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Democracy Dialogue: Global Conversations Inspired by Egypt’s January 25 Revolution

[Photo by Mosa'ab Elshami] [Photo by Mosa'ab Elshami]

Democracy Dialogue (DD) is a multimedia project inspired by the Egyptian revolution of January 25, 2011. Developed with a team from the Global Studies in Education (GSE) program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the website houses original videos and transcripts in Arabic, Urdu, Chinese, English and Korean, all licensed under the Creative Commons and available for free download.

Though the project takes Egypt’s January 25 uprising as a starting point, it aims to probe pressing global questions about the history of freedom movements, citizenship, security, equality, democracy, popular uprisings and alternative politics.

The first installment of videos is from a historic conversation that took place during the turbulent post-revolution period in Egypt in 2012 between Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former head of the Dostour Party, and Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson and biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, as well as a peace activist, former parliamentarian and retired University of Illinois professor. The pairing of these two figures speaks to the humanistic bent of this project.

[Democracy Dialogue Trailer]

Linda Herrera answered the following questions about the project:

Why did you want to launch Democracy Dialogue on the five-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution?

The five-year anniversary of the January 25 revolution calls for commemoration and, yes, celebration. Many analysts, when referring to the Egyptian and other Arab uprisings, cavalierly invoke the tired cliché about how the “Arab Spring has turned into the Arab Winter.” While we cannot deny that much of the political, economic and social reality in the region is currently bleak—if not positively dire in countries such as Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq — it is not the end of the story.

The Arab uprisings, a mere five years young, are still in their infancy. However demoralizing the current situation may be, the uprisings constituted an “event,” to use the terminology of Alain Badiou in Ethics—a rupture with the past that “compels us to decide a new way of being.” Along these lines, Democracy Dialogue is intended to engage thinkers, activists, public figures, artists—young and old alike—about the meaning and practice of democracy in an age of uprisings, political turmoil, mass migrations and unimaginable opportunities for communication, spreading ideas and forging alternatives.

How did the encounter between Mohamed ElBaradei and Rajmohan Gandhi come into being?

The remarkable encounter between ElBaradei and Gandhi, like so many of the exceptional “events” in life, came about through the combination of serendipity and the work and support of many people.

The seeds of this project began on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the January 25 revolution. The Egyptian Student Association invited me to speak on a panel about youth politics. One of my fellow panelists, an Egyptian researcher from the Institute for Genome Biology, Magdy al-Abady, was interested in the influence of Gandhi in Egypt. I told him that Gandhi’s grandson Rajmohan, an important historian and peace activist, was a professor on our campus. Shortly thereafter, we met with Professor Gandhi and his wife Usha. As we talked about the rising tensions and social cleavages in Egypt, Gandhi drew insightful parallels with India’s independence movement. We understood that this conversation would be of great value and interest in Egypt. On the spot, without knowing how to actualize it, I proposed to bring the Gandhis on a kind of solidarity trip to Egypt. We immediately started envisioning a meeting with youth groups and with Mohamed ElBaradei, the unifying voice of the liberal opposition at that time. Yes, we were dreaming big, but that was a time for dreaming.

Since I had no clue whatsoever how to contact ElBaradei directly, I turned to Abdel Rahman Mansour, a youth activist and friend who had worked on ElBaradei’s Facebook page. He reached out to ElBaradei’s brother, Ali, and explained our proposition to hold a two-day dialogue with ElBaradei and Gandhi. At that moment, Ali was reading Rajmohan’s magisterial biography about his grandfather, Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire. He liked our idea and put me in touch with ElBaradei’s assistant. In the meantime, I started knocking on doors at the university to raise funds to support our small delegation to travel to Egypt and cover the costs of filming the dialogue (thanks goes to International Programs and Studies, Office of Public Engagement and the College of Education).

Ten months later, in November 2012 we were in Egypt in a hotel meeting room converted into a makeshift recording studio for a two-day, six-hour dialogue between ElBaradei and Gandhi. ElBaradei graciously agreed to a follow-up interview with me on 1 June 2013, as did Aida ElBaradei. Rajmohan and Usha Gandhi have lent much support to the project, as well as the team of students from Global Studies in Education who are working on translations and various aspects of the project. I also need to give recognition to the phenomenal Egyptian photographer  Mosa'ab Elshamy, who has so generously given us permission to use his stunning photographs throughout the videos and website.

How is working with video different or similar to working with text? 

I am accustomed to editing written work, to dealing with large reams of research data and pulling out a coherent story. I applied the conventional skills of editing text to the editing of the videos. It was humbling to open my first Premiere Pro project and not know how to begin. I am eternally grateful to all those wonderful video enthusiasts and geeks who have made YouTube a global school and resource. I have spent countless hours watching their tutorials and how-to videos. I have also turned to my media and video-savvy daughters, Shiva and Tara, who have always given me good advice. I am still very much an amateur video creator, and can only hope viewers will be forgiving of my limitations and technical shortcomings. I am working on them.

As an educator and academic, I am convinced of the need to continue working with video material in addition to written texts. Video is surpassing every other media as the premiere means of communication, documentation and creative expression of all sorts. On YouTube alone, 6 billion hours of video are watched per month, and each day 1 billion videos are watched via mobile phone! Video is not the way of the future — it is an indispensable mode of learning and disseminating research and ideas in the present.

Do you have other plans for this set of interview material, and for Democracy Dialogue?

I personally continue to be inspired by the interview material over three years on. So far, it has spawned five Democracy Dialogue video vignettes with five more on the way, totaling about 90 minutes. I will continue mining the material for more transcripts, including one with Aida ElBaradei. These are in addition to a short, half-hour documentary I co-produced and co-directed in 2013 with the Alexandria-based production house Fig Leaf Studio called The Long March. However, as the political situation rapidly deteriorated in Egypt, the Egyptian colleagues requested to put the release of that short film on indefinite hold, and I concurred.

Now, with the Democracy Dialogue videos out as part of the Creative Commons, I imagine they will take a life of their own. I am open to new forms of creative collaboration. I am starting to plan for a forthcoming series of Democracy Dialogues around the issues of refugees, the politics of citizenship and education. 

[This report is published in collaboration with Mada Masr] 


[Video segment on Citizenship and Minorities with Arabic subtitles]

 

  
[Video segment on Building Political Structures]

[The Democracy Dialogue videos and transcripts are copyrighted to Linda Herrera of the University of Illinois and under the Creative Commons license, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA.]

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