When prominent Egyptian activist Dalia Ziada met with her Fletcher GMAP thesis adviser in early January, the pair agreed that Dalia should explore whether a major protest movement could succeed in her home country.
Dalia’s research question, recalls adviser Prof. Richard Shultz: “Is Egypt Ripe for a Serious Challenge by a Strategic Nonviolent Movement?” In their meeting, Prof. Shultz said, the idea that in the short term Egypt would erupt into a serious challenge to Mubarak’s regime never came up for discussion.
But within weeks, Egypt that question was eclipsed by events. Under pressure from Dalia and hundreds of thousands of other protesters, President Hosni Mubarak ended his thirty-year authoritarian rule in Egypt.
Throughout the protests, Dalia e-mailed Prof. Shultz, the director of Fletcher’s International Security Studies Program, to discuss and assess developments. When Mubarak stepped down, Dalia e-mailed Shultz from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests; the two immediately settled on a new thesis topic for Dalia: “Strategic Nonviolence Strategy and the Lessons of Egypt.”
At 29 years old, Dalia has already achieved a lot: She has campaigned against female genital mutilation, organized the screening of human-rights films in Cairo, talked with American congressman about freedom of expression in the Middle East and been featured in Time magazine and the New York Times. She writes on her blog widely read updates on the situation for activists in the Middle East and works with the American Islamic Congress (whose motto is “passionate about moderation”).
Dalia is one of the youngest members of Fletcher’s current GMAP class, notes Nicki Sass, the Assistant Director of GMAP admissions. But her “extraordinary” background made her a good fit.
Prof. Shultz calls Dalia “quintessentially Fletcher”: Curious, smart, thoughtful, and out to change the world. At the January GMAP session in Argentina, Prof. Shultz said, Dalia sat in the front of the room and asked a lot of questions.
Dalia first came to Fletcher in 2008 for a session of the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI), a week-long program for journalists, activists and others; the program features a heavy emphasis on strategic nonviolence theory.
The FSI is co-sponsored by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), which serves as “a catalyst to stimulate interest in nonviolent conflict.” Founded by Peter Ackerman, a leading scholar of strategic nonviolence who earned a Fletcher Ph.D. and who is Chairman of the Fletcher Board of Overseers, ICNC “collaborates with like-minded educational institutions and nongovernmental organizations.” In doing so, ICNC seeks to support “seminars and workshops in nonviolent conflict attended by activists and citizens who are considering civilian-based, nonviolent action as a way to seek democracy, justice, or human rights.”
The Fletcher Summer Institute is illustrative of these ICNC efforts. It brings to Medford each summer some of the activists who have led the successful nonviolent movement such as Otpor, which brought down Slobodan Milosevic’s government in Serbia, said Mariana Stoyancheva, Associate Director for Strategic Initiatives and Relationships at The Fletcher School.
Those lessons discussed at the FSI, recalled Dalia, stuck with her through the Egyptian protests. “I still remember Dr. Ackerman's persistence on learning from Gandhi and keep people ready for protesting again and again if their demands are not met,” Dalia said.
Dalia has many of the key traits of a leader said Senior Associate Dean Deborah
Nutter, who teaches a course on leadership in GMAP. In particular, Dean Nutter pointed to Dalia’s savvy, her drive, her values and her optimism. In turn, Dalia said that Dean Nutter, who directs the GMAP program, helped inspire her in the early days of the protest. She looked at a paper that Dean Nutter gave GMAPers, which reads “Never, Never, Never Give Up!"
Dalia says that while no one precisely predicted that the Jan. 25 protest against Mubarak would transform into a nonviolent revolution. But she had long believed that “the people won’t stay silent forever.”
On New Years, for example, Dalia blogged about Egypt’s deteriorating standard of living and previous sham elections – and concluded that the situation could not hold. “As an optimist, I would assume that this major stress on grassroots people and huge crackdown on political opposition elite would accelerate reform,” she wrote. “We just need to let people know that there is a safe way to express their anger in a manner that would lead to real sustainable change. That is; nonviolent strategies and techniques."
In a recent e-mail, Dalia voiced confidence that the Egyptian military, which took over leadership in the country when Mubarak stepped down, will live up to its promises and turn power over to a democratically elected government. Dalia, whose father served in the army until his death, pointed to the fact that the army did not fire on the people when they were sent in to face protesters. “The army has become part of the revolution and a strong asset in making it succeed in bringing Mubarak down,” Dalia wrote in an e-mail.
“In other words,” she added, “it does not make any sense to expect that the Egyptian military which once protected the revolution and protesters against all attempts by the previous regime to kill them, may under any condition betray the people. I know from my very trusted resources that the High Military Council, which is now ruling Egypt that they are hundred percent pro people and doing their best to have their demands met. I believe that we should give them some time to succeed in their mission to successfully moving Egypt from dictatorship to democracy.”
So what’s next for Dalia? For one, finishing GMAP while working to keep the revolution on track. And of course, there will be those e-mails sure to come from Prof. Shultz about finishing that thesis. One can well imagine, notes Dean Nutter, a lot of people will want to attend Dalia’s thesis defense in the summer.
- Lauren Dorgan, F11