Amr Darrag, a member of the Freedom and Justice Party, above, spoke at the first Williamsburg-CSIS Forum.
In Colonial Williamsburg’s Hennage Auditorium, from left, Amr Hamzawy, Samy Atya, Joshua Stacher, Manar El-Shorbagy, and Amr Darrag.
Amr Hamzawy, president of the Egypt Freedom Party, spoke at panels on his country’s political challenges and on the Arab Spring.
Khaled Ismail is CEO of SySDSoft and chairman of Endeavor Egypt, which supports entrepreneurs in developing countries.
First Williamsburg-CSIS Forum: Focus on Egypt
by Gil Klein
Editor’s note: The Williamsburg-CSIS Forum took place in April, two months before turmoil in Egypt led to the removal of President Morsi from office. Even during the conference, some participants said events in Egypt were leading to imminent political and economic crises that would be difficult to avert even with the opportunity for the open discussion among the contending factions provided by Colonial Williamsburg.
Standing in front of the ample fireplace in the Apollo Room of Colonial Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern, Amr Darrag told an attentive audience what he saw as the accomplishments of the revolution. No, not the American Revolution, the usual topic in these quarters: the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. As a leader of Egypt’s ruling Freedom and Justice Party, largely composed of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Darrag put the best face on the tumultuous events that still engulf Egypt.
He spoke of the “marvelous and sweeping wave of change,” including five free elections since an uprising focused on Tahrir Square in Cairo deposed President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt now has a constitution that gives its people more freedom than they ever have had. And for the first time in the country’s history, it has elected a civilian as president, Mohamed Morsi.
“Since the toppling of the oppressive regime in Egypt, we were conscious that the way forward would not be smooth but the clock could not be set back,” Darrag said. “We are turning the challenges we face into opportunities and the fears into hopes.” Not everyone in the room agreed. Others spoke of massive corruption, of fears the Muslim Brotherhood will impose an Islamic government, that human rights still are trampled, and that the Islamic government and liberal opposition quarrel while the nation teeters on economic disaster. Leaders of all Egyptian parties had converged on Williamsburg for a four-day conference co-sponsored by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the College of William and Mary.
“Nothing has changed,” said Naguib Sawiris, one of the leading businessmen who founded the Free Egyptians Party after Mubarek fell. “We did the revolution to acquire rights and the democratic process. In good faith, I can’t say that we have that today. The governing body does not govern democratically. There is no new Egypt.”
That Naguib Sawiris and Amr Darrag could be in the same room talking about Egypt’s future and the meaning of its revolution was the point of this, the first Williamsburg- CSIS Forum. To enhance its twenty-first century relevance, Colonial Williamsburg’s mission is broadening to include promoting democracy and citizenship, and examining revolution around the world, Colin Campbell, the foundation’s president, said.
“If we are going to be focusing on citizenship today, we ought to focus on the realities of citizenship in a global context as well as in a domestic context both because that’s where the world is going and that’s where Colonial Williamsburg ought to be,” Campbell said. “We are not taking this away from our mission. We are adapting our mission to twenty-first- century realities.”
The Egyptian conference was the first of what are to be two annual forums on important international issues. The next is planned for autumn and is to examine the European Union’s future. The setting for Darrag’s speech—the reconstructed Raleigh Tavern Apollo Room—underscored the American Revolution’s tie to Egypt’s. In 1774, when British colonial Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses, its eighty-nine burgess gathered in the Apollo Room to decide what steps to take to oppose British policy. The outcome was a call for a Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Its successor, the Second Continental Congress, produced the Declaration of Independence. From the Declaration came revolutions against tyranny and for republican government. “There is a link to what happened in the Apollo Room with what is happening today in Egypt,” Campbell said.was a call for a Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Its successor, the Second Continental Congress, produced the Declaration of Independence. From the Declaration came revolutions against tyranny and for republican government. “There is a link to what happened in the Apollo Room with what is happening today in Egypt,” Campbell said.
