Beyond the Arab Spring with Ebrahim Mehtari, Maikel Nabil, Tom Gross

A panel including journalist and commentator specializing in the Middle East and human rights, Tom Gross; Iranian activist who was arrested, jailed, tortured, and physically abused by the Iranian Regime after taking part in the Green Movement demonstrations of 2009, Ebrahim Mehtari; and an Egyptian blogger and political activist, Maikel Nabil, address the 4th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Tom Gross: We have time for questions from the audience. I’m just going to ask one myself before we start to Maikel. On May 23 and 24 there [were] presidential elections in Egypt and, as I understand, the main candidates are either leftovers from the Mubarak era like Amir Moussa the former foreign minister or they’re Islamists. Are you disappointed that they don’t seem to be more secular, liberal, centrist candidates who seem to have a chance at the presidency? And I’ll just combine that with the question from a member of the audience from Abir Al-Sahlani of the Liberal International. She asks: the Egyptian youth were the ones who started the revolution in Egypt. But now the youth seems not to be participating in the political process, why is that?

Maikel Nabil: Okay for [the] presidential election, I don’t see that we are having an election, it’s a show, it’s a play; it’s a movie, it’s not a real action because free elections means that anyone can join and and run for presidency. And this wasn’t [happening] because the law of election was issued by the military and they made a law which [was] made especially for someone who is with him [on] their side. So we are having two parts in this election: one part is the ex-militaries or military Alliance, and the other part is islamists, and both are the same parts of the same regime. So it’s not an election and even we don’t have the principles which can provide the free elections without resulting in corruption because we still now don’t have any international revision over the election. Even these small details of the election, with the conditions on running for the election and the database of voters, there are lots of questions about it. And for myself, when I see an election, which someone like Ahmed Zewail – he is a Nobel Prize winner and he’s a supporting piece – and he can’t run for election; someone like someone like Emmanuel and he’s a civilian activist he is a leader of liberal party and he was a former presidential candidate and he was very popular and also he can’t run for presidency; and someone like Muhammad Abuhamid he is from Ḥizb El Maṣrīyīn El Aḥrār, [which] means Free Egyptian Party, and he also can’t run for residency because he is under 40. So if they are excluding all civilian and liberal activists from the election to make it just to have to choose between ex-militresists and islamists, [] this is not a free election. For myself, I’m boycotting this and I think the revolutionists in Egypt are rising [with] the slogan: No presidential election under little governments. [The] military should deliver the power to a free and neutral authority who can run the election in a proper manner to make it really free. But according to the steps, which we had inspired and we are having in the presidential election next month, I’m not believing it’s a free election. About the other question, it was? 

Tom Gross: The question was that the young people in Egypt seem to have led the Revolution and yet they seem to be more absent now from the political process. Is that true, and if so, why?

Maikel Nabil: Okay this is an issue of things. If the political process is democratic every part of the society will be represented and I will be shared in the critical process [or] it is a dictatorship or an oligarchy, like what [it] is in Egypt. It is a natural result of this that youth and liberals and seculars and civilian activists can’t participate in this process because it is a type of oligarchy [where] you have to be one of their friends to be able to reach power. Look at the past year. While me, myself, and other civilian activists were immediately tried and spent months in prisons, while someone like Abu Zumer and others who shared in killing former President Mohammed are becoming sources in televisions every day and nobody is questioning their comments and their speeches to the media and the opinions they are speaking and their funding and what is the amount of funds they get from the Gulf, while other civilian NGOs are usually persecuted and answered all those cases around them. And the propaganda [is] attacking them every day, saying they work for external agendas and for international conspiracy over the country and things like that. So if you can’t have a free, competing environment, how [can] we [] call it a free election, and how we expect from it as a result to see that those who made the revolution [are] participating in this and this process. 

Tom Gross: I’ll just ask one more question first. Wait, how many people want to ask questions? Do lots of people. 

