“Change takes time. I hope that the people of Egypt will have the stamina and strength to build up a new strong country,” says Les Anciens member Natalie Kolbe (second from left on the photo). Egypt has become a second home for the former AEGEE member from Bremen. Natalie Kolbe has been working in Cairo most past of the past decade, where she also organised the Les Anciens meeting together with Karina Häuslmeier in  2008. Since November 2008 Natalie is Deputy Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum Cairo, which is part of the Austrian Embassy. The Golden Oldie asked her how she perceived the peaceful revolution in Egypt.


Golden Oldie: Natalie, how did you react when you heard that Mubarak resigned?

Natalie Kolbe: It is very difficult for me to give a straight answer. This news affects so many things on so many levels that a lot was going on in my mind at the same time, feeling a bit like a merry-go-round. A short moment of surprise, cross-checking with different TV channels, phone calls, feeling relieved, impressed, happy and proud of the Egyptian people who have demonstrated peacefully, even after the disgraceful speech of the previous night, sad for those who died, deepest respect for those who risked everything to achieve change, a bit scared of what will happen now that the common goal, getting rid of Mubarak, is achieved, wondering what Egypt will be like when I go back – and much more.

Golden Oldie: After his stubborn speech the night before, did you expect such a quick end?

Natalie Kolbe: First of all I would not call it an end, the departure of Mubarak is just the very beginning and the greater challenges for Egypt are yet to come. But to answer your question, yes, I was surprised, not by the rapidity though, but rather by the events themselves. After the unexpected amplitude and admirable peacefulness – apart from the violence spread by police and thugs in the first few days – of the unprecedented demonstrations all over the country, it was just a matter of time for me when Mubarak would leave. Obviously, the speech on the 10th of February seemed the right time to do so. I was more than surprised when he didn’t, I was shocked. Not only did he not step down as announced by several officials and expected by the whole nation, he also dared to say that he was not the problem and that he was proud of how he had lead the country in the past 30 years, a real slap in the face to all who had suffered so much under his regime.

Golden Oldie: So, what did you expect to happen after his “I stay” speech?

Natalie Kolbe: I expected an escalation of the events. I went to bed thinking I would wake up with the news that the angry and humiliated demonstrators had gone to the presidential palace to force an end. But here I got surprised again, despite consternation, anger and utmost disappointment, the people stayed peaceful again. I think Mubarak speculated that if he provoked enough, the people would march against the presidential palace, the military would finally have a reason to react and end the demonstrations by force. Since this plan did not work, he could still step down “keeping his face”, being able to say he did not yield to foreign pressure, but took the decision fully by himself. In our eyes rather pathetic, but definitely better than having to admit weakness and say he is so sick that he needs to leave for treatment to Germany for an indefinite amount of time.

Golden Oldie: You spent most of the past decade working in Egypt. Where are you now?

Natalie Kolbe: At the moment I am in Bremen, Germany.

Golden Oldie: Why aren’t you in Egypt?

Natalie Kolbe: I have lived in Egypt since September 2004. Ironically, I took 5 days vacation to arrange paper work in Germany at the end of January. I was supposed to fly back to Cairo on the 28th. In the beginning, I was really planning to take that flight, despite the demonstrations. Then friends started to call me, telling me that Zamalek, the Island I live on, was full of military tanks, shots were heard and the bridges were unsafe, some European Embassies started to help their fellow countrymen to leave Egypt.

Golden Oldie: So you decided to stay in Germany?

Natalie Kolbe: When KLM informed me that they were not sure if they would fly to Cairo at all and there was the risk that I would get stuck in Amsterdam, I decided to postpone my departure for another week. By that time some of my friends had left the country, others who had gone to the demonstrations received “nice visits” reminding them to mind their own business for their own good, stores were empty and fear of violent, robbing thugs were high. To be completely fair, I have to say that some of my friends also told me that Zamalek was being kept safe by vigilance committees and they didn’t feel threatened at all, one of them was even enjoying the “clean air” due to the absence of cars on the streets. Still, I decided to postpone for a second time, observing the whole thing from a safe distance and waiting for the situation to calm down.

