Introduction

El Sawy is providing space and an enabling environment where citizens become more enlightened in order to make informed choices leading to a systemic and positive cultural and social change.

Mohamed El Sawy’s idea is built on providing space and an enabling environment where citizens become more enlightened in order to make informed choices leading to a systemic and positive cultural and social change.

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

El Sawy’s model for social change is built on a set of tools centered on enlightenment and self-expression; those tools range from cultural, artistic, sports activities to debates and knowledge sharing events. El Sawy works on facilitating access to those tools, training youth on using those tools, and ultimately providing the outlet where they can put those tools into action; his aim is to instigate a youth movement that embraces ethical values and freedom of choice.

The uniqueness of the center is that it is a democratic venue which provides equal access to all Egyptians, whether as audience or as speakers and performers. El Sawy 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 exclusive for the elite and intellect. The center also upholds the philosophy of involvement, adopting youth-led initiatives and encouraging participatory methodologies in designing new activities. His initiative is distinct in that it is based on a business model, whereby it is financed by private sector support, membership fees and ticket costs. The core activity costs are completely covered and sustainable.

The Sakia has revolutionized the social and cultural scene, introducing the first open platform for youth’s self expression in Egypt. Other venues are rather selective when opening their halls and stages to the public.

Mohamed El Sawy is currently negotiating with partners and sponsors different forms for replicating his model and spreading his idea. One method is through franchising, offering one year technical and financial support to small community cultural centers in the different neighborhoods of Cairo; a model which will be replicated in other governorates over the next five years.

Egypt’s rich culture and heritage are known to have been a major driving force behind social change in the Egyptian community, most notably the 1970’s student movement. The leaders of the movement were artists who conveyed voices of the downtrodden populations advocating 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 whereby it became more a means of 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 were privileged with. Youth today represent 60% of the Egyptian population, yet and is infected with apathy and pessimism due to social marginalization from society and deprivation of active roles. Negative consequences of the youth’s social and participatory deprivation include increase in dropouts, adolescent pregnancies and ultimately youth migration. Coupled with troubled economic situations, the overall ambiance has led disaffected youth, a reservoir of untapped potential, as well as a harness on their freedom of expression.

The youth have turned to the citizen sector as a third pillar of society where they would be given the opportunity to actively participate in society. The Mubarak era has seen a new surge of activism especially in the 21st Century, where the number of CSO registered in Egypt reached 16000 organizations in 1999, providing space for youth to act. However, about 75% of these organizations work in social care, providing charity services for disadvantaged communities, and so their limited scope is unattractive for youth who hope for more direct community involvement.

However the new NGO law stipulated in 1999 gave free access to CSOs to work in all fields as they were previously constrained in their actions. With this liberty, many organizations became the personification of a vehicle youth use for social change. A brilliant example is Nahdet El Mahrousa established in 2003 by Ehaab Abdou, Ashoka Fellow to empower youth by incubating their development projects that aim to find solutions for their status quo predicaments and fulfill their dreams. The organization Fatheit Kheir also follows the path of providing youth with hands-on experience in the betterment of society, and implementing youth initiatives as well. The Sustainable Development Association on the other hand prepares the youth by equipping them with both social and technical skills in order to help them reach their goals.

Universities have also witnessed a revival of youth activism whereby conferences and clubs are providing outlets for expression. Some of the most renowned are Resala Organization and Alashanek Ya Balady, which both have several branches across different universities, some of which have matured into independent CSOs. Volunteers in Action, the Food Bank and other smaller clubs have spread across universities to provide the students with an outlet for their potential.

Globally, youth tend to be major drivers of activism exploit their roles as being 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 youth’s needs in the region and thus their role remains limited. However, youth are now being seen to take part in campaigns and summits that address social causes. There are those that target youth such as the Youth Employment summit developing capacity building initiatives for the youth; international campaigns such as Violence against Women, the World Aids Campaign promoting inclusion of Aids patients; as well as governmental campaigns including anti-smoking campaigns and family planning in many governorates. At the same time, there are some that are led by youth themselves such as the Hemaya Campaign encouraging rehabilitation of drug addicts, and the Dance4life concert under the auspices of UNAids at the pyramids.

