St. Paul Pioneer Press

Patrick Plonski: Ideas, books and the building of democracy (editorial) (View editorial on the Saint Paul Pioneer Press website)
February 12, 2011

The peaceful throngs on the streets of Cairo have won the first round in the battle for democracy in Egypt by forcing President Hosni Mubarak out of office. But the hard work of nation building is only just beginning.

For Egypt to thrive as a truly democratic state, it will have to build up its educational institutions and civic organizations and establish the essential ingredient of any democracy: the rule of law.

American organizations dedicated to these principles are willing to help - organizations like St. Paul-based Books For Africa and its Jack Mason Law & Democracy Initiative. Books For Africa believes that education is the great equalizer in the world and that books are the foundation of a strong educational system. Over the past 23 years, Books For Africa has shipped 24 million books to 45 African countries, including Tunisia and Egypt. In August, Books For Africa shipped a container of 18,000 books to the Alexandria Library in Egypt.

Egypt has a proud and ancient tradition. In fact, the Alexandria Library is one of the wonders of the ancient world and one of the most revered institutions in Egypt. Working in close collaboration with the Friends of the Alexandria Library, a global organization of volunteers, Books For Africa sent this container of books collected from individual college students, college bookstores and public libraries across North America. Freight to haul the books to Alexandria was donated through the personal intervention of the Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. Like the easy access to the Internet, these books represent the information revolution that allows people to gain access to information and knowledge about a range of topics, including the workings of democracy and free public expression.

The Law & Democracy Initiative, chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former Vice President Walter Mondale, has sent 26 law and human rights libraries to a dozen countries throughout the continent. We have partnered with Thomson Reuters, USAID, the American Bar Association and attorneys in this country and in Africa. Some day we hope to work with partners to ship law and human rights books to Egypt. This work is important and is having an impact.

What's been happening on the streets in Egypt the past three weeks is being driven in part through modern communications like Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, the Internet and live television. But to sustain the momentum for democratic change, Egypt and the other countries of Africa and the Middle East will have to build lasting institutions based not only on today's latest information, but also on the rule of law.

Books For Africa, working with private citizens and their donations of time, money and educational materials, stands ready to help emerging democracies in that effort. We here in the United States need to know that our own, small individual actions when combined can have a dramatic impact a world away.

Patrick Plonski of St. Paul is executive director of St. Paul-based Books For Africa.