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March 9, 2011

Reaching out for democracy in the Arab World

Scott Stockdale

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All three Arab Canadian panellists agreed that the fundamental human need for freedom and dignity is the impetus currently compelling change across the Arab world.

Speaking at the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto recently, Dr. Ibrahim Hayani, Professor of Economics at Ryerson University said we're often told that human rights, poverty, unemployment and the divide between rich and poor are the roots of the upheaval; but there is a deeper meaning.

“It's an Arab struggle for freedom and dignity without which life has no meaning ... It's about being treated with respect and dignity and not as anonymous serfs.”

While these values are often taken for granted by citizens in western countries and often celebrated - and even boasted about – by western political leaders, as examples of our superiority, citizens of western countries can't imagine what it's like to live without them; and few realize that their governments have long propped up brutal dictatorships throughout the Arab world, for many years.

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, professor emeritus of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, one of the editors of The Canadian Charger, said he found himself in the middle of the Egyptian revolution by sheer accident.  On January 26, he looked out his hotel window overlooking Tahrir Square and said he feels blessed to have had an eyewitness account of a life changing event in his native land.

“I was in the square on Tuesday February 1. Most of the time I was in the square I was crying. It was beautiful.  It was a cross-section of the Egyptian people: young and old, men and women, from all walks of life. I've never seen this before in my life. All Egyptians were there taking care of each other ... When I saw it there, I realized that Mubarak must go. It was just a matter of when.”

He stressed that it was shameful of the western media to ignore the integral role women played in the Egyptian revolution – especially after this same media has been calling for “the liberation of Muslim women” for 30 years.

“Seventy per cent of the revolution was done by women. I saw them. Has anybody heard of Asmaaa Mahfouz, a young Egyptian woman? She was one of the organizers of the revolution. There is a bias against Muslim women surrounding this revolution.”

Eiman Abou-ell-Alla, an Egyptian-Canadian activist said Ms. Mahfouz was one of  founding members of the April 6th  Movement – an Egyptian Facebook group started by four people – two of which, are under 30 – in the spring of 2008, to respond to widespread injustices in Egyptian society.

“The organization of it was sheer genius. They had no idea what was going to happen. They set up hospital stations, food stations and water stations (in Tahrir Square). Youths, celebrities, and political groups were set up in different sections of the square. People quit their jobs to come and help. Many families in Egypt prepared lunches, and water for these people. They  gave everything they could offer for these people.”

While many western commentators express concerns about protests throughout the Middle East leading to Islamic states; none of the panellists believe this is going to happen.

Dr. Elmasry said that of all the revolutions he's followed – Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, all the demands of the protesters are for a secular state, with Turkey as the quintessential example.

“I can't say there's zero per cent chance to go to an Islamic revolution, but I'd say there's a 95 per cent chance it won't go there because nobody is asking for it.”

He added that the people in Tahrir Square are an insurance policy against this turn of events.

Dr. Hayani said that in order for democracy to be a genuine part of the process, it must be based on local values and he doesn't see a conflict between democracy and Islam.

“In Islam sovereignty lives with God. God doesn't act personally, he acts through us, and so sovereignty is with the people.”

The reason many in the west think Islam is incompatible with democracy, Dr. Hayani said, is because when tribal leaders came to power in the Arab world, with the support of western governments, they used Islam to give legitimacy to their rule. He said the truth is: there is no such thing as an Islamic State.

Dr. Elmasry pointed out that Germany and Italy have Christian political parties; and nobody gives it a second thought because their religious affiliation is not the determining factor in their political stance.

“People have reference points in their pursuit of change, liberty and social justice. They may be Marx, Descartes or Christ. These reference points don't change the reality on the ground. Please don't repeat the scare tactic of the threat of an Islamic state, like Gaddafi and the president of Yemen who say, “If you have regime change you'll end up with an Islamic state.”

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