Sunday could be a momentous day for Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world. It is the first anniversary of the inauguration of President Mohamed Morsi, and his regime’s opponents are planning massive protests.
Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the two-stage presidential election held after the collapse of the Mubarak regime in 2011. Many of the young people who gathered at Cairo’s Tahrir Square during what was optimistically called the Arab Spring, and helped bring down the Mubarak dictatorship in the name of freedom and democracy, felt betrayed when the Brotherhood, once in power, imposed its own form of authoritarianism.
Women’s rights were curtailed, Coptic Christians saw their religious liberty endangered and critics of the government were roughed up, jailed and shot. The Morsi government has proven economically inept as well. Food prices have soared, fuel shortages are producing long lines and electricity is shut off for hours at a time.
A coalition of anti-Morsi activists, calling itself Tamarrod (Rebellion), has prepared a document outlining the failures of the government. Its authors, who claim it has garnered some 15 million signatures, hope that an aroused citizenry can force the government to step down. The regime, for its part, dismisses the significance of the planned protests. One official, quoted in Al-Monitor, called them the work of “the communists, the atheists and the radical Copts,” financed by “remnants of the former regime.”
However, there are voices of hope, advocating for real change in Egypt.
One of the leading figures in the Egyptian opposition is Dalia Ziada, and I had the pleasure to hear her speak openly at the AJC Global Forum, held earlier this month in Washington. She electrified the crowd of 1,500 with her charisma, courage and sincere commitment to democracy and peace.
Ziada, born in 1982, began working for human rights and, more specifically, women’s rights while still a teenager, under the Mubarak regime. Inspired by the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, she and fellow activists expertly used Facebook, blogs and other digital media to organize the resistance in Tahrir Square that brought down Mubarak.
Newsweek named her two years in a row, in 2011 and 2012, as one of the world’s most influential and fearless women, and CNN called her one of the Arab world’s eight agents of change. Now, as director of the Ibin Kaldoun Institute, a human-rights organization in Cairo, she hopes to replace Egypt’s current government with a democracy.
The first thing that struck us in the AJC audience was the seeming incongruity of a woman dressed in traditional Muslim garb addressing a primarily Jewish audience. “I’m very proud to be here with you,” she announced, both setting the audience at ease and demonstrating that she had no fear of possible repercussions back home. Describing present-day Egypt as a “circus,” she cited its disgraceful treatment of women, young people and Copts, and asserted that “the wrong people are in power.” Ziada criticized U.S. support for the Morsi regime and said that one of the goals of the June 30 demonstrations would be to delegitimize the Egyptian government in the eyes of the American people.
Even more striking was her dismissal of anti-Israel propaganda in her country and the broader Arab world as nothing more than government-fomented distractions aimed at averting attention from the region’s real economic and social problems. She insisted that many of her colleagues in the Egyptian resistance agreed with her that Israel is not an enemy, and could indeed help them achieve democracy and individual rights.
Much, then, is riding on what happens this Sunday. But even if the Morsi regime survives the protests, Dalia Ziada has vowed that she and her colleagues will not give up, and true democracy will eventually come to Egypt.
Brian Siegal is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Greater Miami and Broward Regional Office.