As protesters swarmed outside the Supreme Court in the wake of last month’s health care ruling, House Rules Chairman David Dreier reflected on the historic elections that had just wrapped up in Egypt, arguing their turbulent history mirrors America’s own.
“I [felt] like I’m in the summer of 1787 when our country was just going through this process of putting together the Constitution. And we’re still going through that, obviously,” the California Republican said June 28, gesturing toward the television in the corner of the room broadcasting live footage of the chaotic scene outside the Supreme Court.
“To watch them improve the process along the way … it’s so inspiring. If you could go back 225 years to our summer of 1787 and these [same] questions they were dealing with,” said Dreier, who made numerous trips to Egypt over the past year to act as an election observer.
“It was really exciting to see the whole emergence of the Arab Spring. It began in Tunisia with that little merchant lighting himself on fire, and to see this rejection of authoritarian dictatorship, it’s just such a positive thing,” Dreier said, calling the movement a “real boost for the notion of self-determination. And to me, that’s exciting. It’s one of the things that first led me to run for Congress three and a half decades ago.”
Dreier’s involvement in Egypt — and, more broadly, in efforts to promote democratic governments across the globe — runs deep.
As a freshman Member of Congress in the early 1980s, Dreier seized on a state visit by President Hosni Mubarak to meet the newly installed leader.
“My first term in Congress … I’m a young starry-eyed guy interested in all kinds of things, and I heard Hosni Mubarak was here,” Dreier recalls.
“I just wanted to talk to him about the Middle East … and he walked out of whatever room he was in, this was in the Rayburn Building, and I just said, ‘Oh, Mr. President, I’m David Dreier and I’m a Member of Congress and I just wanted to meet you.’
“And he took me, he took me, I felt like a bear cub [because] he was a big guy … and he took me and he just wrapped his arm around me, all around my chest and he pulled into his breast … and quite literally dragged me down the hall.”
The encounter helped spark a three-decade-long relationship with the Egyptian government and its people.
“I love the Egyptian people. They’re so warm and so kind,” he said.
In the mid-’80s, Dreier made his “first trip there 25 years ago with [the late Rep.] Charlie Wilson (D-Texas) en route to Thanksgiving dinner in the Khyber Pass.” Dreier returned to Egypt in 2005 to give a speech at the American University in Cairo.
And it was on that trip that Dreier first encountered the Muslim Brotherhood.
“I felt scared. Because I gave this speech, and all of a sudden there were all these Muslim Brothers who got up and really started passionately and vigorously and enthusiastically screaming at me.”
“I remember just standing there. That was my first real encounter with the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, this was during the Iraq War, and this is what was really driving that,” Dreier said.
His experiences with Egypt and other developing nations during his career led Dreier to help found the House Democracy Partnership, which has worked with countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to help foster democratic institutions and strong legislative bodies.
Despite significant setbacks in Egypt — including a court’s dissolving of parliament and the military’s scaling back of presidential authority right before the election of President Muhammad Morsi last month — Dreier argues the country and region are simply going through the growing pains of fledgling democracies.
“My answer to the dissolution of the parliament is to hold parliamentary elections … get to work on writing the constitution. It’s not a straight line. … Is it a major setback? Not as long as they continue to go down this path,” Dreier said.
“If you were to go back a year and a half ago and say, ‘Hosni Mubarak won’t be president and the people of Egypt for the first time in 7,000 years would be able to cast votes to elect members of parliament and a president,’ anyone would have said you’re crazy,” he added.
Dreier also downplays concerns among some in the U.S. over the election of Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, arguing that despite tensions, you will “see a Salafist [Muslim] arm-in-arm with a Coptic Christian.”
At 60, Dreier is preparing to exit Congress, and he said he hopes to continue his work not only in Egypt and the Middle East, but also with other emerging democracies around the world.
“I want to keep a role internationally. I don’t think it’s just Egypt … I’ve always done a lot of this international stuff,” Dreier said.