However a comprehensive and tangible youth inclusion program was nonexistent in Egypt before the appearance of Mohamed El-Sawy’s Culture Wheel Centre. 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 NGOs, they solely concentrate on culture promotion and sports training. Sports centers that are accessible in all the governorates suffer from lack of funding, and do not offer a large variety of sports for the public. On the other hand, the 20 plus private sports clubs that do host a variety of sport options remain elitist and inaccessible as they require membership.

Art has always been viewed as the vehicle for spreading new ideas and initiating new trends. Artists brought about social changes globally and nationally where youth even went to jail in the 1970’s in Egypt listening to controversial artists such as El-Sheikh Imam. Yet, it seems that in recent years, new talent is finding it difficult to breakthrough 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 perform in the underground scene. 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, drugs, television brainwashing and others have also spread amongst the population.

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

Several private establishments have also been part of the Egyptian cultural scene. Yet their scope of influence seems as limited as their audience. One of the most famous is Townhouse Gallery which describes itself as an independent space for the arts where diverse exhibitions, as well as workshops for disadvantaged children are held every week. Nonetheless, exclusive scholarships offered are the only avenue by which it engages youth. Other venues simply provide space for artists to convene and admire the work displayed. These include the Cairo Image Collective (founded in 2004) founded by artists themselves to shed light on visual arts in Egypt; the Mashrabia Gallery focusing on the diffusion of plastic arts. There are those that focus on certain styles of art like live performances of Zathar in Al-Ghouri Mausoleum, or the removal of artistic taboos at the Grey Villa. The Rawabet Theatre has also been the venue for groundbreaking performances that have made it an addition to the cultural scene.

Despite all these efforts, the above-mentioned venues fail to provide tangible youth inclusion as they do not fulfill the need of youth 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 El-Sawy established Sakia AbdelMoneim El Sawy (waterwheel in Arabic), or El Sawy Cultural Wheel to use culture as a tool to reinstate youth to their natural rights. The Wheel’s ongoing activities result in widespread youth revival and restore culture and art to a mainstream diversion. 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 from the underground scene and even develop a cult-like following due to their performances at Sakia. In addition, the centre is a place for academic seminars, conferences, movie screenings, and art-development workshops, all to cater to the needs of new talent. Educational programs are also offered including skills pertinent to the labor market, in order to provide youth with the tools they need to embrace their roles in society.

Today, El Sakia is more than a “cultural center”; it is a home for new artists whereby they can perform and spread their message. The Culture Wheel’s goals and functions transcend the art and cultural performances as El Sawy 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 outer world. El Sawy is also adopting annual thematic campaigns to address social, ethical and cultural taboos and problems that have been plaguing the Egyptian society.

El Sakia center has been described as the Hyde Park of Egypt, providing a Speakers’ Corner in a culture where youth are constantly silenced and discouraged from speaking their minds. By providing the space and tools for enlightenment and self-expression, Mohamed El Sawy helps youth become more conscious of their actions and more responsible for their consequences, and hence breaking the barriers for young Egyptians’ participation as active citizens in their societies.

The Culture Wheel pioneers in raising social awareness and instilling behavioral changes in the local community, encouraging the community to become more conscientious and adopt ethical values. El Sawy constantly launches campaigns combating 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 El Sawy was starting his campaign with a group of friends to make Zamalek more environmentally friendly. Zamalek, a traditionally posh residential area, had recently been surrounded by squatters and plagued by garbage dumps under bridges. As he was examining a space under a bridge, which his company was refurbishing in return for advertising rights, El Sawy immediately envisioned it as a stage with lights, actors and artists; as an outlet for creative expression for a thriving young public whereby they could be exposed to alternative and new cultural and artistic experiences, exchange ideas and promote overall social and cultural change.

