Khaled Abol Naga: The revolutionary power of hope

Khaled Abol Naga: The revolutionary power of hope
Exclusive: The Egyptian superstar talks to The New Arab about his exciting new role, life under Sisi and the lessons from history we can't afford to ignore.
5 min read
19 January, 2017
'It's my job as an artist is to speak honestly,' says Naga [Getty]
Khaled Abol Naga, the multi-award winning Egyptian actor and filmmaker, breezes into the bar on London's Southbank with an air of relaxed confidence.

He's here on a flying visit, fresh off the plane from South Africa where he was working on the shoot of his current project, the six part BBC mini-series, The Last Post.

We settle at a table and Naga begins to tell me about the setting for the series: Yemen, the Port of Aden in the mid-1960s. He plays the role of "The Informant" in the fictional story set among the Royal Military Police, where British playwright and screenwriter Peter Moffat's father was an officer.  

Based on Moffat's own childhood memories and his father's memoirs, the action takes place at a time when empires were finally crumbling, and the British were scrambling to hang on to their port in Aden.

And it is this context, says Naga, with an excitable glint in his eye, which it is so important for us to remember now. Women's liberation was well underway, but was not yet by any means the norm, and the political turmoil of the end of empire was, for many, only just beginning.

There is a clear lesson to be learned here for today's Egypt, says Naga. He was one of millions of Egyptians who took to the streets in January 2011 to call for regime change and an end to Mubarak's oppressive rule.  

A year earlier, his film Microphone had captured the simmering spirit of youth counter-culture in Alexandria.

Once you've tasted the feeling that your country really belongs to you, it takes away the fear

"What we felt during those 18 days was an amazing sense of hope, a feeling of how powerful the Egyptian people could be - especially right after Mubarak's resignation," he tells me.

Today though, Naga finds himself living under a regime that is progressively eroding the rights and freedoms that were so passionately called for in the not-so-distant past.

Abol Naga takes pictures as he participates in a mass rally against
President Mohamed Morsi, on 27 November 2012

The danger now, he insists, "is that we forget what it feels like to hope. That we forget that feeling of the power of the people, and that we forget the achievements of womens' liberation and human rights that globally have been so hard-won over the last decades".

Since the Mubarak era, Naga has been a vocal critic of Egypt's iron-fisted military rule, and in 2014 was accused of treason by Sisi supporters. But his commitment to social justice and tolerance has continued to guide him in his work.

"When security becomes an absolute priority, you lose the rights and freedoms you fought for, which in turn ends up undermining safety and security too," he laments.

Briefly crestfallen, I ask him what avenues he sees for pursuing progress in Egypt's difficult current climate.

The spark for the revolution was hope, and today, we find ourselves in a situation that is even more daunting - the idea that this spark might be put out

In a flash, he is animated once again; "Awareness is key, as are the lessons of history - we don't have the luxury of ignoring them, and now is a crucial time…" And with that, Naga launches into a tirade against President Donald Trump. "What he wants is for minorities to feel scared, and to fall back on their defence mechanisms… But Trump can't fight segregation with segregation.

Read More: ElBaradei coaxes Egypt's propaganda machine into action

"We've seen Trump's tactics before, with Sisi in Egypt... in some respects, we have our very own Trump; ramping up security rhetoric and conducting smear campaigns."

Does he ever feel in danger, I wonder? Yes and no, he says.

Once you've tasted the feeling that your country really belongs to you, it takes away the fear, which can be such a restrictive and damaging emotion. "The revolution channeled that fear into the power of change," he says.

It's also true that he is protected to some extent by his fame. As the darling of Egyptian cinema and a UN Goodwill Ambassador, Naga enjoys a position in the public eye unlike most others.

"Of course the regime is unhappy if someone vocal like me speaks out in favour of change, but, for me, the greatest weapon I have is my honesty.

"If we look at the situation today, the three revolutionary calls from 2011 are in tatters: 'Bread' - the economy is a mess, 'Freedom' - has decreased, and 'Social Justice' is being quickly eroded."

Naga is saddened to see fewer people engaging, calling for accountability, or a space for open discussion. This, he points out, is exactly what Sisi wants.

Naga speaks about Sisi with traces of pity. "His policies are those of someone who feels threatened. The government learned the wrong lessons.

"Rather than using the power of social media to engage its citizens, it is using it as a tool for propaganda, surveillance and crackdown; to attack and instil fear. Sooner or later, the injustice and violence that stem from this will catch up with him, and," he says with an optimistic grin, "he'll find himself on the wrong side of history."

Naga's charm is in no small part down to his charismatic ability to speak eloquently and positively about the direction in which politics should be heading - despite the increasingly gloomy situation in Egypt.

On the subject of his role in all of this, he displays characteristic modesty, shunning the term "activist" and preferring to think of himself as an artist with the job of being honest.

"I really don't understand politics," he claims. "But if I want to be a good artist, it's my job to react with honesty to those around me, to the environment, and to always be on the edge of the fight for freedoms. 

"The spark for the revolution was hope, and today, we find ourselves in a situation that is even more daunting - the idea that this spark might be put out.

"It's our job to fight back."

Follow Khaled Abol Naga on Twitter: @kalnaga

Katy Stone is an editor at The New Arab, and a translator of political analysis and current affairs.

Follow her on Twitter: @KatyRoseStone

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.