Remarks by Carl Gershman at 2011 Democracy Award Ceremony

I want to thank everyone on the NED staff who did so much to organize this important event, especially Jane Riley Jacobsen, Kelly Dougherty. Katherine Bannor, and our Program Officers for the Middle East, Amira Maaty and Fatima Hadji.

When I met Zahraa and Jamel yesterday for the first time, I told them about an earlier recipient of NED’s Democracy Award, the great Russian human rights defender Elena Bonner, who died just last Saturday and who had sent us a message on NED’s 20th anniversary in 2003 that has a special relevance to the struggles in Egypt and Tunisia. Elena wrote that she and her late husband, the Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Andrei Sakharov, had not anticipated the great victories they experienced when communism collapsed and the Soviet empire crumbled, nor did they know “that these victories are not final and that battles for democracy and her principles have to be fought over and over again.”

Similarly, no one could have foreseen the historic events that were set in motion by the murder of Khaled Said last June and the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17 in the small central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. But today we know, perhaps more clearly than Elena Bonner and Dr. Sakharov did in 1989, that despite the great victories achieved in Egypt and Tunisia, the battle ahead will be long and difficult.

If this can be said with hope for the future, and I think it can, it is because the Jasmine and January 25 Revolutions were the occasion for the emergence of a new generation of young people in the Middle East who have now taken the first steps towards freedom and democracy and who will not be turned back. It is true that they may not yet have the level of organization of other forces that have been on the scene much longer, but that will come. What they have that the others lack is the idea of freedom, of a society in which ordinary people are treated fairly, have economic opportunity, and enjoy fundamental human rights that are protected by the rule of law. With this idea they have buried Arab exceptionalism – the notion that somehow Arabs don’t want or are not fit for democracy – on the ash heap of history, along with jihadist radicalism that they had defeated ideologically long before Osama bin Laden was killed.

This new generation is represented symbolically here this evening by Zahraa Said and Jamel Bettaieb. We want them, and others who share their hopes, to know that we see this award itself as a symbolic act of solidarity, and that we and other friends of democracy will be at their side in the struggles that lie ahead, and in the hard work of building democratic institutions.

Laith Kubba and I will be with Jamel on Sunday in Sidi Bouzid when we will present this award to others who took part in the struggle that gave birth to the Arab Spring.

I also want to say how grateful I am to Zahraa for understanding the special relevance for Egypt of an award that is a replica of the Goddess of Democracy from Tiananmen Square. Those two anonymous protesters – one in Beijing stopping a tank in Tiananmen Square, the other in Cairo blocking an armored police vehicle hosing down protesters on a street leading to Tahrir Square – were separated by more than two decades and many thousands of miles, not to mention different histories and cultural traditions. But together they have come to symbolize the universal desire for freedom. What an inspiration it would be for Chinese democrats if a replica of the Goddess of Democracy were to stand in Tahrir Square, signifying the hope that one day soon the statue will be reconstructed in Tiananmen Square in a democratic China.

But that’s a project for another day. For now, let us celebrate what has been accomplished in Egypt and Tunisia and prepare ourselves for the work that lies ahead. Thank you for coming.

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