In 2003, El Sawy established the Sakia of Abdel Moneim El Sawy or El Sawy Cultural Wheel, honoring his late father and creating the first privately owned cultural center in Egypt.

Bringing El Sakia to the comprehensive center that it is today was not an easy task; the initial establishment phase posed a set of challenges. Equipping the venue and isolating it from surrounding noise and pollution proved to be a long process and required substantial funds. At the same time, brining both artists and audience to go to a cultural center “under the bridge” was not an easy task, particularly for renowned artists who were unenthusiastic to perform in a new cultural center with unconventional premises and for the older public which were accustomed to traditional venues such as the Cairo Opera House. Yet with the gradual built-up of credibility, continuous optimism and perseverance in the difficult times, El Sakia now has a full calendar for months to come and often apologizes for fully-booked performances. Through word-of-mouth and advertising in youth venues such as centers, coffee houses and bookshops, new artists and new members are constantly attracted to the place.

The center now boasts of receiving 500,000 visitors per year and serves 25,000 members; it holds 1000 events annually and has a vast repertoire of debates, workshops, concerts, plays, movie screenings and shows. The Culture Wheel has followed a financial sustainable business model since its inception.

El Sawy uses culture and arts as “tools” for self-expression, dialogue and mobilization of the masses. For El Sawy 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. For Mohamed El Sawy, El Sakia has one goal, which 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. No VIP treatment, no seats are set aside for “dignitaries” and everyone pays the same price for all tickets.

El Sawy’s sakia is based on three axes: introducing tools of social change to youth, creating a platform for open debates and dialogues among the young public about traditional and taboo subjects alike, and raising social awareness and instilling behavioral changes in local communities.

Mohamed El Sawy facilitates tools for self expression, enabling Egyptian youth living in silence and repression to voice their frustrations and participate in shaping their society, thus providing the perfect cure for a generation that has been taught to think within confined frameworks and follow established ways. As for awareness campaigns, El Sawy has chosen to adopt thematic campaigns every year, discouraging passive or negative behavior and encouraging society 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 as they are sugarcoated in the form of concerts, theatre plays and art exhibitions that advocate for the same cause. So far, El Sawy has celebrated the year of the Arabic language, The Year of Rights, the Year of Minds, the Year of Dignity, the Year of Light and will soon hold the Year of Beauty. Some of the center’s activities are centered 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.

El-Sawy promotes freedom of knowledge and self expression by opening his center’s halls for lectures, debate and performances. He promotes a socially responsible living, by encouraging proactivity, community service and respect for the environment. He also endorses a healthy life style, promoting urban sports and launching health and fitness campaigns.

The center has managed to change the behavior of youth on its premises and on the streets. It continues to encourage responsible behavior on its premises and rejects any harmful conduct asking people to leave the center when they do not respect others’ freedom. El-Sakia transcended the exclusive restrictions of the traditional cultural houses and dialogue salons. Artists and intellectuals from all domains are finally given the chance to emerge from the underground scene and share their thoughts on stages and podiums at no cost and without being subjected to the traditional censorship and prejudice. Audiences from all ages have started integrating culture and knowledge sharing into their daily lives; activities that were previously considered a luxury for some or exclusive to the intellect are now totally democratic. Through his center, El Sawy is changing the existing system and creating new vehicles for social change.

 

El-Sawy promotes freedom of knowledge and self expression by opening his center’s halls for lectures, debate and performances. He promotes a socially responsible living, by encouraging proactivity, community service and respect for the environment. He also endorses a healthy life style, promoting urban sports and launching health and fitness campaigns.
An example of the forms of transforming and conscience-raising art that El Sakia adopts is a puppet show which Mohamed himself produced to raise awareness on the lives of Street Children. Inspired by Ibrahim, a child who used to sleep at the Center’s doorstep, El Sawy produced a show called “El Masoura El Kebira” or “The big pipe” where he presents the lives of street children, highlighting a new angle that the society never considers. Through his play, El Sawy shows how people’s charity and donation of money, food and cloths encourages children to keep living on the street. Through the main characters of the play El Sawy asks people to rethink their behavior and consider other solutions for street children, and alerts parents on how quarrels and problems at home may lead a child to run away from home to the street. As parents deny children their rights to talk or express their views, children escape and choose the street. The name of the play, “the big pipe” is a metaphor for society which generates street children. Another tool that he used in a nation-wide campaign against sexual harassment in Egyptian streets was using messages speaking directly to the harasser and reminding him that the female members of his family may be next. El Sawy pioneered in putting up ads in 2007 to the benefit of the campaign, yet some were pulled as they were deemed too provocative and not in touch with societal norms. However El Sawy believes that the only way to solve problems is by talking about them.

