Before joining the Wesleyan faculty to teach about populism, Esam Boraey built an impressive resume as an activist, political operative, and academic. He graduated from college several years early and began teaching at the university level at nineteen. His academic career was interrupted, however, when he became one of the first seven people to protest against the Egyptian government a full four years before the revolution would begin in earnest. After the revolution, he fled Egypt in the face of imprisonment and has been in the U.S. ever since. The Argus met with Boraey to discuss his difficult past, his activism, and his experience teaching at Wesleyan.
The Argus: Starting from the beginning…What would you say inspired you to get involved in political activism in Egypt?
Esam Boraey: We the activists were 18, 19 years old, and we came to believe that we didn’t have a clear path to the future that we all wished for ourselves. Many of us decided never to get married, never to have kids, because we couldn’t guarantee them any future because of the corruption and failure in every aspect of our lives under the Mubarak regime, which didn’t care about anything but securing its powers. So we decided to do something about that.
We were working for a free, democratic country, free elections… A real democratic system in the country. And we were hoping to achieve this through a change of regime itself, and a new constitution that respects basic human rights and democratic principles, and then free and democratic elections that would bring actual representation to the people in the decision-making institutions in Egypt.
A: Can you pinpoint one moment where it really hit you that something needed to be done?
EB: I studied History and Political Science for my undergrad and International Relations for my postgrad. So I had an idea of what was going on, but I didn’t know how hard it was until I got my first salary. And my mom’s response was, “You have your degree, you have your job, you have your salary. Now I have a beautiful girl waiting for you. She likes you a lot. Let’s go get engaged.”
So later that night, I went to meet my friends and celebrate my first salary with my friends. And these were my childhood friends; I expected them to make fun of the situation. So I told them, “Guess what guys? Today I got my first salary and my mom is finding me a bride.” And their reaction was totally different from what I expected.
Their reaction was, “You’re crazy and selfish. You need to get out of the bubble you live in. This is not a place where you could be able to create a family and bring innocent kids here.” So I felt like, if those people reached that level of giving up, this is not good for our country.
A: Before that, why do you think that you didn’t see the country in the same way?
EB: I grew up in a middle-class family. My dad used to work for the president’s office and we had a very decent life. I was into writing, and I used to write poetry all the time. I would go to this beautiful place on the Nile River and I would sit there all day, just writing poetry and listening to music. So that was my idea: “I will be this great author who writes poetry all the time and talks about how beautiful everything is.” So everything that was happening beyond that really didn’t concern me that much.
But the wealth gap was increasingly alarming to everyone between the one percent at the top and the rest of the country. And at the same time, the President would always talk about how much money the government spends on our healthcare system, our education system, and social programs. At the same time, our healthcare system didn’t exist. You would wait in lines for days, weeks, sometimes months to get any medications. Our education system ranked among the lowest on the entire planet. So I saw this, and it was very obvious: We were really failing in every aspect, and the only thing Mubarak cared about was how to secure his power.
So after this conversation with my friends, I started reaching out to activists and politicians. On that first day…we only [had] seven people. The youngest was 18, the oldest was 21. I was 19. The goal that day was a declaration of a new generation who actually understands the core problem.
Every media outlet in that time was controlled by the president–and no one was allowed to criticize the president whatsoever in any of those outlets. You could criticize a cabinet member in a very nice way, you could criticize a specific policy, but you always had to maintain a great image of the President. The joke at that time was that if the newscast on TV will have 10 news stories, 11 of them must be about how great the president is. Everyone had zero access to any source of knowledge that would talk about real issues and would relate an issue to the performance of the president.
Our generation had access to the internet–a worldwide source of knowledge that we could actually be able to be connected to, and understand more of what’s happening beyond our controlled knowledge. So we protested against the President himself, declaring that the new generation understands the real problem.
A: Six years of activism in Egypt. Did you ever want to give up?
EB: I mean… I never wanted to give up. I was so determined and committed to the goal and the dream of our movement. But many times I felt exhausted. I spent most of my 20s part of the revolution that [ended] a six decades old regime. We paid a price for this victory for our country.
