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Egypt's YouTube Democrats

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, December 17, 2007

Is the cause of liberal democracy in the Arab Middle East dead? It would be easy to jump to such a conclusion in Washington, given the Bush administration's shameless retreat from its "freedom agenda" and the recent campaigns by Arab autocrats to crush liberal politicians, journalists and civic activists. But it's also easy to overlook the fact that the Middle East's movement for human rights and democracy originated not in the White House but in capitals such as Cairo, Beirut and Amman. There, it is still alive, well -- and even growing.

I was reminded of this when seven Egyptian civil society activists toured Washington in advance of a meeting last week with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. All are in their 20s; all are leaders of groups promoting such causes as women's rights, prison reform, religious tolerance and political change. All believe that Egypt could become a liberal democracy in their lifetime. And why not? They're not acquainted with the numerous Washington experts who have dismissed the possibility.

They do know a lot of people like themselves. "The majority of Egyptians are like us, under the age of 35," said Ahmed Samih, the 28-year-old director of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies in Cairo. "Our president is 85, and far away from Facebook."

Samih, a fearless man who says he has been a political activist since age 17, ought to know. Six months ago he founded a Facebook group called "What happens when Hosni Mubarak dies?" Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt under "emergency law" since 1981, is actually only 79. But he is noticeably fading. And Samih's group has attracted 2,741 members, almost all of them Egyptian.

Facebook and YouTube are where the young Egyptian democracy movement lives -- mostly out of reach of Mubarak's secret police. There are more than 60 Facebook groups devoted to liberal Egyptian causes; many of them have thousands of members. On YouTube, one can find hundreds of video clips showing demonstrations for human rights in Egypt, speeches by liberal activists, sermons by reformist Muslim clerics -- and torture by Mubarak's security forces, captured on cellphones.

The king of torture videos is Wael Abbas, a 34-year-old journalist and blogger. A clip he posted of police sodomizing a minibus driver with a stick scandalized the country and forced the prosecution of two officers. Last month, his YouTube account was suspended, on the grounds that his videos violated the site's standards. Following a clamor from human rights groups and a shower of e-mails from outraged Egyptians, his access was restored, and 187 of his clips were back up last week.

This is not to say that Egyptian activists can't be found in real-life neighborhoods. One of the interesting things about the activists visiting Washington was their disdain for the aging elite of Egypt's opposition parties, who mostly confine themselves to editing small newspapers or writing books. "It's time to get out and work with groups that have concrete problems," said Mozn Hassan, the 28-year-old head of Nazra for Feminist Studies, a group focused on training female activists. "People who are living in Upper Egypt don't care about the emergency law. But if we can relate this to their rights as a woman, or as a [Christian] Copt, or as a person who cannot get work, we can recruit them to the overall cause of reform."

The activists were brought to the United States by the human rights group Freedom House, which gave them one-month fellowships to work with U.S. community organizations and arranged for them to meet Rice on Human Rights Day. Many of them were in the United States for the first time. They seemed grateful for the opportunity to meet Rice even though they've been disappointed by her swivel in the past two years from calling on Egypt to "lead the way" to Arab democratization to embracing Mubarak as a "mainstream ally" and helpmate in Israeli-Palestinian talks.

"The United States has decided it needs Mubarak more than they need to support the human rights cause," said Ola Shahba, a 29-year-old project manager for Nahdet El Mahrousa, a group that promotes community development projects. "We are in trouble, and we need to work our way out of it."

Part of that work, as the activists saw it, was reminding Rice and others in Washington that support for democracy in Egypt is not a matter of charity. "We are not just saying, 'We are some idealistic group so help us,' " said Samih. "We are saying, 'This is in your national interest.' Reform in Egypt is important to the United States. The theory that the devil you know is better than the devil you don't doesn't work -- because the devil you know brought you Mohamed Atta."

For now that truth seems to have been forgotten at Rice's State Department. But Samih and his friends are young, and they are busy planning for life after Hosni Mubarak and George W. Bush.


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