The centre is now comprised of many units, namely the Sakia garden, The Wisdom Hall, and The Word Hall, thus allowing for diverse activities to take place at the same time. The halls and open air spaces are equipped with stages, cinema screens and various types of audio-visual aid. The center also hosts a library, a children’s library, an electronic library, and a music library. A cafeteria offering affordable food and drinks and a garden by the Nile are also at the visitor’s disposition. El Sakia’s financial sustainability depends on three main sources of income, sponsorship, membership fees and entry fees which are split with the artists. El Sawy managed to get sponsors on his own and has been able to cover all the costs incurred by El Sakia, thus establishing financial sustainability.

To increase his center’s outreach beyond its venues, El Sawy has launched a magazine “the paper Sakia” and an online radio “the voice of Sakia”, which convey to the general public the messages of the center and its members and allow people to enjoy lectures and shows outside the center.
Expansion is currently one of Mohamed’s main objectives having already established branches El Sawy Culture Wheel in two neighborhoods in Cairo (soon to be three) and one branch outside Cairo, he is in the process of developing plans for nation-wide expansion through franchising.
To facilitate the task of those wishing to start up other “Sakias”, El Sawy is currently documenting his experience in cultural management in a manual baptized as “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; in addition to the manual El Sawy has recently started up an academy for cultural management open to anyone wishing to start similar platforms. During the next 3 years, El Sawy will also launch a new project to establish community based cultural centers on a small local scale; those centers can be hosted within neighborhoods anywhere in Egypt on rooftops or gardens. El Sawy will provide cash and 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 which can be available at home and not a luxury that one can forego when time or resources cannot allow. His future plan consists of establishing 100 Sakia centers by 2018, in commemoration of his deceased father’s 100th anniversary, as he is the source of his inspiration.

When asked about his source of inspiration, Mohamed El Sawy always replies: my father. Abdel Moneim Al Sawy, journalist, novelist and Egypt’s Minister of Culture in the late 1970s is the man who taught Mohamed the power of creativity, self-expression, imagination and unconventional thinking. To this day, El Sawy is always treading new grounds instead of walking along established roads.

As a co-founder and owner of Alamiya Advertising Agency, a successful private company, El Sawy organized, long before establishing the Culture Wheel, comprehensive sports and cultural events for children and youth through his agency with the aim of spreading sports and culture among youth, long before Corporate Social Responsibility became a fad in Egypt. Alamiya was the first to introduce automobile desert rallies and spring parades in Cairo, for which it has successfully fundraised.

In 2003, El Sawy decided to turn a garbage dump under a bridge in his company’s neighborhood into a public cultural venue. When he first examined the space under the bridge to install billboards for Alamiya, El Sawy envisioned a stage, with lights, actors and a thriving public coming to take in the fountains of art from his “wheel”. Studying architecture at the Faculty of Fine Arts equipped El-Sawy with an ability to utilize space, and has helped him turn that garbage dump under the bridge into a full-fledged art center.

High school years at the German School in Cairo, shaped El Sawy’s character greatly, as it is in those years that he was introduced to his two life-long passions: marathon running and puppetry. In marathons one runs alone and not in a race, Sawy 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, hence bypassing all expectations. Puppetry trained Mohamed’s creativity and innovativeness at a very early age; it is through puppets that El Sawy now gets many of his messages out to the general public.