“The Fletcher School gave me sort of an extra level of understanding, the perspective of someone who is looking at the planet as a whole, in all its complexity. It taught me a more nuanced approach to things that’s not local, that’s not personal, that’s not narrow minded."
The Fletcher School doesn’t include many, if any, political convicts among its alumni. Sherif Mansour is one of them, and he’s proud of it.
In June of this year, Mansour was one of 43 Egyptians and foreigners sentenced to prison terms by an Egyptian court, part of a politically charged crackdown on foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations. The case received worldwide attention and criticism, particularly from the United States, which supplies Cairo with more than $1 billion annually in military and economic aid.
“It does complicate my life,” Mansour (GMAP ’08) says, laughing. “I get to enjoy the title of being a convict, but for the right reasons.”
Mansour, who is the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, has been in the rough and tumble of politics, civil society and human rights in Egypt for more than a decade now. A native of Cairo, he graduated from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University with a degree in education in 2002. During his studies, he worked as a freelance journalist and with several nongovernmental organizations. Following graduation, he continued work in civil society development with different organizations, including the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, where he organized election monitoring projects. In 2006, he emigrated to the United States and helped found a network aimed at harnessing the Egyptian diaspora to push political reforms and to encourage moderate Islamic thinkers around the world.
“Civil society is still very crucial to the development of the democratic, liberal system in Egypt,” he says. “Right now we [in the civil society community] don’t have the legal or operational mandate to help, and that’s creating a lot of problems.”
In 2006, a fellowship at the Center for Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington led him to The Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict. There, he was inspired to enroll in Fletcher’s Global Master of Arts Program (GMAP), a combined residency and Internet-mediated international affairs degree for mid-to-senior level professionals.
Over the course of the program, Mansour studied with Tufts Associate Professor of Political Science Jeffrey Taliaferro and with Anna Seleny, Fletcher professor of the practice of international politics. With them, he worked to hone his thesis, which examined the concept of “aid conditionality”—essentially using foreign aid as a carrot, or stick, to encourage governments to change policies.
At Fletcher, Professor Seleny “helped me a lot in bridging my personal gap between activism, academic work and political theory,” he says. “She was crucial in getting me to think beyond my own personal biases.”
During his GMAP studies in 2007, he joined the staff of Freedom House, the venerable Washington-based democracy NGO. There, he managed its Middle East and North Africa programs supporting youth civil society organizations. In 2011, as Egypt was roiled by the Arab Spring and longtime leader Hosni Mubarak was forced from office, he returned to Egypt for the first time in five years. He opened the organization’s office in Cairo.
“In 2011, after ousting Mubarak, there was of course a lot of optimism that there could be an opening for democracy and human rights groups to operate,” he says. “We were welcomed by the government in the beginning.”
By the end of 2011, however, the Egyptian government had started cracking down on organizations like Freedom House, charging the groups with conspiracy to overthrow the government. Mansour traveled back and forth to Egypt, monitoring legal proceedings and defending himself. In June 2012, he was arrested and detained for two days after a travel ban was imposed on him. He later successfully challenged the ban.
Fast forward a year to June 2013, the court convicted Mansour and 42 others, most in absentia, handing prison sentences and plunging U.S.-Egyptian relations to new lows. Mansour says he and others have appealed the lower court ruling.
“If I was to show up in Egypt I would be arrested,” he says. “It’s a political case, and everyone knew that, so [the ruling] wasn’t any surprise.”
Mansour, who joined the Committee to Protect Journalists in November 2012, says that while at Fletcher, he didn’t fully realize how relevant his studies would be to his work in Egypt. In the wake of the July military coup that overthrew the government of President Mohamed Morsi and the crackdown on foreign NGOs in Egypt, the U.S. government is now debating whether to cut off the substantial aid package it provides—an issue that was central to Mansour’s Fletcher thesis on aid conditionality.
“Back then aid conditionality was more theoretical… a lot of people would not have dared to say that Egypt would change and that the U.S. government would be challenged to reconsider its position in Egypt,” he explains.
“The Fletcher School gave me sort of an extra level of understanding, the perspective of someone who is looking at the planet as a whole, in all its complexity,” he says. “It taught me a more nuanced approach to things that’s not local, that’s not personal, that’s not narrow minded.”
Mansour says he talks to his colleagues, his family and his friends, and they’re amazed at how much he’s benefited from the Fletcher program. “If students realized how much Fletcher is going to impact their professional lives, they should put so much effort into it,” he adds.
And of course, he says, because Fletcher alumni are everywhere, you never know when you’ll run into one and find new and promising possibilities for collaboration and exploration.
“Be an advocate of the program,” Mansour says, “because you are going to benefit a lot from having these interactions.”
--Mike Eckel (F13)