Egypt: A Voice of Experience for a Youthful Movement

BY Margaret Warner  April 22, 2011 at 2:31 PM EST

The last time I saw Mona Makram-Ebeid, she was sitting in the overstuffed opulence of a hotel cafe in Cairo, enjoying a cigarette with Newsweek’s Paris bureau chief, Christopher Dickey, and a famed Egyptian writer. It was Day 13 of the Egypt uprising. President Hosni Mubarak was still in power, but Ebeid, a former member of parliament turned professor, was marveling at what her country’s young people had already done. “I always dismissed Facebook and Twittter as toys for the well-off kids having fun,” she said with a smile. “I was so wrong. Now, because of them, we have a future.”

It’s been just two and a half months since that evening, but Ebeid, on a visit to Washington this week, sounded a lot more sober. She described herself as “full of concern, full of fear for the future — but hopeful.”

Her reasons for concern, shared by many democratic, secular Egyptians, have been widely reported — a military council doling out reforms in piecemeal fashion, an energized Muslim Brotherhood commanding the country’s only national political organization, a compressed election calendar forcing the liberal elements to scramble to organize in time, and remnants of the old regime and its security apparatus still sowing sectarian strife around the edges.

But there was something about hearing it from this feisty, ebullient, Harvard-educated Egyptian trailblazer that made the message even more sobering. After all, this longtime women’s rights and human rights activist, and frequent adviser to the World Bank and United Nations, is not a woman easily daunted.

“This will be a long and rocky road,” she told an overflow crowd at the Middle East Institute Thursday. The collapsed Mubarak regime “left us with frayed institutions, a civil society that’s not vigorous enough” and no recent experience with democracy. She dismissed the traditional moderate political parties that were allowed to exist — but just barely — under the regime.

“Those are the old faces, the same faces they’ve seen for the last 30 years,” she said. “The people want to see the faces of Tahrir Square.”

She’s urged the young protest leaders to join forces with the old parties, at least for the next elections, but they’re not interested. “I think it’s a mistake,” she said, but there it is.

Ebeid is one of the few middle-aged figures in a position to offer advice to the new cadre of activists. She joined in the Tahrir Square protests early in the game, and they trust her, electing her afterwards to their Council of Trustees of the Revolution. Now she’s trying to give them some pragmatic advice: if moderates don’t want to get swamped in the September parliamentary elections, as they were in the just-concluded constitutional referendum, they have got to focus on hard-headed organization, and be willing to join forces and merge slates. Letting 1,000 flowers bloom may be exhilarating, but it’s no way to win elections.

Ebeid had two other pieces of hard-headed counsel. As disappointed as they are with the Military Council’s lack of transparency, and its delay in prosecuting Mubarak-era corruption, the activists can’t let a rift develop between them and the army. They need the army, she believes, to maintain stability long enough for the independents to build up other institutions.

She is also advising them not to try to isolate the Muslim Brotherhood, but to incorporate them in the political arena so they’ll be like other parties, forced to take positions, defend them, and be held accountable.

Finally, she said, they must reach out to the broad swaths of Egyptian society, to the rural and urban poor, as well as educated Facebook users and their parents.

“If the Muslim Brotherhood is to be defeated, the Egyptian people must believe there is a Muslim alternative to them,” she said. “It can’t be secular alone.” There are moderate Muslims who don’t want Iranian-style clerical rule, she said, but they’ll be turned off by a blatantly secular message: “The question must be, how can we blend Islamic elements with a modern, secular, democratic regime?”

This is a tough, grown-up message to the idealistic activists who brought down a dictator — but have no experience competing in the political arena. With parliamentary elections just five months away, they don’t have much time to heed it.

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