As the people of Egypt debate differing visions of what their post-revolutionary government will look like, Downey is preparing to return to the region for the third time. Downey will travel to Egypt in late August to shoot a documentary with a private company on the parliamentary and presidential elections.
"It was crazy because the Brotherhood already had the whole thing outlined," Downey said. "I asked them what they saw Egypt looking like in five years, and they said there would be revolution and Mubarak would be removed from office. On January 25, the day the revolution started, I contacted my source and said this is real, this is actually happening."
Downey has been a student at Western since 2007, studying Middle Eastern affairs. He worked with faculty members to create an Arabic and Middle Eastern studies major during his first year at Western. He will give a presentation on his area of expertise at noon Tuesday, May 10, in College Hall Room 131.
Downey is no stranger to the Middle East, as he has traveled all over the region. In 2008, he worked with Project Hope teaching English in Palestine on the West Bank. In addition to traveling to Jordan, Lebanon, and many other areas in the region, Downey studied at the American University in Cairo last summer in what he said was an "intensive program," in completing a traditional year-long course load in a single quarter.
"Western doesn't have enough funding for Arabic classes past the 200 level, so to keep going I had to transfer to American University in Cairo," Downey said.
As soon as the revolution in Egypt began, Downey flew to Cairo to witness the events. He issued a press release of his interview with the Brotherhood and the World Policy Institute published it.
Downey described the Muslim Brotherhood as a misunderstood political party in Egypt that was formed in the 1950s as an anti-imperialist movement against the British. After an assassination attempt against the military dictator at the time, the group was outlawed. In 1979, a group linked with the Brotherhood, Gama al-islamiyya, assassinated then Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat after he signed the peace accord with Israel.
Downey recounts this history to illustrate why the group has associated with a negative image.
"They denounced violence over 20 years ago and I don't think a lot of people realize that," Downey said.
The Brotherhood was illegal under the Mubarak regime, but was allowed to run for parliament in 2005 as independents. In that election, they won 20 percent of the seats, Downey said.
"In reality, the elections were still a sham. They were rigged. Parliament had no real power. Mubarak dictated what happened," Downey said.
With the military in control until the upcoming September and November elections, it is unclear what role the Brotherhood will play in the new government, he said.
"Right now, they are the most organized, most outspoken group in Egypt," Downey said. "They've been playing very smart politically, which has led to skepticism. The question people have about the Brotherhood is how democratic are they? Will they support women's rights? If elected, will they rule with an Islamic model of law?"
In his interview with the Muslim Brotherhood during the revolution, the group outlined its agenda in the post-Mubarak Egypt.
"Just like any political party, some within the same group claim different agendas, depending on if they're extremist or moderate. It's a diverse group, but at the core they represent themselves to the public as a nonviolent organization. That's why my goal is to go back in August and show what they are. Nobody's been embedded in their group in this current day (post-revolution)," Downey said.
Downey will leave at the end of summer to film his documentary. He is unable to reveal who is funding his documentary, but said it is a big organization and the film will available on basic cable channels.
"I have exclusive access to any member of the Brotherhood. I want to show every facet of their life. Here's the human side and here's the political side," Downey said.
Despite perceived turmoil in the region, Downey said he has never had a safety issue because of his U.S. citizenship.
"In general, most people know the difference between American people and the American government, especially when it's someone young who speaks Arabic and knows their culture. It breaks down stereotypes about American culture," Downey said. "I found the best thing you can do in the Middle East is wear a Barcelona jersey and start playing (soccer) with them. Having something in common is an instant icebreaker."
A major indicator of change will be the policies adopted by the new government, Downey said. The wealthiest 20 percent of Egyptians control 39 percent of the country's wealth, while the poorest 20 percent control only 9.8 percent of wealth, according to Nationencyclopedia.com.
Downey is looking forward to what he says should be an interesting campaign.
"The military has been in power since 1952. Will they give up that power? Right now it's a completely open game," Downey said.
After his documentary is finished filming next November, Downey will head to Libya and Gaza to assist journalists and activists in getting Internet connections.
"What's different about revolutions today is the role the media and social networking is playing. It makes it harder for these dictators to slaughter people if the world knows about it," Downey said.
Downey is working with former Western professor Eli Andrews to help the Arab world connect to the international community. Andrews helped found a company called Transterra.
"What we do is to create a platform that can identify the most credible sources of news on the ground and get it into mainstream media," Andrews said. "We provide training for people on the activist side to create media that will make international news (programs) like CNN. We're providing them a way to tell their own version of their stories."
Andrews was in Egypt last summer with Downey and said he is excited to continue his work with him.
"Michael doesn't operate from place of fear of new places, particularly in regard to the Middle (East). He wants to tell people's stories," Andrews said. "He's young, hungry, and ready to explore the world and engage it in a positive way."
Western senior Jacob Sager has taken multiple classes with Downey, seeing him work from the student perspective.
"He is a very smart, driven guy who is well aware of how things are," Sager said. "He has an uncanny ability to know who the major players are on the international scene, particularly in Mideast culture."
Downey said Osama bin Laden's death doesn't make a major difference in the Arab world.
"When people would find out I'm American, they would joke, 'Do you think I'm a terrorist?' They know the stereotypes that the U.S. has of them. In general, bin Laden didn't come up in most conversations."
Downey said people need to remember that Islam itself is not a violent religion and that extremists like bin Laden reinforce the stereotype.
"I think it's incredibly symbolic that he's gone, especially for the U.S., but there's always going to be hate in the world," Downey said. "Someone will take his spot, and it's up to the new order in the region to determine how to respond to those kinds of threats."