Egyptians have traditionally thought of their country as the "Mother of the World." President Barack Obama says he wants to change the world. Egypt may very well be a good place to start.
Egyptians at home and abroad have been clamoring for change. Kefaya, which literally means "enough," is a slogan, an outcry, and a grassroots movement that has been organizing to reform our antique regime. Over 1,000 acts of civil disobedience have taken place all over Egypt in recent months. Participants have included the Bedouins of Sinai, the Nubians of Aswan, and even the Coptic monks of Upper Egypt.
Obviously, an American president elected on a platform of change is music to Egyptians' ears, and Mr. Obama will be a welcome guest. He is universally popular with Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims. But will average Egyptians really connect with him, let alone get a chance to meet him? With only 10 hours in the country, his visit will be carefully choreographed. Security forces will understandably separate him from the eager Egyptian crowds. Mr. Obama should consider scheduling a town meeting with representatives of Egyptian civil society. He had such a meeting when he visited France.
Mr. Obama will meet an Egyptian president who is still grieving over the untimely death in May of his 13-year-old grandson Mohammed. Despite the special bond between the two, Hosni Mubarak did not appear at the boy's funeral, or at that of the prime minister's wife a week earlier. This has led to widespread rumors about his health. Yet no native reporter dared to raise a question about the matter, as it is against the law to do so.
Mr. Mubarak is the third-longest serving Egyptian ruler in the country's last 2,000 years of recorded history. He has refused to step down or even appoint a vice president. There is widespread apprehension that he is grooming his son Gamal (46) to inherit the "throne." Over 60% of Egypt's population was born during Mr. Mubarak's tenure and have not known any other ruler. Many of them want "change" and are waiting anxiously for someone to help them bring it about.
Let's hope that whatever else he may have pressing -- Palestine, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan -- Mr. Obama will try to be that change agent. One remarkable thing he can do for Egypt and the rest of the Muslim world is to offer American help in making governance more sound. He should promote the rule of law by promoting democratic elections and term limits for democratically elected presidents.
This may appear to be long shot. Mr. Obama's advisers will likely argue against it to avoid offending his host. But such a bold move would win him the hearts and minds of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims forever. With his legendary gift for communication, Mr. Obama should find a way to propose the idea and offer a Marshall-like plan of financial incentives. He can then call on Egyptians and other Muslims to do the rest.
Mr. Ibrahim, an Egyptian sociologist and human rights advocate, was imprisoned by the Mubarak regime. He has lived in exile since 2007 and is currently a visiting professor at Harvard.
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