stuck in their categories in a pyramidal structure, and everyone else was excluded. Everyone felt excluded, not matter where they were in the structure. So all agreed they wanted the end of the regime. But the revolution didn’t mean the end of exclusion. The military took over, and trades unions and other groups responded violently. Sarah’s own government (her mother, in the audience!) didn’t want her and her friends to join in. But they went to Tahrir Square and shouted and screamed anyway.
Sarah was in her car when she heard of President Morsi’s decree on the constitution, which protected his back. That is, the new president had excluded her again from decision-making, and at that point she hit rock bottom. She says this is the sort of government that sows the seeds of violence. People need to find a place and fulfil their own potential, without having to trade freedoms and rights to criticise governments and get involved.
She believes that democracy starts at the margins. Countries need to look inside themselves, and even beyond inequality, to engagement of the people. We need blunt, honest dialogue about all the things we are doing wrong. As a positive example, there is now an electronic map of sexual harrassment. So yes, she still believes that the revolution will succeed.
Sarah El Ashmawy is a young Egyptian. She has a BA in Political Sciences and International Law from the American University in Cairo, graduating in 2012 with High Honors. In 2009 Sarah volunteered for the Cairo based NGO ‘Association for Health and Environmental Development’, then in 2010 became part of the newly created Anti-Trafficking Unit at the Ministry of Family and Population.
In April 2012, she joined a team of researchers working on a chapter about the democratic transition in Egypt for a book by the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Regional Office in Cairo, in cooperation with the American University in Beirut. In September 2012 she became Minority Rights Group International’s (MRG) Program Officer in Egypt, launching the implementation of an anti-religious discrimination program. Since September 2012 Sarah has worked with religious minorities in Egypt to build a strong network advocating for greater religious freedoms in Egypt. She has also worked as a research assistant for the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) on the upgrading of their Social Assessment Manual and as a research assistant for the UNDP working on a synopsis of their Governance Week Conference held in Cairo in November 2012.
She is currently a Masters’ Student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, pursuing a degree in Violence, Conflict and Development, while she continues to be part of the Egypt programme team at MRG’s London office helping to coordinate the Egypt programme liaising between the London team and the Cairo office.