February 26th, 2011
12:57 PM ET
By Lauren E. Bohn, Special to CNN
As Egyptians returned to Tahrir Square to push for the realization of more political demands, one of the world’s most influential Muslim television preachers delivered his first address in Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak left office.
“I don’t have a stronger message than this: Kill yourself working for Egypt,” Amr Khaled told a crowd of thousands.
Khaled traveled to Sohag, a poor governorate in Upper Egypt, for the first time to deliver lectures. He announced the launch of a microfinance project and literacy and politic awareness campaigns.
Hagar Ashraf, 15, said it was the best day of her life. “It’s the first time to see him. I always saw him on television talking about hope,” she said. ‘That’s why I love him. Just hope. Nothing more.”
Heralded by many in the West as a voice of Islamic moderation, Khaled urged youth to practice peaceful coexistence and be tolerant of different cultures and ideas.
“The world is opening up for all of us,” he said.
It certainly is for Khaled who was one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2007. He has been banned from speaking in his native Egypt for the past eight years.
Khaled’s trademark brand of “faith-based development” and massive popularity among the nation’s young and restless was a thorn in the side of Mubarak’s regime. He was forced to leave Egypt several times as critics worried he was inspiring youth not only to change their lives, but also the regime. He returned to Cairo on January 28 to show his support for the revolution that wound up sweeping Mubarak from power.
“Blood has started to run in Egyptians’ veins,” he said. “I’m using all this energy and opportunity to, insha’allah, inspire youth to dedicate their lives to improving Egypt.”
Despite efforts made by Mubarak’s regime, the sharp-suited 43-year-old has turned into a celebrity over the years. Khaled was greeted with crowds, gifts and requests for autographs on his early morning flight and on Sohag’s dusty side streets.
Youth jumped on Khaled’s car as he left his lecture in the town’s square. They all wanted a piece of a man they say has inspired them not only to be better Muslims, but better people.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that Facebook users from Egypt created 32,000 groups and 14,000 pages during the revolution; the page with the most fans from Egypt was Khaled’s.
With almost unparalleled popularity among youth in Egypt’s newly democratic space, many have questioned whether Khaled will run for a political position in the country’s future government.
“Why not? All the options now are open,” he said, adding that he’d only do so if it would “improve the renaissance” rather than simply ride the wave of the revolution.
Abodoma Fathy Mohammed, a 21-year-old medical student, joined Khaled’s Life Makers branch in Sohag a few years ago and says Khaled’s foray into politics would naturally extend the “amount of people he’s changed like me,” adding, “you need government and not just NGOs for development.”
Khaled shuffled through Sohag meeting with community leaders, including priests and Sohag’s governor. According to Khaled’s team, some signs showed business might return to usual earlier this week as security forces and local government, worried about continued workers’ strikes and demonstrations in the poor governorate, told Khaled and his team they couldn’t come to Sohag.
“We simply went ahead anyway,” said Gamal Al Etribi, head of Life Makers in Egypt. “It’s still the mind of the old government, but hopefully the power (of the revolution) will change this.”
Ayman, 40, hopes so. “We have a large amount of ignorance in Sohag. It’s a village system, and we suffer a lot,” he said, making ‘asab, a sugar-cane juice in his store across the square where Khaled delivered a lecture after Friday’s prayer. “We need people like him to come here.”
A few streets down, Salafis gathered at Al Haq mosque to listen to a lecture by another formerly censored figure, the prominent Salafi Sheikh Yasser Borhamy from Alexandria. A critic of the former government, Borhamy’s website (salafvoice.com) had been shut down by Mubarak’s regime in the past.
“Look, they have different points of view, different than Khaled’s maybe,” said Life Maker Hassam Marey. “But after all, we are all Muslims. It’s just a matter of applications. We are all brothers.”
Though an accountant-turned-preacher, youth like Heba El Said, 23, say Khaled has been an inspirational spiritual leader.
“Amr Khaled advises us and speaks to our hearts. He doesn’t give us orders on what I should or shouldn’t do,” she said. “I like, no, I love Amr Khaled and his way to discuss, his way to develop, his way to change.”
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