Egypt's Activists Should Reject Speaking Tours

Tuesday, 17 May 2011 09:38 AM

By Judith Miller

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Want to meet Egyptian pro-democracy activists? Come to New York.

In recent weeks, Egyptian actor and filmmaker Khaled Abol Naga came to Columbia University to discuss his days in the Tahrir Square revolution and show footage of his new documentary on the protest.

At a special New York briefing hosted by the D.C.-based Brookings Institution in March, donors and guests heard pro-democracy Arab champions — among them Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian telecom magnate, who recounted his struggle to nurture liberal and secular values in Egypt and set up a liberal political party.

Across town at the Council on Foreign Relations, Wael Ghonim, the Google employee who was pivotal in organizing the protests that led to President Hosni Mubarak's ouster, spoke about "Revolution 2.0" — the phrase he coined for the uprisings and the social media that he claims spawned them.

Then he signed a contract with Harcourt Brace for a book about the uprising, the proceeds of which he vowed to donate to Egyptian charities, families of Egyptians killed in the protests, and school libraries.

"Why are they all coming here?" asks Steven Cook, a fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, whose own book, "The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir," is being published by Oxford Press later this year. "Their work is not here, but in Cairo."

Elections are tentatively set for September, he points out; in these next crucial months, Egypt's political future could be decided.

Cook says what many others hesitate to say about the courageous men and women whose protests changed the political map of the Middle East this spring: Go Home.

No serious activist should be taking time off for speaking tours while the future of Egypt hangs in the balance.

The enormity of the challenge has grown ever clearer since President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February. Among the most ominous developments is the growing persecution of the Copts, Christians who make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt's 83 million people.

Since Mubarak's ouster, Christians complain, the transitional military council ruling Egypt has allowed Salafists (ultraconservative Sunni Muslims) to attack Copts with impunity.

Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, is just back from Egypt. He reports that liberal reformers, though still optimistic, increasingly fear that the Salafists are emerging with the military's blessing — perhaps in an alliance to enable the military to continue ruling or to block the emergence of a truly democratic government.

Many hundreds of Salafists whom the military released from prison, for instance, helped to pass a package of constitutional amendments that the military proposed, but which liberal and secular forces had strongly opposed.

There's also concern over the Muslim Brotherhood's true agenda and the breadth of its support. Spokesmen at first said that the group would nominate candidates for no more than a third of the seats in a new parliament — but Dr. Essam El-Erian, a senior member of its ruling council, recently told The Washington Post's Lally Weymouth that the Brotherhood would seek to fill up to half the seats.

But the Brotherhood performed well below even its own expectations in university elections six weeks ago. "They didn't get more than 15 percent anywhere," McInerney observed.

Still, Egypt's pro-democracy activists are anything but complacent about the challenge posed by the Brotherhood and other religious-based parties. Many have declined invitations to leave Egypt at such a crucial time.

Leslie Campbell, Middle East regional director for the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. pro-democracy group, said that hundreds of the young liberal activists involved in the protests were now working "night and day" at home in Egypt to move toward democracy. Only a couple of dozen activists had come here so far — and only for a few days.

"They know what is at stake in Egypt," Campbell said.

Read all of Judith Miller's columns on

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