The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding held an event on Wednesday entitled "Egypt and the Struggle for Democracy," which centered on the volatile and uncertain nature of politics and everyday life in Egypt six months after the army coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and featured former Georgetown lecturer professor Emad Shahin, who was charged with treason for criticizing the recent coup in Egypt.
ACMCU founding Director John Esposito, one of the conference organizers, highlighted the importance of the discussion.
"It's a very hot topic, and Egypt is always seen as the leader in the Arab world," Esposito said. The conference drew panelists and experts from a great variety of backgrounds, including Egyptian activists and scholars from around the world.
The panel was held in light of recent developments in Egypt that have obstructed the country's path to democracy. The military toppled Morsi in July, and since then, Egyptian Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Fattah el-Sisi, the country's de facto ruler, has proclaimed himself field marshal and is vying to become the next president.
"The coup in July changed the storyline, but not the subject," Professor John Voll, who teaches Islamic history, said. "The earlier question of 'what form will democracy take' has been shifted to 'can democracy take place in Egypt?'"
Citing the political errors of the Muslim Brotherhood, which did not allow for the establishment of a representative democracy, Esposito described how the military coup originally employed democratic rhetoric.
"Democracy is dead there in the near term. Even a week or two ago, el-Sisi was using the phrase 'democracy,' yet in recent days the situation has changed drastically," Esposito said. "[The army] moved very quickly to label the entire movement a terrorist group."
Egypt is officially run by Adly Mansour, the head of the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court. He currently serves as acting president and is heavily influenced by el-Sisi.
The conference was postponed from its original December date due to the difficulties entailed by acquiring visas for the Egyptian presenters. Another hindrance arose when Georgetown accidentally invited Remy Jan, who founded the Egyptian Nazi Party. He was subsequently disinvited.
A number of Egyptian panelists were afraid of being detained by the government for expressing their sentiments. Despite this danger, many Egyptian panelists were still present at the conference — including Shahin.
"There are some voices here and there that are expressing discontent or displeasure, but not to the extent that can mount significant pressure on the military-backed government that can force them to respect human rights and the basic, basic values of democracy," Shahin said.
The panelists shared a concern for this troubling lack of democracy; nearly all of the panelists were critical of el-Sisi and the coup.
Yussre Eibardicy, an Egyptian student at the College of William and Mary, agreed that Egypt's chances for democracy look slim. Eibardicy, who lived in Egypt during the coup and participated in protests, did see some hope, however.
"There is a generation that is very determined to get their rights and who will fight until death for that,"Eibardicy said.
Jack Rusenko, director of the GW Amity Series at the Endowment for Community Leadership, felt that the panel lacked diversity of opinion.
"The first panel was all of the same mindset, very pro-[Muslim] Brotherhood," Rusenko said of "Critical Stages of the Egyptian Revolution: Was the Coup Inevitable?" "I would go so far as to say it wasn't an open intellectual debate."
Rusenko spoke specifically of the Coptic Christian community and of the actions taken against the Coptic Christians by the Muslim Brotherhood.
"They are much more optimistic. … I was disappointed there wasn't more balance," Rusenko said.
For attendee Hamed Elfeky, the power of the conference lay not only in the panelists but also in the audience.
"This is a learning experience," Elfeky said." I came here hoping there is unification among Egyptians because I know that even though the speakers are not representative of everybody, it is the audience. ... That is why it is inclusive."