The police were chasing us. I was arrested. I was beaten. I was tortured. I was interrogated. My reputation was plastered in the whole state-controlled media as a spy and a CIA agent and a traitor.
My family were really not supportive at all when I changed course to political activism. My relationship with my family starts switching from this very good kid, good student, good at school—to the black sheep of the family. And I ended up leaving my family home and being independent on my own. And it was very painful because I really love my family so much.
I was teaching at that time and I was fired from my job. And I was denied admission for my PhD, because my topic was too controversial. And also I was actually denied my master’s degree. So I was hurt in so many ways not only losing a job in school and teaching, but also losing my academic career and my academic future and being denied even my basic rights of my degree.
My then-girlfriend broke up with me…I was in a cage awaiting trial, and she came to the cage just to break up with me. Because she didn’t want to have an identity associated with me.
My friend was shot during the revolution. They shot and killed him. And the media was talking bad about us, and my phone was monitored all the time. So it just… you get exhausted. And always asking myself for how long I could keep doing that.
But I don’t think I ever reached the level of giving up because I did believe so much in my cause and I felt that I had the responsibility to keep going. I read something that said that revolution is the most romantic act that you could actually take because if you sacrifice everything—your life, your freedom, your loved ones—for revolution and did this just because you believe in a higher cause then… this is a very romantic act. And if you don’t know how to love, if you’re not romantic enough, you cannot commit the act of revolution. So I think that comes from my upbringing with poetry and writing and all of those things.
A: What made you finally decide you had to leave the country?
EB: I was running my campaign to be a senator, and I actually was arrested again and tried in the criminal court in Egypt for working for a human rights organization. So when I was sentenced to prison after that, I just couldn’t go back into prison. So at 26 years old, I left. I’ve been through very painful moments, but that one was extremely painful because it was a declaration of defeat.
I’d lost everything: family, friends, the country I fought for… Even my name, my reputation, everything. And now I’m going to the unknown where I didn’t have friends. I didn’t have money. And I had to start everything from scratch. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have any resources to go to any language school. So I started just, you know, meeting people, studying, watching TV, listening to music, talking to people.
I needed to teach myself how to eat because I’d never cooked in my life. And also, I was in an accident in [Washington] D.C. where I broke my femur. So I literally needed to teach myself how to walk again. I needed to apply for immigration. That was very important to me. I wanted to do everything legally, as the law says, and play by the rules, because I didn’t want to be deported.
A: Have you ever wanted to go back to Egypt?
A: What’s stopping you from doing that?
EB: I have a prison sentence waiting for me. I was convicted based on a report from the military intelligence. The head of military intelligence, who wrote this report against me, went on to be the head of the military in Egypt and led a coup against the President and became the president now. So the current president of Egypt put me in prison.
A: That’s a hell of an enemy to make. Why did you choose to move to the U.S., instead of anywhere else in the world?
EB: The U.S., in my imagination, was the land of principles, and human rights, political freedom, and welcoming minorities… That was the very romantic image of the United States in my brain. I really wanted to belong.
But once the early months started fading away, I started noticing a lot of rhetoric against me. I was an immigrant, thick accent, brown. And people were really mean, and some people were racist. I was like, “This is not the community I’ve dreamed of.” I was so shocked to know that someone like me, who really believes in the so-called American dream, and fought for those principles, was still being attacked and looked down at because of my color, and because of my accent, and later on because of my religion. And I got to understand that the United States is just like any other country in the world. It’s not the ideal place as I was imagining—just a normal place. It has its good people and its bad people, and has all of the other diseases that the whole entire world suffers from.
A: How did you end up in Iowa?
EB: I was in D.C. working for a think tank. I got to understand a lot of American politics and the romanticized picture of the American society came to a strong reality check. And I really wanted to be part of the change. Then [there was] a friend of mine, who was the campaign manager for Bernie Sanders, and the only office they had at that time was in Iowa. So I left for Iowa in 2015 after two years in D.C.. And I worked as a minority communities outreach coordinator. It took me back to use my organizing and grassroots skills, and also put me again in touch with under-represented groups of people.
