William J. Burns Remarks Honoring 2011 Democracy Award Recipients

William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC

Thank you. On behalf of the State Department, I am delighted to be here this evening for the National Endowment for Democracy’s “Democracy Award.” Thank you to the Members of Congress, the representatives from human rights organizations and especially NED Chairman Gephardt.

To our two honorees, Zahraa Said and Jamel Bettaieb, let me say what a privilege it is to join NED in honoring you this evening.

What you and countless other citizens of Tunisia and Egypt set into motion over the past few months changed history. You broke through a barrier of fear and brought long-sought freedoms to your countries, capturing the imagination of the region and the world. Many in this room can take pride in the support offered to civil society over many years—and rightly so. But these revolutions are not about us. They are by, for, and about the brave and determined citizens who created them.

Tonight’s honorees are each accomplished activists in their own right. They are also symbols of the struggle, the sacrifices and the hopes of millions of people around the world for universal rights and universal freedoms.

Zahraa Said lost her brother, Khaled, in June of 2010. And before I talk about what your brother’s death meant for Egypt, let me first say once again how sorry we are for your loss.

Pulled by police from an Internet café, photographed at a morgue, Khaled’s story came to crystallize a nation’s outrage. Instead of allowing grief to overcome her, Zahraa used the skills she had at her disposal to honor her brother’s memory. She joined her fellow citizens in a struggle for justice. And she helped to launch an online network of individuals who shared her hopes for Egypt’s future.

The Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” inspired thousands of Egyptians, and people across the region, to lay claim to their rights. And in the process, as Egypt was transformed, so was the memory of Khaled Said: from a victim of brutal oppression, he became a rallying cry for a new and better Egypt.

Today we honor your brother’s memory and we celebrate you and your work.

Last December, a desperate Tunisian street vendor—tired of too many indignities and too many lost hopes—set himself on fire. That single act, at once tragic and noble, sparked revolutions which are still sweeping an entire region and inspired an entire generation. One of the first to act on that inspiration was Jamel Bettaieb.

He was active in organizing the protests that launched the Tunisian revolution and the Arab spring. He is an activist, a blogger, a trade unionist and a teacher. And he remains a strong voice in promoting Tunisia’s democratic transition.

Mohammed Bouazizi and Khaled Said were not the first people in their countries to experience injustice—but we cannot deny the profound, historic shifts that they set in motion.

We knew, as Secretary Clinton warned in Doha, that demographic, economic and technological forces would eventually unleash change in the Middle East. What we did not know was how or when.

It was the courage of young people—harnessing the tools of twenty-first-century technology—that ultimately tipped the balance. Egypt and Tunisia needed young people like Khalid Said and Mohammed Bouazizi to begin their revolutions, and today they need young people like Zahraa Said and Jamel Bettaieb to keep them on track.

Our own American revolution, over 230 years old, remains a work in progress—and certainly the same can be said of Egypt and Tunisia.

The Arab spring is a story that is still being written. It is not over in Egypt and Tunisia, where the hard work of building democratic institutions and building economic hope remains ahead. It is not over in Syria and Libya, where leaders may be able to delay the changes underway with violence, but where there is no going back to the way things were. And it is not over in Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan, where broad and peaceful dialogue is still the only path for meaningful progress.

Before the Arab spring began, I once heard the story of a young Egyptian girl who told her father that, when she grew up, she would devote her life to bringing democracy to Egypt. Her father replied a little cynically: “good, at least this way you will always have a job to do.” The young activists of the Arab spring didn’t wait to grow up to bring democracy to their countries. They accomplished in months what their elders struggled to do for decades. But the father had a point: there remains a job to do—in Egypt, in Tunisia and everywhere—to help people claim their rights, consolidate their freedoms and realize their aspirations.

Zahraa, Jamel, we honor you for doing just that. We are inspired by your progress, grateful for your presence tonight, and determined to support your efforts to build a just and hopeful future. Thank you.