Digital town hall connects activists with scholars

April 5, 2011, 2:02 a.m.

The Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), in partnership with the Cloud to Street Initiative, held a digital town hall from Cairo on Monday morning. CDDRL visiting scholar Ben Rowswell discussed the recent Egyptian uprising with three Egyptian activists at Tahrir Lounge in Cairo, while members of the Stanford community watched through a live stream and participated in a chat and polls.

The Egyptian activists, Sabah Hamamou, Mona Shahien and Abdel Rahman Faris, were leaders in the youth-led movement that started Jan. 25 in Tahrir Square, Cairo. The movement resulted in the resignation of 30-year President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11. They have since been involved in rebuilding Egypt’s political system in anticipation of parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.

The discussion aimed to connect the activists with researchers at Stanford, Harvard and the University of British Columbia. According to Sarina Beges, CDDRL program manager, the discussion had 35 online participants, including academics and CDDRL members.

Participants posted questions through a live chat, which Rowswell then posed to the activists. Topics included the impact of technology, citizen journalism, the future of Egyptian politics, women’s roles and the ways in which outsiders can contribute.

“We largely refuse any support from any [foreign] government whatsoever, because governments have their own calculations,” said Faris, a member of the Revolutionary Youth Council that planned the initial protests. “But we count on popular support.”

Shahien held a similar opinion.

“I think there can be an exchange of information between us and people abroad,” she said.

“[But] say to your governments: ‘hands off the Arab world,’” Shahien said.

Hamamou, Shahien and Faris emphasized their desire for a secular, democratic Egypt.

“Most of the people who are working in the political sphere don’t want a religious country; we want a civil [secular] country,” said Hamamou, a deputy editor at leading state newspaper Al-Ahram, which extensively reported on the protests.

The town hall idea emerged from Blogs and Bullets, a conference held by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford (FSI) in February on social media and the struggle for political change.

“[Rowswell] decided to deploy to Cairo 10 days ago to interview activists on the ground,” Beges said. “He’s had over 50 conversations with activists and was particularly taken by these three.”

Rowswell, a Canadian diplomat, is exploring launching projects about “building democratic practices” in Egypt. The use and impact of social media in this sphere is of particular interest.

Hamamou, Shahien and Faris all used social media, in some capacity, to carry their voices. While they credited video footage of the protests with moving people from their computer screens to Tahrir Square, they also gave traditional social mobilization strategies their due.

“The idea itself is not a solution,” Faris said, acknowledging the value of social media in spreading ideas. “There must be planning on Earth.”

Shahien concluded the discussion with a strong appeal to the U.S., in light of the current unrest in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya.

“If you [America] want freedom for all people, you must accept freedom for the Arab world,” Shahien said.

Marwa Farag is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. Previously, she was the managing editor of news, managing editor of the former features section, a features desk editor and a news writer.

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