Maged Refaat Aboulmagd, the Egyptian Consul General in Chicago, spoke on American-Egyptian relations and the country’s transition to democracy Wednesday. He sat down with the S&B’s Darwin Manning ’13 before he spoke in JRC 101.
What facets of society do you interact with—governmental officials, civilians? Give me a brief overview of your work, if you will.
Sure, thank you very much for this interview—I am very glad to be in Grinnell. I am actually the Consul General of the Midwest, I am based in Chicago, but the stem of the Midwest states are in the jurisdiction of my office. I strive very hard to talk to the American people about the future of the Egyptian relations, especially after the revolution of the 25th of January. I target three segments—the officials in states where I vision to explain my mission to them and make sure I have their support in the ten states that I take care of. The second is the normal American people; I target the young people, that is why I strive to visit places like Grinnell College. I hope to demonstrate what interest Egypt has in the US, what interest we should have in them and how do I see this partnership. The third is business people, particularly those with large investments in Egypt, I have to reassure them that Egypt has a great potential and we look forward to their increased involvement.
During the revolution and post that period, where were you and how did your job lead you into different prospects for participating in the unfolding of the events?
I was very lucky to be in Cairo during these days. I was able to see how a dictatorship crumbles fast and democratic states stand solid. As a diplomat, this is one of the lessons that I have seen unraveling in front of my very eyes. The Egyptian people were supporting the Revolution and didn’t take too much thanks to the decision of the army. As they decided it will never fire against their people, they will support the revolution and they asked for Mubarak to leave power. That is why Egypt hasn’t been through a very bad path like Syria has been.
I was curious thinking back in comparison to 1919, whether we can deem 2011 as an uprising or a revolution? Do we need to wait and see years into the future in order to know the full scope of the impact and influence?
Revolutions take a few years to create a full change, and let’s remember it took Spain six years after Franco to transform into a decent democracy. I have no question in my mind that the Egyptian revolution will change the mindset of the people: they can never accept a dictatorship again. Yet it will take sometime until the Democratic structure takes shape, and in my opinion it may take two election cycles until we can see a decent democracy take place. We are at the moment trying to write the Constitution, and it will hopefully be put into referendum by next spring. Then we will have parliamentary elections, and the economic structure will fall into place. It is the exercise of democracy that will make people believe that change has taken place. Cairo today is on fire because there is a large chunk that believes that Morsi should not have the judicial powers. The president has his good intention but there is a lack of trust, and democracy has not taken root yet.
How do you think citizens can continue to use the media and hold it accountable?
You are right. The media is an important vehicle for mobilizing the public opinion. The media, because of a lack of trust, has led to acute polarization in the Egyptian public opinion. I put my bet with the young people. Thirty percent of people are between the ages of 14 and 24 and so you can imagine the kind of energy infused in this group, and they will not accept anything except a decent democracy. The problem between President Morsi and the judicial party is we do not have a Parliament. We don’t have an effective executive branch. That is why he is facing trouble with pushing forward with his vision for the country. Everyone in Egypt is on the learning curve. They are lacking confidence, and with this new energy there will be a huge pressure for the political parties to deliver what the consensus wants.
What tactics have you used to reassure citizens that Egypt will remain stable? Is there too much concern over the instability? What would be a more productive manner in which to consider their relations with Egypt?
This is one of my top priorities, trying to explain to the American public what is really taking place in Egypt. It is coming from total authoritarian rule to an infant democracy and I am in a big believer in the solid relationship. America has interest in Egypt, and Egypt has wide interest in America. Egypt is a leader in the region, it is the trendsetter for political standards and it was the first country to make a peace agreement with Israel in the Middle East. It still plays an enormous role in Israel, as when violence broke out in Gaza, it was Egypt, with the support of the U.S., that was able to bring about a cease-fire. We in Egypt are hopeful that under the next term of Obama that the U.S. would be more willing to intervene in the Middle East, especially in creating a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. A study out of a think-tank in Chicago revealed that the majority of Americans see the Middle East as still being a main threat. I see it as an opportunity to have American citizens become more involved in the Middle East. Don’t forget it was Jimmy Carter who opened the U.S. engagement in this region.
It seems that you are speaking to the foundation of the US. It appears that Egypt is a sign of hope and a foundation for the Middle East in regards to the turmoil that has sprung up in many other Middle Eastern countries, would you agree?
Absolutely, Egypt in the last 100 years has been the trendsetter. When Egypt, under Nasser, took nationalism as a policy it affected, through soft power, many other countries. Egypt is 25 percent of the Middle Eastern population. The world watches very closely what happens in Egypt because they think that the end product in Egypt will have profound effects on how the change in that region will take place. Egypt is a natural leader, however we face many challenges and this is why we would like to count on many of our friends. The U.S. is one of the most important. We would hope to see support for civil society by the U.S.; it doesn’t need to be American NGOs working in Egypt, but rather the many Egyptian NGOs. The president went to Cairo in his first term, and he addressed the Muslim world and he put forward fantastic ideas about supporting innovation, young people in education, and small and medium businesses. Egypt really needs these types of ideas.