05/07/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'The Governments Had Better Get Out of the Way'

On April 22nd, a video dialogue took place between American students of Professor Ali Demerdas at the College of Charleston, and Egyptian students, primarily from the American University in Cairo. Discussion centered on the students' experiences of the Arab Spring, whether as a participant or a distant observer, as well as Egypt's on-going political transition.

"I took a rubber bullet in the face. A lot of people took rubber bullets," explained Abdullah Shaarawi while describing his experience as a protestor. Luckier than some, Abdullah did not lose an eye, the frequent target of riot police.

Yet Hesham el Abd and Hilton Smith, two of the coordinators of the dialogue, had not introduced the students virtually in order for the Egyptians to share their best Tahrir stories, a well-documented chronicle already beginning to recede into history; they are more interested in the future. In his opening remarks, El Abd paraphrased U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower in explaining his motivation for generating an Egyptian-American dialogue, "Governments come and go, but the people remain. We have let leaders define our relationship, but now young people can communicate directly to make the world a safer place through greater understanding."

Direct communication soon revealed concerns and confusions on both sides: "What kind of government do you want to see established in Egypt?" asked the Charleston students, betraying the anxiety of many Americans at the potential rise in Islamist power following the Arab Spring. "Secular!" came the unanimous reply.

Although their response may have reassured the Americans, the uniformly prosperous students hardly offered a representative sample of Egyptian popular will. The group attributed the rising popularity of Islamists to their ability to manipulate the poor and uneducated, the vast majority of Egyptian society.

Charleston assistant professor Tahani Higgins pointed out the potential bias of their economic homogeneity upon the opinions of the Egyptian students, (participants in the dialogue had to speak English, a requirement that disqualifies most Egyptians). She explained that, like any demographic, low-income populations tend to vote for a candidate that they feel will best represent their interests. In Egypt's case, the Islamists -- both the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafis -- have paid attention to the needs of poor Egyptians. Therefore, a decision to vote for an Islamist candidate would demonstrate rational choice rather than mass manipulation.

The growing popularity of Islamist movements among all classes of Egyptian society also refutes the "manipulated masses" perspective. Abu Ismail, a Salafist former presidential candidate, gained a broad following among youth of all classes for his piousness, populism, and perceived integrity, qualities rarely displayed by the ousted Mubarak regime.

The Egyptian students acknowledged Professor Higgins' point, but insisted that helping the poor still amounted to buying votes. This brought democracy itself into question: is democracy appropriate in a society whose population is largely poor and uneducated? Is a democratically-elected leader who appeals to this majority likely to conduct policies that would allow the country to transition to a prosperous and thus globally integrated state? Several Egyptian students expressed doubts; Areej el Tonsy voiced support for Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's former vice president, an ousted candidate who would have represented a political U-turn in Egyptian politics. Others adamantly upheld the importance of the democratic process.

"Democracy is a new thing [here]. In order to understand it, there needs to be trial and error. Even if they [the voters] will be manipulated, let them be manipulated, let them make mistakes," insisted Mohamed Abdel Wahab.

"It's a deadly mistake. It will take down our economy," retorted another student.

"We're thinking selfishly for us. We need to think about the future... We need to make these mistakes now... Otherwise we'll put it off on our children."

The Egyptian students also had questions for the Americans.

"What is the effect of the media on Americans' perceptions of Arabs?"

The disheartening reply came in a mild Southern drawl: "Probably 95 percent of people think of 9/11, and think of Muslims as terrorists. If they see [a Muslim] on a plane they freak out". The far-reaching effects of an event that occurred, for these students, half a lifetime ago reiterates the need for direct communication, rather than passively allowing the interests of governments and media to distinguish international enemies from friends.

The conversation moved to the specific relationship of the U.S. and Egypt. The Egyptians began by asking if their revolution had inspired the Americans. The lukewarm response prompted another question: "Were you aware of the corruption in the Middle East?"

A knowing look passed among the Charleston students. "Yes," came the unanimous reply.

The mysteries of U.S. foreign policy led to a question about another topic that baffles many Egyptians:

"How did the U.S. government sink into 14.3 trillion dollars of debt?" asked the Egyptian students.

"By funding your military!" came the joking reply. But seriously: "There's no punishment for spending money incorrectly... After 9/11, fear mongering allowed the government to spend whatever it wanted on the military, and now we're paying the price," explained a Charleston student. President Eisenhower's fears, expressed in his 1961 farewell address, have characterized international affairs far more than his vision.

But perhaps that can change. The well-informed and thoughtful participation of this first dialogue represents a trend that the coordinators hope to see repeated in subsequent dialogues. A conversation between Egyptian and American high school students will occur on May 20, and in the future, El Abd intends to bring American Jews into dialogue with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as to reach out to countries other than the U.S. The College of Charleston also intends to conduct future virtual conversations with students in other countries.

Yet despite the populist sentiment underlying the spirit of the dialogue, convening it required a certain amount of wasta (connections). The American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt (AmCham) agreed to host the Egyptian students, partially in gratitude to El Abd's father, who helped to establish AmCham in 1976 as an official channel of Egyptian-American economic cooperation. Smith, as a member of the board for C of C's School of Languages, Cultures and World Affairs, had use of the College's admissions office. Future dialogues will require similar generosity and support -- although social media allows for increased international connectedness, networks must begin somewhere. Building on connections like El Abd's and Smith's (friends since high school), perhaps Eisenhower's vision will finally become manifest: "People in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it."