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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2012, Pages 55-56

Waging Peace

"Egypt the Revolution" Conference

alt(L-r)Youth activist Waleed Rashed, presidential candidates Medhat Khafagy and Bothaina Kamel, and youth activist Esraa Abdel Fattah. (Staff photo D. Sprusansky)

Some 200 Egyptian Americans gathered at the Crystal City Marriott in Arlington, VA Oct. 21 to 23 to attend a conference on "Egypt the Revolution." The conference provided a forum for the Egyptian-American community to interact, exchange ideas, and develop action plans on how they can help support Egypt as it emerges from decades of authoritarian rule.

Throughout the weekend, a variety of panels discussed topics ranging from the future of U.S.-Egypt relations to the role Egyptian Americans can play in supporting Egypt economically and politically. Conference attendees and panelists alike were deeply engaged and highly passionate, resulting in at times highly emotional exchanges. The future of Christian-Muslim relations, the leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's economic development, and the voting rights of Egyptian Americans were among the issues of most concern.

Those who flew in from Egypt to attend the conference included youth activists Ahmed Maher, Waleed Rashed, Asmaa Mahfouz and Esraa Abdel Fattah, founders of the April 6 Youth Movement that helped organize the Jan. 25 Tahrir Square protests. Also in attendance was Zahraa Kassem Said, sister of the late Khaled Said, a young man whose death at the hands of Egypt's secret police in 2010 inspired a popular online movement (see November 2010 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 38). Independent presidential candidates Medhat Khafagy and Bothaina Kamel were conference panelists, while Mohamed ElBaradei spoke via a recorded video.

Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) addressed the conference Friday night, but declined to deliver a prepared speech, saying he instead preferred to listen to those attending the conference, whom he described as "people who speak from the mind and the heart."

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), noted that, according to his polling results, Arabs currently see Turkey as the region's leader, but want Egypt to assume that role. "Turkey leads, but is a surrogate for Egypt, who they [Arabs] want to lead," Zogby explained. Zogby concluded by stressing the importance of Egyptian Americans supporting Egypt economically. "Egypt needs your investment, your ingenuity," he emphasized.

Many conference speakers emphasized the importance of a unified Egyptian-American voice. Akram Elzend, a member of the Egyptian-American Cultural Association, pointed out that Egyptian Americans send about $2 billion a year to Egypt—more than the $1.3 billion the U.S. government sends to Egypt's military on an annual basis as a reward for Cairo's peace treaty with Israel. Thus, Elzend maintained, if Egyptian Americans begin to act collectively, they could have significant weight in Egypt's politics and economy. However, he lamented, Egyptian-Americans are "successful as individuals, but not as a group."

Among the other economic issues addressed were the need to get Egypt's tourism business back up and running, and the need to attract foreign investment. According to Dr. Ibrahim Oweiss, professor of economics at Georgetown University, Egypt must establish "transparency and respect of the law" before companies will feel comfortable investing there.

Regarding the future of U.S.-Egypt relations, panelists including Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, argued that "the U.S. and Egypt need to totally reconstruct their relationship." Specifically pointing to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Georgetown University Prof. Samer Shehata noted that Cairo no longer can be expected to unquestionably uphold U.S. interests. Dina Guirguis, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) [an AIPAC spin off,] stated that the Pentagon is demonstrating "willful blindness" in the SCAF's ability to maintain order in Egypt. Furthermore, Guirguis said, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent vote of confidence in the SCAF is eerily reminiscent of her affirmation in the first days of the January uprising that Hosni Mubarak's regime was stable.

Analyzing the progress of the revolution, panelists were overwhelmingly critical of the SCAF. "If the military continues to stand in the way of the people, the street is our way," vowed Egyptian presidential candidate Khafagy. Youth activist Rashed questioned the notion that the military is on the side of the Egyptian people, saying that "if not for the revolution, they [SCAF] would still be saluting Mubarak." WINEP's Guirguis stressed that the revolutionaries must present "a vision for the transition [of power into civilian hands]," noting that Egyptians are wrongly allowing the SCAF to control the process.

Khaled Elgindy, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, expressed concern about the process by which Egypt's new constitution will be created. Before a new constitution is adopted, he noted, parliamentary elections will first take place. Once elected, parliament will select a 100-member constitutional committee to construct Egypt's new constitution. This process "makes the constitution a function of the political process," Elgindy cautioned, and jeopardizes the establishment of a constitution that protects Egyptians' civil rights.

Dale Sprusansky