Two Egyptians win top prizes in civil rights essay contest

Sarah El Sirgany
8 Min Read

Middle Eastern entries take the lead with “stronger content

CAIRO: Egyptian and Middle Eastern contestants claimed the top prizes in the Dream Deferred essay contest on civil rights in the Middle East.

Contestants were asked to address the repression of civil rights in the region, focusing on the importance of individual rights, how grassroots reform efforts could challenge restrictions and the possibility of future reform.

The first and second prizes in the Middle East division of the contest went to Egyptian contestants Tarek Shahin and Mahmoud Salem. Even the United States division featured a number of winners sharing Middle Eastern origins.

Interestingly, two of the U.S. winners were Middle East-Americans, or Americans of Middle East background. This was by no means a requirement but as it turned out their experience and encounter with the region enabled them to produce particularly moving essay, says Jesse Sage, program director of the contest organizer, Hands Across the Mideast Support Alliance (HAMSA).

The non-profit organization is an international civil rights initiative of the American Islamic Congress, which promotes interfaith tolerance and mobilizes American Muslims, as well as all Americans of conscience, to stand for individual rights across the Muslim world, according to HAMSA brings together Americans of diverse backgrounds to support civil right movements in the Middle East. It aims at encouraging a new generation of Middle Easterners committed to civil rights.

The Dream Deferred contest is HAMSA s flagship program. HAMSA is about supporting indigenous voices for reform and working on the grassroots level, says Sage. Rather than dictate policy objectives or act as if we have all the solutions, we wanted to give young people an opportunity to weigh in with their ideas and opinions.

Sage explains that the contest also serves the organization s goals of recruiting a network of young people interested in protecting individual rights. We thought it was very important to send a message to young liberals in the region that there is a reward for expressing their views and desires for a more open society, he adds.

The results were more than satisfactory. Entries from the Middle East made a remarkable impact. Although some diverted from the main questions, taking the contest as an opportunity to voice their opinions about international conflicts and issues, Sage says that, The Middle East s entrants on the whole wrote stronger essays. They were better writers and offered more compelling examples.

Several judges, he continues, commented that the top essays from The Middle East were stronger than their American counterparts . The top essays from the region had more heft in the end, he adds. Shahin, who came in first place claiming a $2,000 prize, wrote a mock news story about religious oppression (apostasy is punished by death) and American intervention in state affairs. While addressing one of the most sensitive civil rights taboos in the Middle East, the essay’s factual reportage nonetheless lets readers draw their own conclusions, reads, The sobering result identifies serious obstacles before dissidents, the audacity they will have to summon to make progress and the need for outside support.

It was an essay about civil liberties, says Shahin, And of course living in this part of the world one wouldn t know where to begin, but I immediately thought of religious persecution and freedom of speech. They were issues synonymous with civil liberty and they were topics I personally felt very strongly about. Shahin, a 23-year-old equity researcher and cartoon blogger authoring, also felt the heft of breaking a taboo through people s reaction to his win. But I figured if I m writing an essay about inequality, there s going to be three kinds of reception: those who suffer the inequality will hail it, those who were unaware or indifferent will probably form an honest opinion and those who are part of, or support, this inequality will express anger or concern, he explains. That s what happens when someone breaks a taboo that was long overdue. For Salem, who came in second place wining a $1,500 prize, personal experience was the competitive edge. His essay Denied to Protest against Terrorism: A True Story, narrates his firsthand account of anti-terror rally that was shut down by Egyptian police. It also pulls no punches in exposing the pain and internal contradictions spawned by civil rights repression: Government restriction of basic liberties, coupled with scapegoating propaganda in regime-controlled media, has generated intense misplaced anger in contemporary Middle Eastern societies, according to

I want to know what people would say if they [were free], says Salem. The 25-year-old works in investment banking but is not a member of any political movements or a full time activist. He explains that people need a cause to be angry at, and the authority gives the people the green light to be angry at certain entities like the U.S., Israel and in last December, it was Denmark.

The same happened to third place winner and Jordanian blogger ( Roba Al-Assi. I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to showcase my ideas related to civil rights in the Middle East, especially at that time, when there were a lot of emotions about the Danish cartoon fiasco as well as the case of the prosecution of the Afhgani convert to Christianity.

Out of 2,500 applicants, five Middle East contestants and five Americans were selected by a panel of celebrity judges, including American civil rights activist Norman Hill and Egyptian activist Saad El Din Ibrhaim, awarding them prizes worth $10,000 in total.

These winners stood out for their bold ideas and compelling messages. Their varying approaches reflect the need for diverse responses to the problems posed by repression in the Middle East, reads the website.

The essays covered U.S. involvement in Mideast struggle for civic rights, repression of art, Arab feminist struggle and imaginary scenarios of cultural bridges and better application of civic rights that clash with the unflattering reality.

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