Activist works for democracy in Egypt

October 9, 2013
Dalia Ziada is optimistic about her country's future.
By Ian Zelaya
Staff Writer
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Egyptian human rights activist Dalia Ziada (Photo courtesy of AJC)

Egyptian human rights activist Dalia Ziada (Photo courtesy of AJC)

The main goal of Egyptian human rights activist Dalia Ziada, the 31-year-old native of Cairo, has been the establishment of a liberal democracy in Egypt. A staunch advocate of civil liberties, Ziada spreads her message throughout the world, whether through Facebook or Women in the World summits. She also participated in the Arab Spring that ousted both presidents Mubarak in 2011 and Morsi in 2013.

The director of Cairo’s Ibn Khaldun Center for Developmental Studies, Ziada has been featured in The Diplomatic Courier’s “99 Under 33” list, Newsweek’s 150 most influential women list and in The Daily Beast’s “The World’s Bravest Bloggers.”

Ziada is currently working on a project to establish transitional justice and national reconciliation in Egypt, to avoid a scenario of the division of the country based on religious affiliations.

She attended an American Jewish Committee (AJC) dinner in D.C. this past Sunday, where she discussed her thoughts on politics in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. Before the event, Ziada provided insight on Egypt’s current political situation, Israel, social media and more.

How did you make the connection to AJC?

In 2009, I met [Daniel Pincus] who’s on the board of Access AJC. I was with the American Islamic Congress at the time so we were doing work together with AJC. June of this year, I attended its Global Forum and spoke there about Egypt as well.

What is the message you want to get across to the young Jewish community and the young community in general?

I want them to understand what’s happening in Egypt, so they can see things [clearly]. What controls the Muslim community and the Jewish community is the Palestine-Israeli crisis. Actually, it’s much bigger than that. The relationship is historical and more profound. The Palestine-Israeli crisis is just a small episode in the history of Jewish-Muslim communities. I think what we need is to understand each other more profoundly. We need to understand that we both came from the same origins and that we need to continue like this. It’s true, we’ll have our own conflicts as we go on, but this [understanding] should keep us as one. We started as one.

What is your take on Egypt’s current political situation?

I’m very optimistic. Finally we have a road map and a plan for the future. We were stumbling on the wrong people, depending first on SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces]. They failed us. Then, we accelerated the process of having elections before writing the constitution. So when Morsi came into power, he did a lot of bad things, and he failed in living up to the expectations of the people. Again, we put another wrong person into power. We decided to make it right this time.

The military sided with us when we called for the fall of Mubarak. They also sided with us when we called for the fall of Morsi. Now, we have an interim government. It’s not functioning 100 percent according to our expectations, but people are tolerating this and happy there is progress.

I think in about two months or less we will have a constitution draft and then a voting on the constitution draft. After that, we’ll have a constitution referendum. Then we’ll have a parliamentary election [followed by] presidential elections. Hopefully things will be stable again and we’ll have a healthy economy. It’s only a matter of time.

What are your thoughts on Israel’s government?

They are the best country practicing democracy in the Middle East. Of course, they have their problems, but they’re not as complicated as the rest of the Middle East.

At the same time, I have friends there who are young people. They have big dreams they want to achieve. Of course, given the war situation and crisis with Palestine, it’s making the practice of democracy a little curtailed with all the other circumstances and emergencies.

As an activist, you want democracy for Egypt. Is this your ultimate goal?

The ultimate goal is liberal democracy. Not only democracy in terms of elections and voting; but liberal democracy with all the rights that come with it — women’s rights, human rights, civil liberties.

Sometimes democracy is deceiving. We brought Morsi in power through democracy and through elections. He abused this. Imagine if we had liberal democracy. We would not have had to go to [Tahrir] square to protest and bring him down again. We could have looked at the constitution, searched for the right articles and ended it without going to protest.

Many Americans aren’t hearing moderate Muslim voices weighing in. Why is this?

Here in the U.S. I noticed that people are always [confusing] an Islamist and a Muslim. A Muslim is someone whose religion is Islam, but understands this shouldn’t get in the way of having human rights and civil liberties. An Islamist is the extremist version of a Muslim. They see that everything in this world is prohibited, Satan is controlling the West, and we should not be like [Westerners]. What the West is dealing with in general are the Islamists, not the moderate Muslims.

An effort from the Muslim side is needed to get the West to look into the right direction, but it also requires more effort from the West to search for the moderate Muslims, empower them and help them [become] decision makers in their countries.

You’ve stated that you’re establishing an academy to turn revolutionaries into politicians. What’s in the works for that?

In 2011, I ran for parliament. It was a tough experience, not only because I was a woman in a community that doesn’t respect women, but also because I was not well-trained on how to do this right. What does it mean, for example, to have an electoral campaign? What does it mean to protect yourself from smearing campaigns?

After re-evaluating, I discovered that what we need as young people and young revolutionaries is to have the skills to be politicians, so no one else will hijack our revolution.

I started the academy in 2012 with the purpose to turn revolutionaries into politicians. For political change, you need to be a politician. You need to be a decision maker and this requires training. The academy [teaches] people the skills of how to be a politician, how to establish a political party, how to run for elections and how to gain support from the government. I think this is helping a lot of young people to do what I failed [to do] in 2011. So far, it has been exactly one year [since it was established]. We have 120 young graduates ready to be politicians.

Would you say social media is useful in getting a message across?

One of the main tricks of nonviolent action is to mobilize the people without asking them [outright] to make an effort.

When you go to social media and start to speak to people who are just having fun, playing on their phones and computers, it helps [change their mind]. They will be motivated to take the next step and make the effort.

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