Golden Oldie: When will you go there and with what feelings are you looking forward to it?

Natalie Kolbe: My flight from Bremen goes tomorrow. Because of the curfew and unfavourable connections it will take me 26 hours to reach Cairo. Usually it takes 6 to 9 hours. I go with very mixed feelings, starting from regrets that I missed these historic moments, happiness to go back home and sleep in my own bed, curiosity to meet my friends and hear all their stories, but also worries of what the future may bring.

Golden Oldie: What do you expect to happen?

Natalie Kolbe: So many things are unclear and no one can predict what will happen. So far the people had one goal, no matter if men, women, young, old, Muslim, Christian, doctor or street seller, they all wanted Mubarak to go. This goal is now achieved. But what will happen now? Omar Soliman as Interim President? I am not sure if the people will or can accept him, as he is responsible for thousands of political prisoners, torture and total surveillance. And what about the ministers of the old regime? I could imagine that some demonstrators will stay to try to make them leave as well, some want to see them put to justice, while others will want to simply go back to their shops and earn the money they badly need to feed their families. What will be the role of the military? There is a reason why they have been so “neutral” during the conflicts, they didn’t want to anger any one so they would not lose their privileges and influence into state matters. If they take power now, I am not sure if they will let it go for the sake of democracy later on. Another point that is unclear is the opposition, and I am not only talking about the Muslim Brotherhood, which western Media like to focus on so much.

Golden Oldie: Which opposition group will evolve as the strongest?

Natalie Kolbe: None of the opposition groups and parties are organised enough to take over the power now, none really has a prominent figure that has enough support from the population to lead the country into a better future. There is a risk that these people who demonstrated hand in hand to let Mubarak go will be divided in their hopes and wishes for the future of Egypt. In worst case, the lack of strong leadership and the battle of different groups for power can lead to a violent and chaotic civil war, which would be a disaster not only for the country but for the whole region. For me personally the consequence would be to have to leave the country, very quickly and most probably for good. A situation that I very much hope will not happen, but which I nevertheless have to prepare for mentally.

Golden Oldie: You have many friends in Egypt. What did they tell you about what they experienced the past weeks?

Natalie Kolbe: What I have always liked about Egypt is that it is so diverse. This diversity also reflects in the stories I have heard from my friends. Some were afraid, some – Egyptian and foreigners – left the country, a colleague had to fear for his life when violent Pro-Mubarak protesters set fire to his house, some were arrested and threatened, no one I know was Pro-Mubarak. Most of the ones I know who went to the Tahrir Square were overwhelmed by the size and the peacefulness of the demonstrations, some went right into the middle of it, some stayed aside observing. After the first week I also witnessed Egyptian friends who were still anti-Mubarak but who were calling for an end of the demonstrations, saying they would serve the country better by going to work and keeping the economy alive, all feel proud of being Egyptians after today. Going more into depth would take a book to write.

Golden Oldie: In the past years Egypt’s economy was growing fast, attracted lots of investment. Do you think Mubarak’s resignation will be good or bad for the economy and therefore the well-being of the people?

Natalie Kolbe: This is not a simple yes or no question. For sure the economy will suffer for months, maybe even years, depending on how fast and how well a new government will take over. Economy has already suffered greatly during the past 18 days, tourism, one of the biggest incomes for the country, has almost entirely collapsed, Egypt cannot be considered as stable for the moment, which of course will have repercussions on investors. Also with missing government structures the people will temporarily have an even harder life than before. And here also lies the risk that people might get even more frustrated, wishing back the old regime. However, if the interim government manages to push the right reforms, stabilise the country, and most importantly get the people to believe again in the country and themselves, the economy can regain and surpass its previous strength in the long run. Change takes time, take the German reunification for example, I just hope that the people don’t expect immediate miracles and will have the stamina and strength to build up a new strong Egypt.

