A Young Life Shaped by Revolution
By Maureen A. Nolan
On Jan. 25, 2011, the day the Egyptian revolution began, Hady Hewidy ’17 was a high school student far from his hometown of Cairo. He was living in Ann Arbor, Mich., through an exchange program for students from primarily Muslim countries.
Congress created the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. The program gave Hewidy the chance to improve his English, and later it awarded him a grant to help local hiking guides in the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula improve safety and bolster tourism.
Hewidy loves hiking and high places. Clearly, the exchange program was time well spent, but he still sounds regretful that he missed the early days of the revolution. It was a defining moment for him and his country. After 18 days of protests, President Hosni Mubarak left office and the military took control. Hewidy returned home that summer to join a wave of Egyptians who continued to push for a better government.
Mubarak’s ouster at first felt like a victory. “But it wasn’t very long until everyone realized the military was not very different, and the regime is still in place,” Hewidy says. “So for the year and a half that followed, there was the demanding of the military to step down and to hand over the power to a civilian government.”
Hewidy is the youngest of three children in a family where political discussions were everyday fare. He and his sister Haidy wanted to get involved. Looking to go deeper than joining a protest, they helped establish a regional campaign office for presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner who later withdrew from the race. But Hewidy turned out for protests, too. His mother cautioned him to steer clear of events where violence was likely, but that wasn’t always possible to predict. He willingly avoided the front lines and confrontations with police.
In November 2011, when a series of major protests erupted, Hewidy joined the sit-ins in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of protests in Cairo and about two miles from his house. The protests weren’t always intense, he says, and they didn’t engulf the entire city. “Once you get out of sight of Tahrir Square and you walk for like 15 minutes, you could just see people walking along the banks of the Nile, couples walking or eating, having a drink as if nothing was happening. And 10 minutes away there are clashes with the police,” he says.
But sometimes the violence came to him and his family. July 5, 2013, was the most terrifying night of his life, Hewidy wrote in a piece for The Spectator. “Hundreds of armed protestors of the Muslim Brotherhood (the parent organization of Hamas) marched through my neighborhood in Egypt on their way to Tahrir Square, in downtown Cairo. Minor clashes started breaking out among the residents, later escalating into a full-scale street fight that lasted for hours. I was trapped in the altercation’s ‘no man’s land’ for several hours, on a day that ended with 12 deaths just from my small neighborhood,” he wrote. “Less than two months later, my family and I were protesting against the military cruelty during the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the same organization that threatened my neighborhood, my family and my life. My protest was not due to any unique or superior moral quality, but rather due to the very basic trait of sympathy that is shared by most humans. Distinguishing between ideologies you detest and the unexcused death of hundreds of innocent civilians should not be even the slightest bit difficult.”
Amid the civil strife, Hewidy was a high school student conducting an online college search. (He and his two sisters are the first in their family to attend college.) Small, liberal arts Hamilton, with its Outdoor Leadership Center, sounded perfect. He arrived on campus in August 2013, not long after his night of terror and during a military coup back home. He’d barely unpacked when state security forces killed hundreds of protestors in Cairo during the Rabaa massacre. Hewidy spent his early free time on the Hill riveted to the news. It was hard settling into a new life while Egypt churned, but he would soon find his way. As a first-year student he won the McKinney Prize in public speaking. He wrote more opinion pieces for the student paper. He took on a double major — economics and world politics. He became president of the Arabic and Middle East Club. In 2015, Hewidy helped organize a discussion by a panel of experts on Islam and extremism, putting the event together in response to pieces that appeared in Enquiry, a student-run publication sponsored by the Alexander Hamilton Institute.
Hewidy knows that challenging the status quo can be done respectfully and for the good of the whole, says Barbara Britt-Hysell, director of Hamilton’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program. “He respects his professors and his peers. He doesn’t judge people. He believes that people cannot be represented by a singular aspect of their identity — amazing truth for a young man who has lived through a civil war in his home country,” she says.
Hamilton provided Hewidy with a serendipitous connection: Edward Walker ’62, former ambassador to Egypt and Israel and the Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Global Political Theory. As a rising junior, Hewidy spent 10 weeks in Cairo studying political participation and engagement as a Levitt summer research fellow. Walker was his advisor. Even when the ambassador wasn’t directly dispensing advice, Hewidy was learning. “We would be talking and haggling about different independent variables that I would use, and he would casually bring up an encounter he had with Hosni Mubarak, a chitchat he had on the side,” Hewidy says. He’s still amazed he had a chance to work with Walker.
Now a junior studying in Hamilton’s program in Paris, Hewidy has ideas about what he’d like to do when he graduates. His ideal scenario would be to snag a Watson Fellowship to study the political and economic differences between residents of mountain regions and residents of flat regions. His second choice would be a job working in disaster relief. When conditions allow, Hewidy plans to return to Egypt to live and work. He considers its current regime to be as repressive as Mubarak’s.
On Jan. 25, 2016, the fifth anniversary of the revolution, Hewidy and his sister talked about how their generation of protestors is growing up and seeing the consequences, or lack of consequences, of their actions. “I was talking with a few people about how it affected who we are now — and how we don’t talk about it any more, how we kind of subconsciously think it didn’t really happen. Because there’s not much to do for the time being,” he says. “I would say it made me mature a lot, gave me a sense of the real world, that things don’t always work the way you want.”