Egypt: An Arab Spring Awakens The Sleeping Giant

 

Cairo – Home to the world’s first great civilization and the epicenter of modern Arab culture, Egypt’s magnificence, power, and importance cannot be overstated. It has the largest Arab population of any country and, subsequently, the largest number of Arabic speakers in the world. It was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, and its political clout in the Arab and Muslim worlds is unparalleled. That being said, it was only to be expected that when ordinary Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the overthrow of the regime of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, the reverberations from such an event would be felt across the region and around the world.  In less than three weeks following that fateful day, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down from office after commanding 30 years of virtually unchallenged power.   The relentless determination of the Egyptian people to see to it that their voices were ultimately heard was nothing short of extraordinary and awe-inspiring.  The calls for freedom, and an end to the corruption that allowed for an extraordinarily wealthy tiny elite class to prosper while the majority of Egyptians suffered from high unemployment, food price inflation, and lack of civil liberties, were not answered through entirely peaceful means. Over 840 brave men and women lost their lives in the fight for freedom from oppression.  By the time I arrived in Cairo, Mubarak had just recently stepped down from office but the calls for change had not ended, and a military curfew was still in effect.  I attended one of the largest demonstrations to take place during the ongoing revolution, The National Day of Protest.  I was fortunate to meet many remarkable men and women who in face of tremendous risk and uncertainty epitomized the struggle for freedom in Egypt and around the world.  They bravely defied orders to return to their homes and many personally knew people who were beaten, injured or imprisoned during the revolution, yet remained undeterred to exercise their will to protest.  What this experience showed me was just how important the democratic values we often take for granted at home really are; it inspired me to see what people were willing to sacrifice in order to obtain them in their quest for a life of dignity,  justice, and a sense of self-worth.

Among these remarkable individuals I was fortunate to meet was a young woman named Dina Abouelsoud. The owner of the successful and eponymously named Dina’s Hostel, Dina is also a prominent activist who single-handedly created a women’s rights organization following the Egyptian revolution. Often cited in leading global periodicals like The New York Times and The Washington Post, Dina made one of the highest sacrifices in defense of democracy when her and a group of women were beaten on Tahrir Square by an angry mob of young men who objected to their calls to give equal voice to women’s rights in a proposed new government (pictures of Dina’s group just prior to the assault are in the photo slideshow above).  This perceived lack of emphasis for the welfare of women during the protests in Cairo is what prompted Dina to start her organization in the first place. I met Dina days after she had been assaulted and, as a testament to her tremendous courage, she was ready to attend the next protest that I was going to. We attended the National Day of Protest together with members of her newfound organization and though they made the same calls for freedom and equality as before, they were not harassed or assaulted for it this time.

The National Day of Protest exposed me the stalwarts of change in a newly energized Egypt. I met with countless young people involved in myriad causes (see videos below), including one to release teenage protesters who are currently imprisoned without due process and in violation of the Egyptian Constitution.  I also spoke with members of the Muslim Brotherhood (see video below) which is the most organized and well funded party in opposition to the National Democratic Party (the government of Hosni Mubarak).  The Muslim Brotherhood defended their platform against the characterizations from international media outlets labeling them a quasi-terrorist organization.  The representatives I spoke with denied these characterizations and stated that their party’s purpose is to safeguard the interests and well-being of the Egyptian public.  Given the Egyptian constitutional ban on parties formed in the name of religion, the Muslim Brotherhood will have to form several parties with different names and strategies. Analysts I spoke with in Cairo expected these parties, combined, to garner anywhere from 15-20% of the popular vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Through a French journalist I met at Dina’s hostel, I was placed in contact with Mohammed Mourad–a leader of the Egyptian Democratic Academy in Cairo. Having consulted with US officials about future democratic reforms, including members of the Obama administration with whom he was photgraphed (standing in the blue sweater), Mohammed was an excellent source of background information regarding the various political groups vying for power in the upcoming elections.  Mohammed explained how, similar to the current American electorate, Egyptians prefer candidates who can adeptly appeal to the political center. Any candidate who is too religious or traditional is likely to alienate a large portion of voters. Conversely, any candidate that is seen as too liberal or progressive, especially in Egypt’s foreign policy relations with the United States and Israel, is also likely to displease a large portion of the electorate.  However, the most organized and well-funded political group is Mubarak’s party–seen as too conciliatory with Israel and a puppet serving American interests in the region–and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is seen as too traditional and conservative.  As a result, the El Wasad party–literally meaning “the center” in Arabic–seems to be a viable alternative to the two dominant parties for many voters. Time will ultimately tell how this scenario unfolds, and whether the Egyptian military, the current vanguards of the state, will allow the calls for change to flourish in accordance with the will of the people.

 

 

 

 

 

Accompanying Dina Abouelsoud to Tahrir Square

 

Tahrir Square – National Day of Protest

 

Tahrir Square – National Day of Protest

 

Tahrir Square – National Day of Protest

 

Tahrir Square – National Day of Protest

 

Tahrir Square – National Day of Protest

 

Tahrir Square – National Day of Protest

 

Tahrir Square – National Day of Protest

 

Tahrir Square – National Day of Protest

 

Tahrir Square – National Day of Protest

 

Conversation with young Egyptians

 

Discussion at the Egyptian National Musuem

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