Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian human rights activist who helped plan the protests that led to the Arab spring, brought a message of democracy and hope to an audience of 200 at the Jewish Center in Princeton on Oct. 8.
Executive director of the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies, Ziada suggested that Egyptians yearn for a civilian president, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means less to a younger generation, and that some Israeli Jews and Egyptian Muslims are beginning to reach out to one another.
“These things are bringing hope,” she said. “What is happening in Egypt is not reshaping only the Arab Spring, but I think it is reshaping the whole region. The Middle East we always knew will change forever; we will be dealing with a Middle East that will be more inclusive and more tolerant.”
Ziada’s visit was hosted by the NJ region of the American Jewish Committee, which has featured her in speaking engagements and on its website.
Ziada, 31, got her start as an activist at age eight when she was forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), which, she said, is widely practiced across Egypt despite being outlawed in 2008.
“Something inside me was telling me this is wrong and I shouldn’t let any other girl in my family go through this tough experience,” she said, noting that she was able to save her younger sister and a cousin from the ordeal.
At university, she formed an activist group, “Female Students against FGM.” Eventually she moved to other issues in civil, women’s, and human rights.
Having trained young Egyptians to use nonviolent tactics and strategies for political change, she ended up as one of the planners for what was supposed to be a protest against police brutality on Jan. 25, 2011. That day of demonstrations, marches, and labor strikes blossomed into what has been called the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
“Nobody was expecting it was going to be a revolution,” she said.
Ziada does not see the history of Egypt over the last couple years as a failure, but admitted that the revolution — which ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, and led to a reactionary coup by the Egyptian military — brought problems with it. “We knew how to bring down a dictator but not how to build up democracy,” she said. “No one taught us, and we made mistakes.”
But now, she suggested, Egypt is finally on the right track. Adly Mansour, the interim president, decreed a way defining the steps toward democracy. “We have a clear roadmap, and it starts with writing a constitution, which is happening now,” she said. “Then we will have a referendum, and two months later parliamentary elections.”
Citing a survey by the Ibn Khaldoun Center, Ziada suggested a political maturation of the Egyptian people, with 61 percent saying they want the next president to be a civilian. “I thought the people would want a military president,” she said. To her, the survey’s results suggest that Egyptians are willing to cast their votes for the well-being of the country rather than following their emotions.
Beyond Egypt’s internal politics, Ziada spoke to the potential for a relationship between Israel and Egypt. “The younger generation, which exceeds the older — more than 60 percent of the population is under 35 — is most focused on the future,” she said. “They don’t care about the past; they don’t care whether Israel had a war with Egypt.”
“For so long, if any dictator in the region wants to be a hero, he brings up the Palestinian-Israel issue,” she said. By “creating this diversionary enemy,” governments have been able to divert attention from their countries’ real problems.
She has also seen signs of relationships developing between Jews and Muslims. Israeli youth who study Arabic have been communicating with Egyptian youth on Facebook and Twitter. And the head of the dwindling Egyptian-Jewish community, Magda Haroun, has reached out to Egyptians, inviting them to synagogue celebrations.
“I think this has somehow broken the barrier between Jews, Muslims, and Christians,” said Ziada, adding that this has helped the people of Egypt to differentiate between Judaism as a religion and Israel as a state. “People realize that religion is one thing and politics another.”
People at the talk were thrilled with Ziada’s defense of democracy and inclusion.
Kim Pimley, a member of the AJC executive council in charge of national leadership development, said Ziada “is an extraordinary example of the kind of understanding we at AJC have of human rights and democracy.”
Randi Hubert of Princeton said, “I think her most powerful message is that inclusiveness, not Islamism, is the answer for Egypt, and I think she seems so effective in spreading that new message in Egypt and around the world.”
Gil Gordon, president of the Jewish Center, said Ziada “is an inspiration, a breath of fresh air, and it is very humbling to see someone with her power and her presence trying to make changes in that country.”
Hazel Stix of Princeton, however, expressed concern about Ziada’s safety. “Not only is she an inspirational speaker but very courageous to be a human rights activist in Egypt and speak in front of a Jewish group in the United States and return to Egypt,” she said.
In response to a question about whether, as a human rights activist, she has been harassed, Ziada responded yes, adding that she has received death threats. But, she quickly added, “I always believe these are small things that should not stop anyone from continuing what they believe in.”
Ziada also told NJJN, “Not everyone is happy with my opinions or the fact that I travel to the U.S. so often. The fact that I have Jewish friends was used in a smear campaign against me in 2011 when I ran for Parliament.”
Edna Noiman of West Windsor asked Ziada whether she planned to visit Israel to deliver her message there. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said, “but I’ve been warned that if I have the stamp of Israel in my passport I will be treated like a spy forever.” She expressed hope that a future government will be more open-minded, however, adding, “I didn’t expect to be here with you today in Princeton.”