Ismail Serageldin is optimistic about Egypt’s future in large part because of his experience as director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where the average age of the 2,400 employees is 30. “We started with nothing and in less than eight years, these young people created an institution that is recognized among the great libraries of the world.”
The young people of Egypt stood up against the government and demanded change twice in the last three years – first against Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and then against Mohamed Morsi in 2013. “The rebellion against Morsi was a fundamental rejection of the vision of an Islamic state,” says Dr. Serageldin, noting the important role played by women today and in the 1920s, when women openly removed their veils during an earlier demonstration in Tahrir Square.
Dr. Serageldin talked informally about the library and the state of the Egyptian revolution during a Celebration Garden Party on May 31, 2014, at the home of Ibrahim and Aida Mady, on the banks of the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. More than fifty people attended the celebration organized by the Friends of the BA – DC, MD, VA, part of the Baltimore-Luxor-Alexandria Sister Cities Committee.
“The cleavages in our society are profound,” continued Dr. Serageldin. “There are those who want a modern, progressive secular state not unlike Norway. There are those who do not want anyone from the military and those who want the military to be given a forceful hand. There is general disenchantment, especially among young people because nothing has been achieved yet.”
“No revolution completed its strategic agenda and transformed society within a few years,” Dr. Serageldin reminded the audience. In the United States, the war of independence itself lasted six years, followed by the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention, the election of George Washington 13 years after the Declaration of Independence, with the Bill of Rights only ratified in 1791.
“I keep telling my young colleagues that in Egypt we are not even four years old. We are still a toddler.”
The Road Ahead
Dr. Serageldin outlined several key steps he believes are important on Egypt’s road ahead:
- “Blood has been spilled. There must be an accounting for the deaths from January 25, 2011, until now,” – perhaps even a “truth and reconciliation” commission as in South Africa. “The air must be cleared or the gap will continue to grow between young and old, male and male, Islamist and non.
- “The economy is a shambles,” but he is encouraged that newly elected President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has said measures taken by the government today won’t have an effect on people’s lives for at least two years. “Finally someone is willing to say the truth,” says Dr. Serageldin. “We will get the engines of the economy running, but it will take time. And my belief is that people will respond favorably when you tell them the truth.” Again, his optimism stems from seeing the dramatic changes in places like Singapore, Taiwan and China – changes that took a generation
- “If the Egyptian public has successfully stopped the seemingly unstoppable tidal wave of political Islam in our part of the world they have also resurrected the specter of the centralized security state with all its problems.” Tackling terrorism is a profound problem in every society, because the public expects the government not just to punish terrorists but prevent terrorist acts. “In the name of preventing terrorism, governments take actions that are not so constitutional, limiting free speech until you have McCarthyism,” or the World War II concentration camps for the Japanese in the United States. “This is a slippery slope. We have to accept pluralism and a divergence of views. Democracy requires pluralism and pluralism requires differences of opinion.”
- Dr. Serageldin also urges an acceptance of a broad range of views in the media and among the public. Acknowledging that media reports may often be biased, he pointed to the very different reaction in the west to the 2013 revolution in Egypt and the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, where the “uprising was recognized as a popular movement, not a coup. But wasn’t a popularly elected leader replaced by large scale action in Ukraine just as in Egypt?” Dr. Serageldin said that the media have a responsibility to make a fair and honest assessment, but the government should tolerate a wide range of opinions – “the only way to insure that pluralism and democracy survive.”
“We are here to help the young people on the right path,” concluded Ismail Serageldin. “They are building their future and the future of the world and Egypt’s place in it. Egypt has given so much to the world so many times throughout the centuries. Egypt will come back and give again.”