In Iowa, after Sanders’s journey with the election was over, I was offered the job as a campaign manager for the only African-American Muslim to be ever elected in Iowa. And it was a great honor for me. I thought I could stay in Iowa a little bit longer, at least until I [could] see how the election would go. And at the same time, Drake University in Iowa offered me to teach two classes with them. So I did this for two years.
A: And what brought you to Connecticut?
EB: I wanted to settle in a place where I didn’t know anybody. I was really looking for a break. And the goal was a place on the East coast where nobody knows me, just to live a quiet life for a few months. My fiancee now wife got a job with NBC in Connecticut. And she asked me if I’d be interested to move with her to Connecticut.
When I arrived in Connecticut, the Connecticut Senate Democrats knew about me and the chief of staff reached out to me. They were really looking to regain their majority. So I was offered the job to do that with them. And I accepted the job, hoping that I’d have a higher cause. And in 2018, we won a supermajority in the House, a supermajority in the Senate, and the governorship. And I was honored to be part of that.
A: How did you end up at Wesleyan University?
EB: I was actually invited through the other professors to come and give a public lecture about the Middle East and the activism and the youth movements. And after the lecture, I was asked if I would be interested in teaching. And I was always seeking a teaching opportunity because I really love teaching so much.
I was excited to teach about populism because I know how much the masses could be manipulated by a charismatic leader who could lie easily to them to achieve [their] own personal interest. And I really wanted to use the course as a platform to raise awareness of how dangerous it is, and different ways we could stop that from happening.
Even with Trump defeated, you still have the Trumpism present. And the American political discourse will be affected for [maybe] decades to come. It will be very interesting to see how things will fold after now that the symbol of the movement is not in power anymore.
A: What is it that you love about teaching?
EB: Sharing the experiences I have been through… it’s very important to me. Especially because when I began my [activism] I was at the same age as they are right now. Sharing experience—real-life experience—with the students who are about to start their lives is always a great passion of mine.
What I love about teaching is the freedom of thought we have in class. The intellectual freedom we have to discuss many controversial topics without limitations, fear or judgment. The classroom setup provides this kind of freedom, where you really can dig deep in your soul to see: What do you actually believe in? And discuss this with different people.
A: Something I’ve noticed as a student in your class is how you bring in guest lecturers, who have had opinions and perspective from across the entire political spectrum.
EB: I really do care about bringing diverse voices. I know I always hated someone to give me information without me being able to question it. I was raised to be an ima—a Muslim scholar who leads in the Muslim community. And I was actually kicked out of the mosque, because I had so many questions. My sheikh—my professor in the religious school—he denied my rights to ask those questions. He thought I should just accept the knowledge he gave me. This is something I try to avoid in my teaching. I always bring a diversity of thought and I was always wanting to challenge your knowledge about the topics you’ve been studying. And just to challenge my students on the knowledge and try to give them the tough questions to allow them to see the other side of the conversation. We have great conversations.
A: Wesleyan’s a very politically engaged campus, as I’m sure you probably noticed. And just in general, the generation that’s 18 to 22 right now is very politically engaged. What is it like seeing all of these young activists in the U.S.?
EB: Politics is the most important thing. It’s connected to every aspect of your life. So unless every single person is a political activist, we still don’t have enough political activists. And I do believe those—like from my generation and younger, the people who have more access to knowledge with the Internet—those generations have a huge responsibility to act for the good of this world. And if you think the price is high or the standards are high, think of the consequences that other people would pay for for you.
A: Is there anything else you hope to impart on your students?
EB: In the Middle East, the administration and the people are two different things. The administration always fights for its interests and people have no voice, no participation, nothing.
When it comes to the United States, you have the power of election. You have the power to affect the outcome of your administration and your government. So you have a responsibility of saving—literally saving—peoples’ [lives.] It starts with you here in Middletown, as an eighteen-year-old American citizen. You really could save people’s lives. I’m not exaggerating. If you hold your government accountable for what they do, you will save people’s lives and you have the power to do that. You have a say.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kay Perkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org