Mustafa Abdullah: An Egyptian-American community organizer looks to his roots

by Eric Ginsburg

Mustafa Abdullah is an associate organizer with CHANGE in Winston-Salem and was an Interfaith Youth Core fellow in 2009-2010. Abdullah periodically visits his family in Alexandria, Egypt, and he lived in Cairo for half of high school though he has mostly lived in the US. I spoke with him during the revolution in Egypt, but this interview was conducted more recently after President Mubarak stepped down.

What did you think when you first heard about the demonstrations in Egypt?

Mainly I was shocked because in a lot of the conversations that I’ve had with Egyptians, with family members and friends, it was constantly going back to the world as it is. There wasn’t a language for an Egypt as it should be. There was a sense of hopelessness.

I know it’s a broad question, but how has your family been affected?

On my father’s side I’m the youngest of 51 grandchildren. My family is involved in almost all sectors of civil society in Egypt and in the government as well. My aunts, for instance, many of them have degrees in higher education and some have PhDs. Many of my cousins have left Egypt because they couldn’t find any jobs there, so they go to other Arab countries. It’s given them a new sense of vitality over all, and hope and promise and pride.

At the same time as being very responsive… there was this tension of “we’re going to lose money and investments” because of what the protests will do to the economy… My father has never voted, and he has his PhD in political science.

Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood is understood well in the United States?

Not necessarily all the time is a misunderstanding of a Muslim group based off a… Western misunderstanding, but it’s created by people in that country. The question [Mubarak posed] was, do you want a secular dictator or a radical mullah? Since 1980, the Muslim Brotherhood has been the only democratic force within Egypt. There are some strands within the Muslim Brotherhood that are not in line with US foreign interests and some that could be considered anti-Semitic.

For the couple of my family members that are in the Muslim Brotherhood, they are rallying behind these young protesters because for the first time Egyptians had found a way to break the power of a tyrant. They’ve come together with the promise of democracy. You will find some of these young protesters come from a Marxist or socialist framework, you will find ones that are more capitalist and want a constitution that is similar to the United States and you will find some that want a more religious government. And that’s not that different from here in the United States.

In your opinion, what role has the military played in this?

I was pretty surprised with the military. It was walking a pretty fine line. I was sort of expecting for them to come out with violence. From my family and from my friends I’ve heard mostly positive things; most of the negative things in terms of violent clashes have been with the police. Mubarak has more control over the police because it was a police state… the military was more independent.

So what do you think comes next?

It’s going to be a very long-term transition.

They’re going to have to sit down and collectively put together a completely new constitution. There has to be some very serious organizing to see what all the interests are of all the sectors. These young people are really going to have a lot of interest in creating an economy where jobs are being provided. How does civil society develop a market in Egypt when the market was largely controlled by the state? It is literally starting a country from scratch.

What similarities do you see between what is happening in Egypt and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States?

The United States is the most religiously diverse country in the world and potentially the most culturally diverse. Martin Luther King Jr… was identifying what it meant to be human, that there isn’t a lesser human or a greater human. This is where the community organizing becomes so impactful. The more people that you have in civil society the more powerful the meaning of democracy becomes. The work of Dr. King and the work we’re doing here at CHANGE with the [Industrial Areas Foundation] embodies the spirit of what this country is supposed to be. Going to Egypt, there is a lot of tensions or perceived tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities. Pluralistic relationships serve as the bedrock for tomorrow of the Egypt that should be.