The Middle East can be a depressing place: war, dictatorship, poverty, terrorism, repression and intolerance. But every now and again there are brief moments of personal hope, small rays of light that break through the darkness.
From Dec. 5 to 7, I attended the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s conference on civil society. The summit was held in Lithuania and attended by activists, parliamentarians and dissidents, who gathered from around the world from countries such as Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Russia, Tunisia, Israel, Egypt and Jordan.
On our first day in Vilnius, we drafted recommendations to the OSCE on the protection of civil society and advancements in human rights. I spoke about the importance of highlighting individual dissidents and recommended that Western aid be conditional on improvements in human rights.
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When I finished speaking, an Egyptian delegate ripped a small piece of paper from her notebook and scribbled something on it. She passed it to the Egyptian blogger sitting to my right, Kareem Amer, who spent four years in prison under Hosni Mubarak. Amer read the note and grimaced. He jotted a message to me: “The worst thing here is the racism of some of the participants.” He then showed me the paper the woman had passed him. On it was scribbled in Arabic, “Be careful. He’s from Israel.”
I was saddened and amused by her note, but Amer took a different approach. He immediately told me, “If you want to talk about this publicly, go ahead. We cannot accept racists among us.”
Amer spent years in Egyptian prison due to the intolerance of a dictator and he knows that bigotry must be confronted head on. I chose not to chastise the woman in public but instead to approach her after the session. I introduced myself and asked what issues she was working on. I said perhaps we could work together on human rights in Egypt. She refused to look at me, speak with me or acknowledge my presence, all because I hold a particular citizenship.
After I left the room, Amer confronted her. He upbraided her for being prejudiced against someone she had never met. She claimed that she did not hate all Israelis but merely the government. Amer called her bluff and pointed out that I was not part of the government.
During the closing ceremony the next night, delegates took part in traditional Lithuanian dances in Vilnius’ city hall. Suddenly, the Egyptian woman approached me and said, “David, I’m so sorry for the way I treated you yesterday. Things in Egypt are very tense and it was not OK for me to do what I did. I’m so sorry. I hope we can be friends.” I thanked her for her apology and said that I too hoped we could work together for peace.
Egypt is on the verge of implosion. Salafist forces and the Muslim Brotherhood are taking over the country. The economy is in free fall and the military is defiant. It is likely that the region will get much worse before it gets better. Egypt may seem hopeless at times, but we must never forget the potential impact of engaging with regular people. Empowering moderates and liberals is more important now than ever.
The transformation of my Egyptian colleague was unexpected and welcome. How many more Egyptians might undergo a similar reversal if challenged and engaged? We can only know if we try.
David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and co-founder of CyberDissidents.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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