Okay I’ll just ask one general question while I’m waiting, which is to both of you if you are disappointed with the reaction of the West in particular the United States Government to Ebrahim after the June 2009 election. Many people have criticized President Obama who had only been in office for less than half a year and is still being rather conciliatory, rather too soft, on the government. He’s maybe hardened since, but by not being harder in June 2009, he gave the regime possibly more time to institute the crackdown that is continuing. I’ll ask you [that] first and then afterwards also, likewise, Egypt gets billions of dollars in American aid. Are you satisfied with the Obama Administration and [the] European Union in their approach to the present Egyptian authorities? 

You want to help? Okay. It’s a very distinguished German Iranian journalist who speaks fluent English as well as Persian. 

Journalist: Ebrahim, Tom has just asked you, by not reacting strongly to the Iranian government’s re-election at the time, he gave more time for the Iranian government for its crackdown. What is your viewpoint?

Ebrahim Mehtari: Well yes. Mr. Obama actually lost an opportunity to react to what was happening on the streets of Iran. He kept quiet,he kept silent. And this silence, unfortunately, allowed the government to reassert itself. Of course, the Ministy of Foreign Affairs of America did really express its disagreement with the Iranian government but it did not go further than that. And the greatest difficulty was that it created, actually, a wall [of] confidence in the West [that] has been weakened. This is also true for Syria. The West is watching what is happening, daily people are getting killed in Syria, and what we are doing is we are witnessing. Governments of Iran can, for instance, send armaments to Syria, to the government, and this is very painful to know.

Tom Gross: So to just repeat for Maikel, the Americans, because they’ve been close allies, if that’s the word, with Egypt in the last 30-40 years and because Egypt still has enormous amounts of military and civilian aid, America has a certain amount of pressure points on the military government. Are you disappointed that they don’t appear to be using them?

Maikel Nabil: Okay I can answer those two things. 

The first is that we can’t [be] disappointed because we don’t have any other solution. As long as this regime continues, my life and my family and my friends would be at continuous risk and we can’t live with that fact. So for our safety and for our freedom, we should get rid of this regime so we don’t have the choice to be dissapointed. 

The other thing is that that anyone who supported dictatorship will pay for it and is paying for it. [] The United States is supporting the Egyptian Army and giving it weapons and giving it military aid and giving it financial aid. But in return, what’s happened [is] that the American organizations acting in Egypt are accused by the Egyptian Military of spying and trying to divide the country and to destroy the country. And American citizens who are living in Egypt are continuously [at] risk. Some of them [are] living like hostages; they are not allowed to leave the country. This anti-American propaganda [] [is] running in state-owned media channels against [the] United States and its decisions. So I think if [the] United States… When you look [at] lots of tourist actions, like the 11th of September, how many Egyptians were participating in these actions and the results of Egyptian vandalists spreading ideas against the United States. So I think, if United States is supporting this dictatorship, she’s paying the price for that and the Americans must know this. And the same for, maybe, some European countries because other European countries were accused with American organizations in the case of the NGOs. And even Israel; it supported its military council in Egypt during the last year. And also at risk is the life of its own citizens and one of its citizens [was] accused to be a spy, Ilan Grapel. And there are the terrorists, who passed and killed Israelis. So supporting a dictatorship isn’t a pragmatic thing because you will pay for it. This is not a threat and not my decision, but is a direct result of [rousing’ a wolf in your house.

Tom Gross: Nevertheless, even if the elections were not free and fair, and liberal and moderate groups were not given proper time to organize and proper time to campaign and proper access and so on, the Islamist parties did undoubtedly garner many many votes. According to the results, it’s a big majority. But even if those results aren’t quite clear, it’s still a great number. Are you not concerned that if the military give up power too quickly, the Islamists, who are possibly better organized and greater in number, will manage to seize power, and in fact, the situation for liberals and moderates could be even worse than it is today?

Maikel Nabil: Okay. First of all, we can’t stand against democracy feeling from that because feeling from democracy, understanding against democracy, wouldn’t make it better because as long as this regime continues it’s becoming worse every day. And if someone would see pictures [would] see pictures for Egypt six decades or maybe five decades ago he wouldn’t have seen this rise of Islamism. Egypt was a secular society; religious and ethnic minorities we’re living freely in Egypt without any discrimination. So every day, this regime is lasting, it’s becoming worse. Leaving it like that it means that it will become worse every day and we can reach to the limit of no return.  We are avoiding this. 

