The journey from the American state of Minnesota to the heart of the Egyptian capital, Cairo, is not a short trip. Besides the long distance, the two countries are currently immersed in many regional and international dramatic events. In addition to both the global financial crisis and the Arab uprisings that have affected each and every country in the globe, both Egypt and the US are now being gripped with elections fever, with the former now preparing for the first post-Mubarak elections, while the latter is gearing up for the next-year presidential elections.
Despite his busy agenda, Congressman Keith Ellison took the whole way to meet with Egyptians; to present the American democratic model and express his view about the Egyptian revolution which he closely followed.
Ellison, accompanied by two American Muslim activists (of Egyptian origin), Ahmed Bedier, the president of United Voices for America, and Ahmed Rehab, CAIR-Chicago’s executive director, met on Wednesday, Sept. 29 with a big group of Egyptians, around 70, of all ages and backgrounds, in a location nearby the famous Tahrir Square.
Actually this session was a part of a congressional delegation visiting Egypt and then Tunisia, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. The delegation consisted of five congressmen: David Dreir, Jim McDermott, David Price, Gwen Moore, and Keith Ellison.
The delegates met with former parliamentarians, NGOs leaders, human rights activists and presidential candidates; and with ordinary Egyptians as the session of Keith Ellison ran.
Choosing Ellison to speak to the mainstream Egyptians is indeed a clever hit. Being a first Muslim in the American Congress is a great factor to attract attention of young generation who strives to install a model of democracy and justice in a “new born republic”, as Ellison described it.
With an emotional beginning, Ellison praised the courage of Egyptians, those who took to the streets in a peaceful uprising calling for restoration of stolen rights and an end to the corrupt regime.
“I admire you when watching you on TV facing camels. To me, it was amazing, it was inspiring”
Ellison commented that freedom does not know one country, and that people who gained their freedom and set a democratic society should always draw closer to those who are on the way to obtain their rights.
Ellison, who visited Tahrir Square upon his arrival, kept on expressing his feelings when stepping in the same place where big event happened. He stressed that Arab spring can, and will, change the international relation between the US and Arab region for better.
“Free people will make America to deal otherwise with their governments. I believe if we do not change our policy we will leak behind.”
Message One: Write a Constitution
Actually the emotional sense was very clear in Ellison’s talk, which made the audience energized and reacted vigorously to the energetic words; though some of them still view the American political messages with cynicism.
Ellison’s speech to Egyptians unfolded many diverse messages that in turn were clear, but in some sense indirect. The first was about the role of having a constitution based on human rights, religious freedom, political activism right, and mutual equality.
Ellison modeled the American constitution recalling serious incidents in the American history when the constitution helped citizens fight against any form of injustice, racism, or inequality. He set the uprising of the African Americans against segregation as an example, as the constitution guaranteed for the African Americans the right to stand against segregation since racism is not a something that laws can compromise.
Ellison, however, turned to a sensitive issue that has been hotly debated in the Egyptian society for long time, which is the religious representation in the constitution/ parliament. He is for a constitution that represents all religious communities inside the country. For that, Ellison started by comparing Egypt to America as both countries are religious- majority countries.
America is Christian-majority country, but it is not a religious statehood; where there are no religious preferences. Ellison explored it more by saying if America were a religious- based statehood; he would not succeed to take it to the Congress. He would be excluded since being a Muslim.
As for Egypt, Ellison did not go in details speaking about Salafis, Muslim brotherhood, or other emerging political force with a religious background, but he kept his speech touching lightly upon the right of religious freedom, however he stressed strongly on what he sees as benefit of spilting politics from religion.
In Ellison’s view, religious leaders should be the conscious of the nation, working for morals, teaching people about what is wrong and what is right, not to be the armor of politicians.
Message Two: Go for the Right of Religious Freedom
“It’s a new republic, new day, to allow every voice to be heard.” Keith Ellison started his second point illustrating a basic right that should be given to all citizens in the new Egypt.
Again, following his method of addressing the mainstream audience, Ellison took America as a model.
This time he put America in a comparison with Turkey, France, and Switzerland, in terms of the freedom of religions right. He cited that in secular states like Turkey and France, religious symbols can’t be used in public places like schools. Minarets ban in Switzerland is another example that goes against total religious freedom right. But in America laws grant everybody the right to express their religious identity with no restrictions on dress codes like the first two countries or on worship houses like Switzerland.
Ellison hoped that Egyptians can follow this American model and get over any sectarian strife or religious differences.
In an interview posted in City Pages website, Keith Ellison talked more about Egyptian revolution as an open gate for religious freedom and equality, as mentioned in his interview with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell:
“The people who are in Tahrir Square, some of them are religious, some of them are not, but this is a demand for dignity, for democracy and jobs, and it’s exciting. It’s both sexes. It’s different kinds of people, Christian, Muslim, people of all different kinds of backgrounds. This is about the people. It has nothing to do with what some sectarian group’s agenda is. This is a scarecrow, this talk about the Muslim Brotherhood. But the most important thing is this group of people who are rejecting al-Qaedaism, rejecting religious extremism.”
But with this choice of topic, Keith failed to impress most of the audience who were expecting him to touch on issues that target the American Muslims; many were expecting to hear from him something about Islamophobia, hate crimes and other issues that have affected the American Muslims for ages.
Noticing this sense of dismay among the audience, I approached a middle-aged man sitting in the back seats, and asked him about his idea concerning this point, he said:
“It was better to hear Keith talking about cases of ordinary Muslims in America who suffer from the Islamophobes rather than speaking about granted laws. He speaks about one side of the story. He himself cried during the radicalization debate in America. It is not all roses there!”
Message Three: Open Up With the Americans
This point seems to be main objective of f Keith Ellison’s visit, i.e. delivering a message to Egyptians to open up and build fresh relation with American people.
“You can never confuse the policy of the government with the people of the country.” Ellison said.
Faced with a tough question from an old Egyptian doctor, who showed his anger towards the American foreign policy in the Middle East, Ellison stressed on the fact that generalization should be avoided when talking about the American nation.
“Be careful when you say The Americans,” Ellison declared.
“If you keep saying relation is ugly, double-standard, we will stay in the past.” “You can curse the darkness or you can light a candle, my mother always told me that.”
“We have chance to build a mutual relation. A mutual respect, as President Obama once said.”
Keith Ellison’s speech and endeavor put much confidence on the Egyptians about how the world sees their revolution, but his general talk that inclines towards the positive sides, rather than going deeper to speak about challenges, left a number of the session attendants with an impression that American politicians talk more than they act.
Ellison’s visit to Egypt was a positive gesture of outreach with the Egyptians, but it is not enough to remove layers of doubt concerning the American foreign policy from most of Egyptians’ minds.
At this tough time, actions and real initiatives can create a perfect medium to strengthen relations.