Talking democracy

Several years ago, I attended a posh dinner party where conversation turned to Gamal Mubarak’s chances of becoming president. Most guests said they didn’t mind the idea and even supported it.  They were intelligent, well-travelled Egyptians who might have known better. "The people will never go for it," I said, "they’ve had enough of having nothing". Protests arose regarding the number of families who owned satellite dishes, as if this signaled some great achievement. Populist outrage overcame good manners as I accused both Mubarak fils and my dinner companions of not knowing much about where they lived or with whom. "Oh come on, he’s a good man," said a well-known businessman, "you can’t hold it against him just because he’s the son of the president". This bit of sideways logic silenced me; nothing I could say would matter and dinner was anyway about to be served. I didn’t see this circle of acquaintances much afterwards; some have lately gone to jail and others into politics.

I was reminded of that conversation at a very different, recent gathering, where concerned members of the 30-40-something bourgeoisie and academia spent a convivial evening talking about the revolution. One woman asked if I’d seen it coming. She said she didn’t: "We knew things couldn’t go on like this, but still…". She wanted to be involved, had attended revolutionary youth meetings but found them incoherent and was wondering what to do. So was an articulate young man who felt the real revolution must come from within the privileged class who should step up to the plate and present alternatives. "We can’t leave this to the masses", someone else said. But who were these masses, anyway?  For many of my companions, Tahrir was their first real contact apart from exchanges with cab drivers and employees.

The separation between Egypt’s haves and have-nots has never been quite so profound, partly because there have never been so many millions belonging to the latter category, but also because the opportunities for encounters between Egyptians of different backgrounds have grown slim. To reduce the stress of urban life – the overcrowding, traffic, pollution, noise – we stick to our neighborhoods, workplaces and shopping routines. People who once regularly visited village relatives stopped going; they were too busy, those places too far and painfully deteriorated. The Emergency Law has made public entertainments rare and civic activities nil; mosques and churches became the default gathering places in the absence of more inclusive, accessible venues. The consequences of this social disconnect are now unfolding.

Many, if not most "average" Egyptians remain essentially unengaged, remote from the significance of what is happening or might yet happen in the wake of 25 January. Forget Facebook, millions cannot read or even buy  the papers. The TV talk shows directed at them are conducted at a glamorous remove from their reality and offer limited participation. Likewise radio "call-in" programs are fine, but only because they inspire face-to-face conversations, which remain the most effective means of human communication and the reason why political campaigners, despite access to every media tool imaginable, must still hit the streets and shake hands.

While Egyptians certainly need government representatives that will speak for them, what they could use right now is someone to speak with them. Imagine if all Egypt’s better-off citizens embarked on a project to change their country through the simple act of getting to know it better. Shutting down the computer and hopping on the metro to visit some new neighborhood or town, finding a cafĂ© and starting a discussion, arguing the merits of a civil state, or the dangers of the current anti-corruption crusade, or the army’s motivations, or the role of fear (of chaos or economic collapse) in forestalling activists’ demand for the political empowerment of all Egyptians.

This kind of interchange is already occurring notably in and around Tahrir Square and could be facilitated more broadly. Why should people have to meet in the middle of a traffic jam? The site of the old National Democratic Party headquarters, symbol of a repressive, divisive regime (and blight on the horizon even before it became a charred wreck) could be turned into its opposite: a speakers’ corner, a green gathering place liberated by and for the people. Places like this in Cairo and around the country could be formally established and monitored by civilian groups with the aim of widening the debate to include a still silent, mighty majority. Talk comes easily to most Egyptians, which may be why they haven’t worked at it very much. But now's the chance. Revolutions may begin with a conversation, but the democratization of the dialogue keeps them going.

Maria Golia, a long-time resident of Egypt, is author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt, permanent correspondent for The Middle East (UK)and columnist for the New Internationalist (Oxford).

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