The other thing I’m saying. Democracy is a democracy. We can’t and we are not supposed to invent a new democracy. So democracy means free election. Democracy means equal opportunities. Democracy means that the state flow[s]. We can’t allow a terrorist to run for presidency and, in the same time, put a writer or an opinion thinker in prison for his opinion. I think that all religious minorities now in Egypt are threatened by a law which is named insulting of religions. Kareem Nabil was jailed for four years because [of] a blog post he wrote criticizing Islam. And during the last year, several bloggers and activists were imprisoned for maybe a comment on Facebook or a picture posted on Facebook, and some of them are in prison for three years. We have [a] new vertex of six years for a few words. And these accusations are made only against minorities and civilian activists, while fanatics and Islamic fundamentalists from the are using very racist propaganda against minorities and against non-believers. So this is not a free environment for election[s]. If they are putting the circumstances to [an] unfree environment, which will bring a new fascism, [which] could be militar[ist], could be a[n] oligarchy, could be an Islamic. But it will be a new fascism. This isn’t a democracy. Democracy is providing equal chances to every party and making a new condition of law, which punish[es] the criminal and give[s] the innocent their rights.

Tom Gross: I just have to ask you one more question so the translator, then afterwards, will ask Ebrahim. It’s from Mary Therese. She has a two-part question.Can people who are in this room, such as students and others, help you? How can they help you? Do you have specific practical ideas for how they can help you. And then a second question from her. On a personal note, was there a particular moment that prompted you to change your life and become an activist? Because you were studying to be a vet before you became an activist. So just repeat. What can people here practically do? And secondly, was there a particular incident or moment that made you become an activist?

Maikel Nabil: I mentioned what we can do and in the last points of my speech. The first thing, we have to say it loudly. We don’t let them silence activists, peace activists, freedom activists, democracy activists, human rights activists. We have to publicize every violation [that] happens because anyone who makes a crime knows it’s a crime, knows that he may be punished because of it and he fears from that. So if we don’t publicize their crimes, they [won’t] fear to repeat it. And that’s how we’re protecting other persons from being violated. I think that every dictator fears from the destiny of Saddam Hussein and from [inaudible], and don’t want to be in [their] position. So taking legal steps against dictatorships and international institutions, lobbying for that, speaking out loudly about these violations, if it couldn’t reach an international situation and action toward any dictatorship, at least it will make the dictatorship fear from being punished and this will make them lower the limits of their violations. Also we shouldn’t be isolated because every dictatorship in Iran, in Vietnam, in Burma and [in] Egypt, they are trying to isolate us from the world, to let us owing only to depend on our local resources without being able to contact those international institutions with international activists from around the world, and to make the regime and the government is the only representative of the people so that they can spread all the false opinions as they want to spread about the reality of things which happen on grounds. So building connections between activists around the world – even with societies [who are] completely different in religions in political directions – this connection is a type of immunity for activists because if they knew that these activists have strong connections, they will think a thousand times before arresting [them] or doing anything against them. And if something happened, these disconnections help for rapid action, rescuing his life, or at least minimizing the price you have to pay for his opinions. 

[In] my personal life, lots of things [were] disturbed and delayed during the months I spent in prison so I’m spending some time to reorganize my life, re-control my life. Continuing my studies in political science, I’m going to continue as of it.Also my movement needs to rebuild again because it was harshly attacked. Our activists were harshly attacked by the military during the last year. So we are regrouping again, and we are providing the full support to Egyptians who are asking for the right to conscientious objection to the military service, who are refusing to carry weapons, and are refusing to kill any other human being. These people are completely abandoned locally and internationally. And Egypt [does] not fulfill its commitment to the International Convention [of] Civil and Political Rights, so we are supporting them, trying to make our case more obvious and more clear. And give them political and legal support to avoid having them in prison and passing through the hard experiences we have experienced during these past events. 

