Saad Ibrahim on the Egyptian Revolution at the CCGA: “Young People are Deciding the Fate of their Societies”
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is the real deal when it comes to the Egyptian revolution. Although his current title is the Wallerstein Distinguished Visiting Professor, Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict, Drew University, what he has been through does a much better job of explaining who he is. He was put on trial in Egypt for his anti-Mubarek activities (including founding the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies), convicted twice and sentenced to seven years of hard labor. He served 15 months before being acquitted by Egypt’s highest court. He walked with a cane to the podium at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) and began to explain his take on the recent flood of revolutions in the Middle East. As he completed his formal talk, he moved to sit down in a chair for the Q&A. As he gingerly moved to seat himself, he quipped: “I used to be a marathoner; look what prison does to you.” I couldn’t tell whether it was a small joke juxtaposing his current portly appearance, or the straight truth.
In addition to talking broadly about the political history of the region, he made several interesting comments:
- The difference in this revolution: It was begun by youth, supported solely by non-violent civilians, and then the military stayed neutral and actually protected the demonstrators from the police
- This was unbelievable: He explained that the revolution really took off on Day 3 when the government shut off internet and cell phone service. Why? Up until then most of the demonstrators where under 30. When cell phone access got shut off, their parents could not reach them, so the parents went down to Tahrir Square to try to find their kids to see if they were OK. When they got there, the atmosphere was like a street fair – so they stayed! That virtually tripled participation in one day (1 child + 2 parents = 3 people)
- He commented (as have others) that he was not aware of any anti-American slogans being chanted. This was about Egyptians taking responsibility for themselves; not placing blame on someone else
- He strongly recommends that the West deal with the Muslim Brotherhood respectfully. They should be allowed to participate as long as they accept the basic premise of the democracy. If we do that, he says that it is likely that the system will develop similarly to many of the Central and Eastern European countries or Turkey. While some may be skeptical of a Muslim religious democratic party, he said that the concept is comparable to the Christian Democratic parties in Europe.
- He said that during the first few days of the demonstrations, he virtually “slept” at the White House – acting in an advisory capacity. Although Obama was criticized (and continues to be criticized) for his “passivity”, it was Ibrahim’s comment that the Administration was very concerned not to “scare” the Saudis, by appearing to drop Mubarek too quickly. The Saudis could easily interpret that as a sign of what could happen to them.
Ibrahim is in Chicago as part of a very special day of learning TOMORROW, March 9, at Northwestern: The Shifting Sands of Hegemonic Powers in the Middle East. Looks like a fabulous program – I’m sorry I won’t be able to go.