Fletcher Features

Dalia Ziada (F11) on Shaping Democracy in Egypt

In the aftermath of what Dalia Ziada terms the “easy part” of a revolution—the toppling of the dictator—how does a nation move forward to build a thriving democracy? It was this question that motivated Ziada to join The Fletcher School’s Global Master of Arts Program’s (GMAP) July 2011 class, and that drove her forward to help young Egyptians find answers at home.

On October 4, Ziada spoke at Fletcher as part of the Hitachi Center for Technology and International Affairs Speaker Series in a lecture entitled “The Impact of Technology on Women’s Rights in the Arab World.” Ziada was introduced by Lisa De Bode (F13), author of The Quiet Revolution.

Ziada is a long-time Egyptian blogger and activist and was a prominent voice in the revolution that toppled the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. She has now turned her attention to the difficult work of building a flourishing democracy as a teacher, activist, and candidate for parliament. For Ziada, the real challenges for Egypt lay ahead; the revolution itself was an easier task.

Ziada suggests that something of that revolutionary momentum was lost after the protesters succeeded in forcing Mubarak out of office. Many of the youth who had been so prominent during the protests did not want to become politicians once a new government had to be formed. Many more did not know how to do so. These leaders of the revolution had no experience in political organization, no understanding of how to run campaigns or hold elected office. Only Islamists groups, most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood, had any such experience.

Diplomatic Courier's Top 99 Under 33 Foreign Policy Leaders BadgeIn fact, there was much to discourage those who, like Ziada, wish to see a strong Egyptian democracy animated by vibrant debate. With the disorganized liberal protesters effectively out of politics for the time being, the Islamists and members of the previous regime took over the writing of the new constitution. “What’s happening now is the Muslim Brotherhood is coercing everything,” Ziada said, referring to the once-banned conservative Islamic political group that now dominates Egypt’s parliament and the presidency. “What I fear is that we will be facing the Muslim Brotherhood’s theocracy with Mubarak’s autocracy.” The result: a country that is at best an illiberal democracy, with few political views being represented.

The exclusion and marginalization of women from political life is even more drastic: out of 1,000 voters polled from a range of socio-economic groups, Ziada found that not one was prepared to ever see a female president in Egypt. Even within her own liberal party, she was denied the top listing as the party’s first candidate on the reasoning that society would not accept having a woman listed first. “Men are telling women, ‘Go back home, it’s not your time now, we want to build democracy, you should be home,” she said.

But Ziada has not given up hope. She is encouraged by the push back against certain emerging illiberal tendencies, such as the public outcry against measures that would allow such practices as child marriage and female genital mutilation, and is herself actively working to increase the vibrancy of public political discourse in Egypt. Through a program at the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies in Cairo, she provides would-be political actors, who lack the necessary experience to break into the complex world of Egyptian politics, the training they need to be successful.

For Ziada, GMAP was a life-changing experience, and she hopes to bring the program’s signature model of combining online instruction with focused residencies to her own program in Egypt. As in GMAP, in addition to online and in-person instruction, participants benefit from an online community in which they can offer one another support and resources, and even build grassroots participation via new media resources. Ziada has used what she has learned in her GMAP courses and beyond to teach participants about politics and how to run a successful political campaign.

The participants themselves come from a wide range of ideological backgrounds, but share a lack of organizational experience and resources that the dominant Islamist parties have. “It’s not proper that the people who led the revolution are now completely out of the scene,” she said, and her program attempts to remedy this problem. Ziada’s program also has a particular focus on helping women become more active in Egyptian politics, a subject about which Ziada is passionate. Ziada’s approach is an attempt to create the necessary crossover from online discussion to real-world action.

What should the rest of the international community do, with regards to the events unfolding in Egypt? Here, Ziada is unequivocal: the world should be quiet, and let Egyptians work out their future for themselves. However the international community should watch closely. By keeping an eye on Egypt in the news, in academia, and through social media, the world can keep a steady pressure on an Egyptian government that is still very sensitive to both their domestic and international image.

And when will we know that the revolution has been a true success? That, for Ziada, is simple: “I don’t believe our revolution will succeed until one day we have a woman president. I don’t believe there can be a democracy unless women are properly in power.”

-- Ati Waldman and Tom Carugati