Political Minutes: The Egypt Symposium, Part II

Part II of Two Part Series  After a sumptuous dinner and well-deserved break, Hamdy Qandil, the widely respected journalist and Nasserist spoke on the state of the media in Egypt in a talk entitled “Revolutionary Media: The Changing Role of Journalism and Technology.” His talk was filled with personal anecdotes and stories, and the audience’s reaction made clear that, at least among the older members, he was an admired, trustworthy, and familiar figure. Most interesting and surprising was the section on Egypt’s press freedom, during which Qandil noted that though Egypt was ranked 116th in the world in freedom of press under Mubarak’s regime, since the resignation of the ex-President and the take over by SCAF, it has fallen down 39 more places in the index. The country has a history of press restriction. Qandil mentioned that when he was given his first television program in the 50s he was almost cancelled by the censors for disrespect after mentioning news of President Nasser at the end of his program rather than the beginning. The new democracy, Qandil argued, would have to deal with a number of laws and restrictions currently on the books allowing state control, as well as end the ministry of information, in order to escape its unfortunate privilege of being the “place where the phrase ‘margin of freedom’ was invented”. It would also have to modernize its approach to press and media, and what constituted media, in order to respond to the changes seen by the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and more broadly, the democratization of technology that allows citizen journalists to cheaply purchase cameras, microphones, and internet access and publish important reports on the internet. In spite of the challenges facing the Egyptian people, Qandil was an optimist; he noted that outside funding of $200 million, from both the Egyptian diaspora and non-Egyptians, had already been injected into the media scene. With only 27 channels, this could have a huge effect. Finally, he ended his talk returning to his activist ideals, which surely inspired much of his commitment to truth in journalism, with a rousing chant that “The revolution will win in the end, it will ultimately win, it will inevitably win.”

Finally, Bilal Fadl took to the stage to discuss “The Current and Future Status of Egyptian Art”. Though the audience was likely tired from the long day of panels, they seemed enthralled to listen to the popular artist, and in fact his talk continued for nearly half an hour more than expected due to his popularity. Fadl’s youth and humor translated into winning the audience’s attention for his broad talk that made a variety of fascinating and strong claims and meandered along numerous directions.  The general theme, though, was clear: art is necessary for revolutionary thinking, in the sense of both upheaval and progress. Critical to its power, he argued, was its capacity for nuance. The stories told in theater and film “give the complex way of thinking and sophistication needed for betterment or revolution,” he said, by telling stories with complex moral compositions. He responded respectfully but starkly to Qandil’s remarks, noting that it was a “simplistic idea of marching against SCAF carrying pictures of Nasser, as if he were a music teacher [and not a general].” “Neither Mubarak nor Nasser were devils nor Angels,” he said. The talk moved from cinema to theater to soap opera and even comics, and he noted that all had a role to play in engaging, moving, and galvanizing the populace. Finally, Fadl piquantly argued that “democracy is more than a mirror…it’s not supposed to show the image you like; it’s supposed to show you’re your flaws so you can fix your problems.” He also addressed the growing fears of the Islamization of art, arguing that those who complain should be acting as patrons and encouraging more art, and that the art of the youth and the liberals would benefit through this process. In all, the audience seemed fascinated by the extensive and erudite arguments that Fadl made.

Finally, the lengthy event concluded. With the gathering of students, professors, and large numbers from the non-Columbia Egyptian and Arab community, it was clear that the movement of enthusiasm and energy lit by the revolutions themselves were mirrored by a surge of academic and practical interest among those outside the country. And while the future of Egypt and the rest of the Middle East is far from clear, this, at least, cannot be a bad thing.

Part I of our coverage