Sherif Mansour is currently the MENA Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. He advocated for democracy and human rights in Egypt and the Middle East for more than a decade. At Freedom House he managed Middle East programs to support youth and civil society organizations. He co-founded the Egyptian Association for Change in Washington, DC. Since 2006, Sherif has written and appeared in international media, as well as advised decision-makers around the U.S. on supporting democracy and human rights. He has a Master’s in international relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a Bachelors in education from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.
Describe the impact on foreign policy you have made in your current/past positions.
As a human rights defender and civil society activist, I have worked in various capacities to empower and advocate for young activists and journalists from across the Middle East and North Africa in their struggle to expand social and political freedoms to their societies. Many of these same activists have gone on to play leading roles in the political uprisings and transitions seen in the region since 2009. I have also been personally implicated in these transitions as part of my efforts to secure and expand civil society in my native Egypt.
Specifically, in my capacity as a Senior Program officer at Freedom House, I organized trainings for a young cadre of activists from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Iraq to develop new media campaigns, advocacy strategies, and online mobilization tools. We organized formal exchange programs connecting them to young leaders who led successful mobilization efforts in Eastern Europe and introduced them to media professionals, policy makers, and new media companies in the U.S. It was through my work with these young activists that I came to appreciate the role the internet and social media platforms could play in effectively in bringing about political and social change in the region and beyond. In June 2008, I wrote about “Egypt’s Facebook showdown” in the Los Angeles Times, anticipating the ways these online tools could be deployed for political mobilization and advocacy, urging policymakers and social media companies in the U.S. and Europe to take seriously the potential of online activism.
Two months before the Egyptian uprising, I was able to help Wael Ghonim, who created and managed the Facebook page that helped spark Egypt’s revolt, restore the page after Facebook decided to bring it down. I connected him to Newsweek to conduct his first interview with English-language media, and I advocated on his behalf with State Department and top White House officials to pressure the Egyptian government to release him from prison following the 2011 uprising.
In current position at the Committee to Protect Journalists, I have devoted my efforts to supporting persecuted and endangered journalists across the Middle East, whether trapped in domestic struggles for power or in the violence of war. As part of this work, I have organized numerous briefings and provided support for dozens of journalists and their families. I have also been part of broader public campaigns to bring attention to the plight of arrested journalists and other media voices for various stakeholders in the U.S.
What personal contribution to foreign policy are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my role in highlighting and defending the role of civil society in the Middle East and North Africa for stakeholders in the region, in the U.S. and in international organizations. In February 2011, soon after the uprisings broke out in Egypt and Tunisia, I personally urged Secretary Clinton to develop closer ties with civil society groups in the region at the first Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society.
When the Egyptian transitional military government decided to crack down on NGOs, including Freedom House in 2012, I took the challenge to heart. I took a personal risk in order to challenge both the Egyptian and American governments to respect the role of civil society and freedom of association for both local and international NGOs.
In June 2012, I traveled to Egypt to challenge the arrest warrant against me, joining my coworkers who were left behind on trial in the NGO case. In the process, I quit my post with Freedom House, I was imprisoned upon arrival in Egypt for two days, and I had to fight against a travel ban inside Egypt for four months, until I eventually won my case was freed to travel.
What is your vision of foreign policy in the 21st Century?
In the 21st century, power will be largely defined by the ability to control and process information. Various state and non-state actors will compete to harness this power to advance their agendas. Within this shifting global landscape, states must adapt their foreign policies to tackle global issues by partnering with civil society groups.
As more people around the world become connected through communication technologies, the more they will demand direct participation in decision-making processes. I anticipate that people will continue to expand transnational networks to bring innovative solutions to local problems and engage with others on regional and international issues.
State and international organizations should encourage the expansion of these networks, particularly in terms of investing in technological infrastructure and ensuring access to all, while at the same time demanding transparency and accountability for these networks. In other words, they should not define and control the phenomena, but rather develop legal mechanisms to mitigate the risks and safeguard citizens from possible manipulation from non-state actors.
We need a new international charter that brings government and international organizations together with new media giants to agree on policies to encourage internet freedom and freedom of association. These policies should empower, connect, and involve people around the world. But there should also be ways to hold accountable those that abuse such freedoms to promote crime, human rights abuses, and trafficking should be held accountable.
What challenges need to be overcome to create better foreign policy? What leadership traits are needed for this?
We are entering a world where power and influence is going to be shared by more state and non-state actors. The leaders of powerful, democratic states, particularly the U.S., can play a crucial and productive role in managing this transition. This transition will inevitably be difficult given that many governmental bodies and policy actors will challenge and resist such policy changes, which may threaten their immediate political and economic interests.
In order to overcome these challenges, leaders should be prepared to openly articulate to their constituents both the constraints and potentials of a world where the power of nation-states is diminishing. The most effective leaders will prepare and inspire people in their own nations to address local and global challenge using transnational civil society networks. Finally, for those who still live under authoritarian rule, these networks will remain out of reach unless leaders in democratic states form alliances with other democratic states, civil society organizations, and new media enterprises to bring unfiltered internet access and communication technologies.
The views in all interviews published in the Top 99 Under 33 feature represent those of their respective owners and not of their place of employment or the U.S. government.