When Hatem al Hajj of the Nour Party finished describing how they envisage a better Egypt, hands began shooting up from the crowd.
Scowled faces of older men were adamant in telling the Salafis off for their views, while two younger men praised their vision and a younger woman questioned their controversial stance on women’s position in modern Egypt.
Hewarat Masreya (Egyptian Dialogues) has just kicked off.
The Swedish Institute of Alexandria and the Masr El Metnawara (Enlightened Egypt) foundation got together to organise a forum with political parties and NGOs in Egypt.
The first of its kind in the country, the dialogue event comes at a time when both the public and the political parties need to revive their communication lines.
I expected Egyptians to swell in numbers at the front door of this event to take the chance to challenge the increasing number of political parties in this new era. Unfortunately, turnout was small and although numbers began to grow towards the end of the evening, it was not enough to fill the fairly empty halls.
The well-organised event kicked off by tackling issues such as the Sinai and women’s rights, while the afternoon analysed both short-term and long-term solutions for the Egyptian economy, and the role of the youth in guarding the public, to name a few.
The day ended with a concert. There were three halls, where the political parties held separate discussions with the audience on particular issues, simultaneously. After the talks were over both political parties and the NGOs congregated to debate against each other on where the democratic transition in Egypt is heading as well as on social justice and the deteriorating quality of life.
As I weaved in and out between various members of political parties, one main factor they all had in common was their enthusiasm. Nour Party received hard-hitting questions on their controversial stance on hoping to push Egypt back into an Islamic Golden Age, while Al Wasat Party led one of the most interactive sessions, tackling the issues of Egypt’s economy hand-in-hand with the audience.
When I accidently bumped into politician and activist George Ishaak, he told me how happy he was to be part of an event such as this and he had come especially early (much before he was due to talk) to listen to what other political parties had to say.
When I questioned Yehia Abu el Wafa, of the Wasat Party, about the lack of focus on local businesses, he passionately argued how his party’s main objective was to grow the Egyptian economy from within and increase local businesses as well as create plans to protect their rights. The Nour Party’s Mustafa Zayed continued to try and convince me that a return to an Islamic Golden Age will move Egypt to a more peaceful and rich future, especially with the Christian and Jewish communities in the country.
However, when the issue of women in the workplace came up Hatem al Hajj of the Nour Party said he had the right to vote against a female president.
Ambassador Birgitta Holst Alani of the Swedish Institute flitted between the halls, the volunteers were relentless in ensuring no technical issues occurred and Masr el Metnawara actively made sure the audience remained civil towards the political parties they were challenging.
So the question remains: why was the turnout unexpectedly small?
The concept of the event itself should have been a highlight on any politically, economically, or socially frustrated Egyptian’s calendar. This would have been the right time to actively participate in a discussion with the political parties, many of which voters were not familiar with during last year’s presidential elections. The event was a chance for Egyptians to try and get to know their alternative choices, to analyse them, question them and understand what their goals and plans are.
When we talk to Ambassador Holst Alani, she is positive about the outcome.
“The highlight was the debate between the party leaders, which attracted an audience of over 1,000 people,” she says, adding that the organisers are “very satisfied” with the event.
Hewarat Masreya may not have been a huge success but it is definitely a start, a beginning towards a push for true democracy that modern Egypt so desires.
Ayya Harraz is a freelance journailst based in Cairo who writes regularly for Your Middle East.
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