AUC seminar mulls pros and cons of political activism

A series of lectures, collectively entitled “Activism in Today’s Egypt: Potentials and Challenges,” were held on 22-23 May at the American University in Cairo (AUC)’s downtown New Falaki building. Organized and presided over by Rabab el-Mahdi, professor of political science at the university, the lectures largely dealt with the current political climate, which, due to the upcoming elections as well as president Mubarak’s recent health problems, has been turbulent to say the least.

Consisting of three sessions–each featuring its own panel of professors, journalists, and activists–the two-day event also featured the screening of two documentaries: Mostafa al-Naggar’s The Rise and Fall of Protest Movements in Egypt and Sectarian Strife and the Role of Activists, directed by Samir Eshra.

The lectures ended on Sunday afternoon, culminating in a two-and-a-half-hour roundtable discussion on the causes and effects of mobilization in the Arab world.

The event was attended by students of the American University, as well as several young political activists, particularly bloggers. Correspondingly, much of the talk revolved around online activism–a trend that, due to the country’s repressive political atmosphere, has experienced widespread popularity within a relatively short time frame.

“Some very important issues have been discussed [during the past two days],” says Abdel Fattah Gouda, a 24-year-old independent activist. “The talk hasn’t just been limited to past achievements and wishful thinking. Instead, we have been having serious, realistic discussions that don’t shy away from criticism, which is essential. We need to learn how we can evolve ourselves and our ideologies to effectively appeal to the common man.”

Gouda is also quick to mention how impressed he has been with the lectures, which included several presentations of reports and research papers written by university students. “I was pleasantly surprised,” he admits. “The reports presented by the students were actually full of interesting opinions and thought-provoking suggestions.”

Gouda, who is not a student at the American University, first heard of the event through a Facebook invitation which, as he points out, is an indispensable form of social networking, the likes of which have become integral to the wave of youthful political activism currently rippling through the country.

Throughout the event, both speakers and attendees repeatedly echoed Gouda’s sentiments. “Fear of authority has vanished, and everyone is rebelling,” political science professor Mustapha al-Sayyid declared to his audience moments later. As a member of the panel for a lecture entitled “Opposition Under Authoritarianism,” al-Sayyid elaborated on the political change that has been slowly taking place over the past few years. “What the consequences of this change will be is hard to determine,” he explains. “But it is wrong to call Egyptians a submissive people now.”

The lectures also piqued the interest of younger AUC students, be they local or foreign. Torie Aarseth, 26, and Jihan Ibrahim, 23, had both previously taken courses at the university in which similar topics and issues were discussed. “For me, it was a great opportunity to see some of the faces we read about,” Aarseth says of the lectures’ panel members and speakers. “Also, it was a good opportunity to hear the academic perspectives of young people.”

Ibrahim agrees, adding that, for her, the issues hold a particular relevance. “As an Egyptian, it’s important to be politically aware at this time,” she says. Ibrahim admits that she only recently became politically aware after several classes on the subject, particularly “Authoritarianism and Mobilization in the Middle East,” taught by Rabab al-Mahdi, who also organized the two-day lecture sessions.

“It’s nice, having political and academic debates on the same subjects we discussed in class, and being able to incorporate the theoretical side of things with the practical,” she adds. With upcoming elections, Ibrahim insists that “it is important to be exposed” to as many of the issues as possible.

Needless to say, her mentor holds similar beliefs. Talking to Al-Masry Al-Youm, al-Mahdi emphasizes the points made by her students and guests. “Looking at the context of Egypt today, it’s obvious how extremely important these issues are,” she quickly explains during a brief break in the day’s proceedings. “We are in a very different period than the 80’s and 90’s. There’s a lot of mobilization, and we have to understand this to be able to understand the context we are living in.”

“It’s an opportune moment now,” she says. “Everyone’s talking about change.”

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