Zeroing in on the Egyptian revolution made sense, he said, because it is one of the most important events in today’s world. Egypt plays such a prominent role in the Middle East that if its revolution builds a representative government that promotes human rights, it will have a profound influence on the region. Now, Egypt’s future is uncertain.
If Colonial Williamsburg had a resonant historic setting, it hadn’t the connections and reputation for creating an innovative international meeting of this sort, particularly involving a country like Egypt, Campbell said. For that, it approached Washington, DC’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, which has “roots in the global agenda and has people they know who can be brought into a conference of this kind.” Rounding out the partnership was William and Mary’s Reves Center for International Studies. Financial support for the program came from Colonial Williamsburg benefactors Anita and James Timmons, the Ford Foundation, and an anonymous donor.
The four-day forum included public and private events so that the participants could candidly discuss issues among themselves as well as take public positions. Video of many of the public events is available at http://csis.org/program/williamsburg-csis-forum. Examining events in Egypt and helping that country on its road toward democracy are crucial at this point, John Hamre, CSIS president and CEO, said: “What’s going to happen over the next three years is going to shape the next thirty years. The revolution that occurred fifteen to eighteen months ago is still unfolding.” Yet Americans are woefully ignorant of what is happening in Egypt, he said, and that made this forum important not just to the more than twenty politicians, economists, military leaders, and businessmen who came from Egypt but to American policy makers who must know more about what is happening.
Perhaps for the first time some of these opposing interests could talk one-on-one, Campbell said during a break in the proceedings. “A number of people said that they don’t have this kind of conversation of people with diverse viewpoints at home, but they’re having it here. Once they have had it here, chances are they will have it at home—at least some of them will. They are building relationships here and different perspectives that can be carried on.”
Colonial Williamsburg’s job, he said, was to provide the setting and the historical context and to get the people to come. Their job, he said, was to make the most of it. “We do not want to direct them to do what we hope they will do,” he said. “But I think they may.”
To tie the Egyptian Revolution to the American Revolution, the opening speaker was Gordon Wood, a Brown University professor and an authority on the American Revolution and the early federal period. Democracy, he said, is more than majority rule. A full-fledged democracy has to take care of minorities and their rights, as well as allow for majority rule.
Darrag tried to allay fears about Islamic law as his party envisions it. “In many countries with governments made in the name of Islam, the real Islamic values were not applied as they should have been,” he said. “This gave the impression to a lot of people in the world that there is a contradiction between the values of Islam and values of modernity and democracy.”
True Islamic law can provide a government that is far more democratic than the dictatorship it replaced, he said, and as modern as the West’s. “There is very little difference between the basic values of Islam and the basic values of modernity and democracy,” he said. The choice of a ruler comes from the people, not from God or anyone else, he said, and the rights of all religions must be protected.
“We hope to develop the systems, the disciplines, the modern institutions that will prove to the whole world that this is a viable system that can really make a difference, achieve progress, and can be the best thing for citizens whether Christian or Muslim or men or women,” he said. “We are going to push for the full rights of every citizen in Egypt.”
He faced skeptics.
“Two years after the revolution, Egyptian politics has not delivered to meet people’s demands,” said Amr Hamzawy, a former member of parliament and a leading politician and intellectual. “They took to the streets to demand dignity, social justice, and freedom, and an end to human rights violations and restrictions on freedom of expression, and a space to articulate their demands and to be able to hold public officials accountable. Two years later, we are not closer to meeting those demands.”
He questioned whether the constitution pushed through by the Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party offers equal citizens rights and whether it distinguishes between religion and the state in a way that allows the development of a modern state. Some articles, he said, give the Islamic religious establishment authority over the legislative branch on issues related to Islamic law. “We are seeing an attempt to take Egyptian politics in an undemocratic direction,” he said. Echoing Wood’s observation that democracy is more than ballots, he said, “Clearly the ballot box is being respected. Islamists talk a great deal about institution building. But whatever else belongs to democratic values—building consensus and including opposition movements and creating room for political actors to maneuver and share responsibility, it is not out there.”