Golden Oldie: What must Egypt do in order to become a true democracy?

Natalie Kolbe: I find it very difficult to talk about real democracy at this stage. First of all political stability is essential to avoid civil war. This means an interim government where all sides are represented and a leading figure that is supported and respected by the majority of the people and who is willing to lead Egypt into democracy. This already will be difficult enough, as neither the military nor the former leading figures will be thrilled to leave power and privileges to make room for democracy. As for a leader supported by the majority of the population, at the moment I only see Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League. El Baradei missed the momentum and only came back to Egypt when the demonstrations had already started, also a lot of Egyptians doubt that he could deal with Egyptian challenges as he has lived in Europe for too long. This opinion is still the result of a successful anti-Baradei campaign lead by Mubarak a few months ago. The Muslim Brotherhood is only supported by an estimated 20 percent of the population and has no charismatic figure to put forward, it is even worse for the other opposition parties.

Golden Oldie: What makes Amr Moussa strong?

Natalie Kolbe: Amr Moussa has kept quiet during the demonstrations, he did not put himself forward like El Baradei and will therefore be perceived as wiser and less opportunist. He is known and respected by most Egyptians for his clear words and actions. Another factor on democracy will be the western world, especially the USA. Will they allow Amr Moussa, who has criticised the US before, to take over the lead or will they opt for a more comfortable Omar Soliman? The economical situation and the hardship of the people will also play an important role in whether or not the people will have enough strength to fight for democracy and put up with all the inconveniences that come along with this process. I am sure there will be some voices calling for the return of a totalitarian system, taking care of the people “like a father for his children”. You also have to consider that Egypt has never witnessed a real democracy.

Golden Oldie: So there is a long way to go?

Natalie Kolbe: I find it always very naïve of some western commentators to think that just because there has been a youth movement on Facebook and because democracy is such a wonderful thing that countries like Egypt will automatically fall into it. Even though people on the streets have been calling for democracy, a lot of them don’t know what it really means, I have witnessed even educated people giving me very strange and slightly scary definition of what they thought democracy was.

Golden Oldie: So which reform steps are necessary?

Natalie Kolbe: Before we can even think of real democracy, the judicial and the education system have to be radically reformed, civil society has to be strengthened, people need to learn that they have to shape the countries future along with its leaders. The people have to understand that they also have duties towards their country, not only rights to claim, they have to see and believe in the advantages and chances democracy can bring them, they have to realise that the fight is not over with the departure of Mubarak, but that it only has begun now. There is still so much to do and to be achieved. So many variables influence the process, that it will be a long and stony road. I wish for the Egyptian people to have the will power and strength to shape their country in such a way which is best for them.

Golden Oldie: Do you think Egypt will achieve that?

Natalie Kolbe: For this, I would like to use a very Egyptian answer: Insha’allah (God willing) ;-)

Golden Oldie: Finally, about yourself. What are you doing in Egypt?

Natalie Kolbe: The first two and a half years in Egypt, I worked in tourism, then moved to the International Affairs Department of a university which was being established by Alternative Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish. Since November 2008 I am Deputy Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum Cairo, which is part of the Austrian Embassy. Our aim is to foster cultural dialogue between Austria and Egypt by organising a variety of cultural events and activities with Austrian and Egyptian artists, targeting a broad Egyptian public, especially those, who normally don’t get in touch much with traditional art forms. It is actually a bit like AEGEE and I like it a lot. As long as the curfew will be in place, our work will probably be restricted to paper work, reports and updating our websites. Once a certain degree of normality will be regained, I am quite sure we will be one of the first European cultural institutes back in business. I think Egypt and everyone living there is up for some exiting times ahead.

More info about Natalie’s work in Egypt: www.acfc.cc and www.austro-arab.net.