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Another day, another potentially effective reformer with a record of vile anti-Semitic remarks. An Egyptian activist, who was about to receive an award from the U.S. government, apparently had tweeted that the deaths of Israelis in a bus bombing was good news, and had celebrated September 11th.  This comes two days after Hamas canceled the three year-old Gaza marathon rather than let women participate.

The Palestinian people desire the end of the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. The Egyptian people desire the end of dictatorship and the establishment of a free and democratic government. While these peoples have to make these difficult changes themselves, they would benefit greatly from international support. This support would come in many forms: more enthusiastic NGO workers, more pressure on the Israeli government and oppressive Arab regimes, and a generally positive world attitude to Arab empowerment.

If it appears to the rest of the world, however, that rights of women and religious minorities will not be respected, the good will and the political support that the changes engender will remain tepid. Recently I spoke with a retired CIA officer who had spent most of his career in the Middle East. He was well informed, spoke Arabic, and seemed to not be a reactionary. He, however, did put forth the familiar argument that the Arab world was generations away from the ability to field governments that upheld rule of law and minority rights. He cited anti-Semitism and sexism (as well as corruption) as his major pieces of evidence. The implication for U.S. policy was clear: it should retain a “realist” posture vis-à-vis Arab countries, and not invest much time and effort into democratization efforts likely to fail.

The PBS series Makers, on the modern feminist movement in the United States, does a terrific job showing how the broad civil right movement was weakened at times by the various constituents failing to support one another: racial and anti-war activists being sexist, feminist activists being anti-gay and unconscious of black women’s needs, and more. So these failures are hardly unique to the world of Arab activism.

As a teacher, I keep coming back to education. What does the Egyptian school system teach about other religions? Where did the Hamas leaders who made the decision about the marathon go to school? As U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

Oh, and Happy International Women’s Day!

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