In private sessions, the participants said the revolution that was about freedom and economic opportunity for Egyptian young people has turned into a deadlock between Islamists and liberals that is dominated by old people. Repeatedly, participants said they feared the deadlock would so hamstring Egypt’s economy it would collapse before a stable government can be built. They lamented the corruption that stifles political and economic development.
In open session, Manar El-Shorbagy, who had been the only woman on the nineteen-member assembly that wrote the Egyptian constitution, said women were instigators of the revolution, but her efforts to ensure that the constitution promoted women’s rights were dismissed. “At that point, I told all my colleagues, when it comes to women’s rights, there is no such thing as liberals and Muslim Brothers. All of you are men.”
Khaled Ismail, a leading Egyptian entrepreneur, said the young people who fomented the revolution are eager to build Egypt’s economy and should be given more responsibility in shaping the government. “Success or failure of the revolution will depend on whether we empower the young people.” Now, he said, almost all of the government’s leaders are men older than sixty. Men in that age group make up 3 percent of the population, though men and women under forty are 80 percent. The young people have awakened to the possibilities of entrepreneurial development that had been stifled for decades, he said. “The bright side is that young people don’t care about politics. They want to see change in their country, and they are taking it in their own hands. They have a sense of urgency for change. Why isn’t my generation learning from them?”
One of the great questions is what role the Egyptian military will play in its nation’s future. Mubarek and most Egyptian top-level government officials for the past sixty years were active or retired military officers. Yet the military did not oppose the revolution. Retired General Anthony Zinni, former chief of the United States Central Command, said the Egyptian military has been essential to American military operations in the region since 1979, and breaking ties with it would be foolish.
Though the military stands ready to help with maintaining stability and security, it no longer wants a role in the government—other than head of the defense ministry, said retired General Sameh Seif Elyazal, director of the Al-Gomhoria Center for Political and Security Studies. “You will not see a uniformed officer in the cabinet unless minister of defense. We don’t want it.”
Will Egypt’s new government support its old treaty with Israel, an agreement that has kept peace along their border since 1979? Darrag said Egypt has no interest in a conflict with anyone, but the peace treaty is unpopular in Egypt, and in the long term,must be changed. “Before it was easy for Israel to deal with one person, close a deal, and things were done. Right now, with a democracy, Israel must realize that whatever the Egyptian people are looking for will be reflected on acts of the administration. This will lead to more work on the Israeli side to respect its commitments. This is the best way to maintain peace.”
Islam Abdel Rahman, a researcher for The Freedom and Justice Party, said the forum’s venue was inspiring: “Williamsburg has a historical and cultural heritage, and its relationship to the American Revolution has a significance for the Egyptian Revolution. So bringing people here in the current situation is very significant. It is inspiring to see how the Americans started their revolution and their bill of rights.”
Khaled Ismail, who was an important contributor to the conference, said its significance for him was exposing the size of the gap between the contending parties, “and it’s big.” The right people had been invited and it was well organized, he said, but it may have had a bigger impact if it had come six months earlier. “It was a great thing as a forum and a place to interact. Had people been a little bit closer, it would have been more useful. But people came with their legacies.”
Reginald Dale, director of the Williamsburg-CSIS Forum at CSIS, said the purpose of the Egyptian conference was to “start a dialogue among Egyptians who don’t normally talk to each other in Egypt.
“This was the first high-level meeting between these kinds of people either inside or outside of Egypt since the fall of Mubarek. They got on remarkably well in the calm, reflective, and historic atmosphere of Colonial Williamsburg. People from very different viewpoints could actually sit down and discuss things together. That was the sort of thing we were trying to achieve.”
Virginia-based journalist Gil Klein, former national correspondent for the Media General News Service in Washington, is a past president of the National Press Club, and is an American University assistant professor. He contributed to the winter 2013 journal the story “Dead Men Do Tell Tales.”