Dear Friends of AIC:
For two weeks, the world has been mesmerized by images of a youth-driven, peaceful uprising in Egypt. But today's dramatic events have been years in the making. Ever since AIC's Cairo office opened its doors in 2006 to work in the heart of the Mideast's movement for change, I have had the privilege to help nurture young reformers across the region. Their dream - a vision of civil rights deferred for three decades by emergency law - is now shaping up before our eyes.
January 25 may have marked the launch of a revolution, but the AIC has always sought to secure liberty and civil rights by giving youth the skills to join in the democratic process. Over the past few months, AIC Egypt has been preparing to launch a debate series for young Egyptians: training them how to express themselves effectively and to open their minds to opposing views.
Last Fall, we tested our model with a debate about religious freedomin Egypt. Broadcast live on the radio, we first polled audiences on a proposed resolution. After the debaters presented their opposing views, the audience voted again, completely reversing the results and overwhelmingly endorsing a call for greater interfaith tolerance.
We joked that these were the only free and independent elections in Egypt and - inspired by the dramatic results - we planned a national series of debates for university students on pressing civic topics. Now, even before we could launch the series, the debate about reform has moved to the streets.
Our mission has always been to help nurture a culture of nonviolent advocacy for individual rights. Three years ago, despite event after event shut down by security services, we launched the annual Cairo Human Rights Film Festival with a screening aboard a Nile river boat, sailing just next to Tahrir Square - and beyond the reach of the security forces.
We also translated a forgotten 1958 comic book about Martin Luther King's Montgomery Bus Boycott into Arabic. When, at first, we went to print the comic book, a security officer blocked publication. So we called him and demanded a meeting. He agreed, and we read through the comic book over coffee to address his concerns. At the end, he granted permission to print and then asked: "Could I have a few extra copies for my kids?"
The comic book has been credited with inspiring young activists in Egypt and the larger region (we have a Farsi version as well). Last week I distributed copies in Tahrir Square. Seeing the scene in the square firsthand is amazing. Despite violent attacks and tanks in the street, young people from all walks of life are coming together, organizing food and medical care, and offering a living model of free civil society in action.
At the same time, the situation is tense and the future unclear. My friend Kareem Amer, who recently spent four years in jail for blogging, has suddenly disappeared. Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to take advantage of the protests. And entrenched forces are trying to outlast the protests, as I wrote in Sunday's Washington Post.
Still, I'm watching proudly as Egypt's ordinary citizens take their destiny into their own hands. The young people who launched the movement insist that their desire for civil liberties will not be a dream deferred. Though we can't predict the outcome, we can be there to help ensure that a truly liberal democratic society emerges in Egypt and throughout the region (the message is spreading from Tahrir to Tehran!). The movement's real success is not about an election taking place, but about the individual rights of all citizens being respected.
We are determined to push forward despite the current instability. You can help by supporting our work (donations are tax-deductible), forwarding this letter to your friends, and spreading the word about our annual essay contest on civil rights in the Middle East. I hope to soon share good news with you when we at last launch our debate series!
AIC Egypt Office Director