By Dr Ronald Meinardus
After nearly eight years at the helm of the Cairo Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF), Germany’s liberal think tank, Dr Ronald Meinardus, who has, on and off, also contributed to the editorial page of this newspaper, is leaving Egypt shortly. The following is the first of three installments in a personal review the author has titled “My Liberal Times in Oum al Dounia”.
The Arab world looks back at turbulent years. The Middle East and North Africa have seen dramatic changes – uprisings and upheaval, revolutions and revolts. I had the privilege to witness this from close up. For a zoon politicon, or a political animal, there could have hardly been a more attractive posting than the capital of Egypt, which her people proudly and in slight exaggeration refer to as Oum al Dounia, the Mother of the World.
In 2006, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF), a German institute dedicated to promote liberal democracy through educative programmes and advocacy, assigned me to serve as their Regional Director for an area spanning from Morocco in the West to Turkey in the East. In this position, I found myself at the interface of politics, civil society, academia and journalism.
It’s been a fascinating time, full of suspense, excitement, and drama that captured me also emotionally. All this came together with heartbreaking moments of disappointment and despair. As I write these words and ready myself to bid farewell, I am aware that – although a foreigner in a foreign land – I took many things I witnessed personally, and to heart. You may term it empathy. In any case, it is sympathy for the people and their causes I often identified with.
The story is far from over. All agree that Egypt and the Arab world are in a phase of transition. How long this will last and where it will end is anyone’s guess. For a long time, I used to spend my Fridays at Tahrir Square, which became a kind of personal barometer of the public mood and the status or condition of the Revolution. Another indicator of the general frame of mind was the uncounted discussions with politicised Egyptians, mostly on the sidelines of educative activities and seminars. I had developed a sufficient proficiency in (Egyptian) Arabic to address the audience and engage in valuable dialogues which helped me shape a picture.
Much of the early enthusiasm, the atmosphere of departure in early 2011, has long vanished. Gone is the widespread certainty, in hindsight one may say naiveté, that an era of democracy, human dignity and social justice lies ahead. Countless pronouncements have turned out to be empty slogans. In many places, hope and euphoria have vanished to be replaced by disappointment, cynicism – and retreat. It is difficult not to grasp a sense of political disillusionment. Many Egyptians share the view that democracy, or should I rather say the democratic experiment as it was executed, did not lead to the anticipated results. The country has been through – some would argue it still is in the midst of – a national crisis, a struggle the adversaries have termed existential. The political climate is poisoned; never before has society been as polarised as today, Egyptian friends confide.
While many cling to the rhetoric of the Revolution, they condone practices that betray the principles of 25 January. Politically, so say some, Egypt is passing through a phase of regression. The debate is whether this is a temporary necessity to prepare a second attempt of establishing a true and mature democracy, or whether we are witnessing a fallback to the authoritarian days of Mubarak and his cronies.
My job came along with clearly defined objectives. Apart from managing a sizeable administration, which has grown consistently over the years, my mission circled around the goal to promote liberalism in Egypt and the MENA region. I was treated to many trips in the region and befriended liberal leaders in Rabat, Algiers, Tunis, Amman and Beirut, to mention a few of the most frequented capitals. While ideologically, liberals always focus on the individual, our project work for very practical, or methodological, reasons centred on organisations. You need to identify organisations as your partners to reach your target groups. For me, it has always been essential that all programmes and educative activities have a local partner – and thus a local beneficiary.
Promoting liberal values and principles is a political objective. The people interested in liberal issues and liberal advocacy are typically organised in political parties and civil society groups. For this reason, many of our programmes take place in cooperation with these groups. Direct cooperation with political parties has been a no-go all along. Such interactions could rightly be construed as illegal political interference. I always made it clear that our activities are addressed to members of political organisations and not to the organisations themselves. While this may sound like hair splitting, there is a major difference. Helping, let alone financing political parties or groups in campaign activities, is a red line. This we have never done, as it would breach not only the laws of the host countries but also our own strict regulations.
I mention this because the role of the foundation I work for has repeatedly been an issue of controversy. Among the most depressing experiences during my stay in Egypt has been what has become widely known as the “NGO crackdown”, the assault of the authorities against foreign and Egyptian NGOs during late 2011. While I, personally, was not directly targeted, some of my close colleagues and political friends were. The political fall-out of the attack against Egyptian and international civil society organisations was substantial and led to a deep crisis in the relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Arab Republic of Egypt. It also affected our institute indirectly as it – together with many other international institutes (and their Egyptian partners) – became the object of a vicious, indiscriminate and lastly xenophobic media campaign. I was shocked to find myself accused by average Egyptians, including the taxi-driver, shop-keeper and barber, of illegitimate and illegal mingling, being a foreign spy, Zionist and an enemy of the Egyptian people. It was frightening to see the impact a coordinated media campaign could have on people who lack education and political maturity.
For the record, I need to add that those Egyptians who knew what we were doing – be they in government, academia, media or political sphere – distanced themselves from the witch hunt and acknowledged our contribution.
Next week Dr Meinardus will explain why promoting liberalism in the Arab world is a Herculean task.
Dr Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF) for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in Cairo.