Tom Gross: Well we just got one question for Ebrahim and then there was a question from a Moroccan blog I wanted to ask afterwards. It’s from Razi Golan. He asks again about the nuclear program. How do you think the nuclear program, the Iranian nuclear program, might be stopped? That’s his question. You did partially deal with this already, so I’ll just also ask the second one, which is, are you optimistic for the future? Let’s say five years from now or ten years from now, do you think the Islamic Republic of Iran will no longer be an Islamic Republic?

Ebrahim Mehtari: Well the question was in two parts. 

The first part about the nuclear program of Iran. A part of it [is] news, which is introduced by [the] International Atomic Agency or about the reports of the inspectors who were inspecting it. Well, I can tell you that for the time being, it does not have nuclear weapons. Because if it had already those weapons, it would already be using that card, like Pakistan, like Northern Korea, like India. It would have been [already] using that influence now. But so we do not. So I don’t believe that Iran has now enough materials in order to produce a nuclear bomb. But, it is making efforts to improve its knowledge, which is necessary in order to enable it in the future to have such knowledge. Yes, if it had been a very stable government, a stable state, we would all be very happy about it, because that would be leading to a good development. But if we are dealing with a government which is speaking with its firearms to its own population in the streets, that could not be trusted with such power. 

Now I go back to the second part of your question. I am not a specialist on blogs. I cannot know what is going to happen in Iran, even in five years time. But people of our country are striving towards a stable democracy with lesser impact on religion. What you can find among the commoners in Iran, among the population, is not something special in Iran. We did not look for too much. The people started walking in the street asking “what happened to my vote? Where is my vote?” That was today. Yes, they would like to change the regime. But in those days, it was only asking what happened to the vote. I would be in favor of a secular government in Iran. To what extent my opinion coincides with the opinion of the population of Iran I cannot tell you.

Tom Gross: Okay because we’re nearing the end of this session, I promised Kasam, who’s a Moroccan blogger and activist, he wanted to ask a question. 

Why don’t you just come up and ask it. 

Kasem: Thank you. My name is Kasem and Switzerland is my home of exile. I’m here now, here since I moved from my country Morocco. So I have a message for all of you here. And this message came from a group of peaceful warriors who are really not fighting for freedom and for democracy, which guarantees that the next Constitution that we hope for, [is going] to be [a] secular Constitution, not something religious, as we have now in Tunisia or in Egypt. So I will read it; it’s very short, for like one minute. 

So this was written by [an] 11 year-old girl who helped. All her family got tortured by the Moroccan regime. It was in Arabic and then translated to English: “Dear audience, let me tell you about Morocco. What I’m going to tell you about now is a country you [have] never heard about before. I’m not going to talk about Marrakech or Casablanca or Fez, where many of you might go to spend a few days [at] [a] five-star Hotel. But I will talk about a country where people live in toilets, where children die from the freezing winter, where the doctors and [inaudible] beholders burn themselves in front of the Parliament because of employment and poverty. Just [a] few weeks ago, young activists of the 20th of February movement, the movements which came after the revolution in Tunisia, as a call for democracy, liberty, human rights and individual liberties.These activists got tortured, arrested, without charges and some others kidnapped and killed, by the police in several cities of Morocco. Just four days ago, the same fascism and sadism repeat[ed] itself in Ait [inaudible], another city in the north of Morocco; a city where the majority of the population [is] Berber, just like me. The city got surrounded by the police from all its sides so nobody was able to run away from the organized violence, which didn’t differentiate between women, children or elder people. We have a lack of information and updates about this for the world because the police [shot] down the internet’s coffees and no one, from the journalists or even from the human rights activists, could get to the city. This is what’s happening right now in Morocco. And unfortunately in front of the silence and the horrible (I’m sorry) tsilence of international media and human rights organizations. Peace from Morocco, Sarah. Thank you.

Tom Gross: Okay. Thank you very much Ebrahim and Maikel. Both of them very brave and courageous young men. 

Speakers and Participants

Ebrahim Mehtari

Activist in Iran’s Green Movement, arrested and tortured by the regime


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