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Washington — Egyptian blogger and activist Dalia Ziada says the social media that helped fuel a revolution in her country will be vital in building a democracy that respects the rights of women and minorities.
Ziada has spent years sowing the seeds of democracy and human rights in the minds of her compatriots. Now that revolution has toppled Hosni Mubarak, she and other Egyptians are committed to making sure these ideas take root.
“To have the flower flourish, you have to dig deep into the soil,” Ziada said. “This is where we are now. We are digging deep into the soil in order to make sure that we will flower very soon.”
The winner of the 2010 Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Journalist Award, Ziada spoke recently at the State Department in Washington about the role social media have played — and will play — in building civil society in Egypt. She has used social media heavily as North Africa bureau director for the civil rights organization American Islamic Congress (AIC) and is the founder of daliaziada.blogspot.com.
The AIC is an organization that advocates responsible leadership and understanding between faiths in America and overseas. Co-founded by Iraqi American Zainab Al-Suwaij, the organization has offices in the United States, Cairo and Basra, and promotes its message on leadership in the Arab world through training on issues ranging from women’s rights to interfaith dialogue.
Ziada said the Egyptian revolution took a first step toward other goals by changing attitudes in government and society at large.
“Our role now as civil society actors has to go beyond just living the momentum of the revolution, but to dig deep into the society, to [counter those] aiming at marginalizing women and marginalizing minority groups,” Ziada said. “If we truly look forward to democracy, we should include everyone” in Egypt’s political transformation.
Steps are under way, on the street and in cyberspace, to improve the rights of all minorities in Egypt. Among the Egyptian grass-roots initiatives supported by the AIC is Fearless Fighters for Faith Freedom, which aims to build a society respectful of religious minorities.
“Our campaign is about bringing young people together online and on the ground who are from different religions,” Ziada said. “When you come and you see our conversations and see the things that we are doing, it can tell you how Egyptians want very much to get together, about how they want to get over the barriers of religious differences.”
Ziada pointed out that change is also about creating tools for activists to educate their audiences. She referred to a recent incident in Egypt where onlookers harassed and heckled a group of women gathered to support women’s rights in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Ziada said an AIC report, A Modern Narrative for Muslim Women in the Middle East: Forging a New Future (available on the AIC’s website), addresses the issues of women’s rights and is an excellent tool for activists. The report can be used by policymakers as a guideline for addressing women’s rights in the region.
“The problem in Egypt is not a problem of women or legal issues,” Ziada said. “In general, the Egyptian law is pro-women, but the greatest stipulations in the law for women have never been followed by enforcement mechanisms and enforcement policies.”
Shortly after Mubarak stepped down, Ziada organized nationwide debates on the role of cyber- and traditional media in the democratic process and the question of a civil versus a religious state. She said the debates, which will be uploaded on YouTube, offered a promising look at the way young Egyptians want to govern. The results of a survey for the debate on creating a religious state surprised Ziada.
“Everyone was expecting that the majority of votes went to the religious state, but … most of the votes went to the civil state,” she said. “I think that this is very refreshing and would make us very optimistic about what will happen next.”
Ziada said the AIC is reaching beyond the limits of cyberspace to include more people in the discussion of how to change Egypt. Only an estimated 20 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people have access to the Internet.
“We have been brainstorming with them recently on how to reach the people that do not have the Internet to educate them about democracy, about women’s rights and liberalism,” Ziada said. “One of the ideas is to actually make fliers in very simple Egyptian language and go to these people and speak to them directly just by knocking on their doors and speaking with them.”
As Internet penetration increases across her country, Ziada is optimistic that it will provide a virtual forum that will lead to more tolerance and exchanges of ideas.
“When you debate with someone online, they never care who you are, they never care if you are a man or a woman, they never care if you are an upper-class family or a poor family. … They just care about your point of view and really focus on what you say,” Ziada said. “It is mind-to-mind talking.”
By: M. Scott Bortot - Staff writer
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.