In a project funded by Germany, a team of young Egyptians in Cairo is trying to boost civil participation and create political awareness without subscribing to any particular ideology.
At a recent evening in Cairo, a group of about 40 young Egyptians took part in a lively discussion about corruption and nepotism, hot-button issues in their still politically turbulent country.
The event was held at the Goethe Institut, a German government-funded organization promoting German language and culture. The debate followed the screening of a film about how the Egyptian revolution was perceived by the residents of a village in the Nile Delta in 2011. The director spoke about a primary school teacher who was suddenly appointed the head of an entire administrative district allegedly because he was a relative of the local governor.
That prompted a journalist on the podium to turn to a government official invited to take part in the debate and ask: "How can it be that this primary school teacher who has never done anything in his life besides teaching at this school suddenly heads an administrative district that's also relatively large? How can that be? Just because he's a cousin of the governor?"
The animated debate was part of an event organized by the "Tahrir Lounge," an initiative founded by Mona Shahien, a 27-year-old Egyptian political activist. It's funded and promoted by the Goethe Institut, the German embassy and the German foreign ministry. But the organizers are all Egyptians. "Tahrir," which means "liberation" in Arabic, is the name of the central square in Cairo which became a rallying point for protests that toppled the government of President Hosni Mubarak more than two years ago.
"The Tahrir Lounge is a space for everyone. Our main goal is civil participation and politically mature citizens," Shahien said. "You can't achieve democracy without involving people and without them knowing their rights. You can only have democracy when the voters are conscious of their choice," she said.
Respect for all
To meet those goals, the Tahrir Lounge organizes events on a near-daily basis that are open to all. There are workshops on human rights, discrimination against women as well as on how to lead negotiations and discussions or on conflict resolution. Over 50 parties and groups of all political stripes have participated in seminars so far and presented themselves to largely young audiences.
For Mona Shahien, it's an important development because she believes that though a lot of young Egyptians are interested in politics, they often don't get a chance to get actively involved in the existing political spectrum. That's why the Tahrir Lounge reaches out to young members of political outfits and offers free workshops.
"We ask them to nominate two or three of their people who then take part in a training seminar," Mona Shahien said. "After that, they can communicate their concerns and issues to their respective parties. We only offer them a framework on how to do that."
The seminars help the representatives of the invited parties to get to know each other and they often keep in touch long after the training sessions. That helps create new channels of communication. And that in turn leads to people who often hold completely different political points of view and ideological positions to exchange ideas and learn to respect each other despite their political differences.
That's linked to a fundamental principle of the Tahrir Lounge, Mona Shahien said, which is that the project should not cater to any particular political ideology.
"We have now built a really good reputation because we're one of the places in Egypt that isn't linked to a certain political direction," she said. "You can't say we're liberals or Islamists or secularists. We're a space where all these strands are represented."
An uphill battle
Despite the obvious demand for democracy-strengthening initiatives in post-revolution Egypt and financial help from Germany, the Tahrir Lounge still faces a host of challenges.
The Egyptian administration remains wary of foreign powers, especially when they are seen to be trying to wield political influence in the country. That's why it remains very important for the project to remain independent in framing its own program, Mona Shahien said.
The Tahrir Lounge organizes workshops on a near-daily basis
"Right from the beginning, we said yes we are financed by the German government, yes we do belong to the Goethe Institut," she said. "But when it comes to content, we are completely independent."
Back at the event at the Goethe Institut, the situation turns increasingly awkward for the government official who's being grilled about nepotism in politics. He tries to defend his ministry and argues there are now mechanisms in place to curb nepotism. Basically, we are on the right path, he says, adding that these things take time. Even God needed six days to create the world, he argues. That elicits a lot of head shaking and frowns in the audience. A few laugh at his argument.
Mohamed, 24, says the discussion was a partial success. "The problem does remain. But at least many have realized that the government hasn't recognized the seriousness of the situation," he says. "A year ago, I would have accepted the official's reaction. But now I see that the government is incompetent and fails to take action."
Mohamed is a frequent participant in Tahrir Lounge workshops. In the past few months, he says, he's realized that politics is often a dirty business. But it's important to understand how it works, he adds, otherwise you can't change anything.