What happens when you put an Islamist, a Socialist, a Christian, and a Liberal in an Egyptian garden?

In Arab World, Diversity Work, Egypt, Interfaith Dialogue, Politics, Tahrir Square on January 22, 2012 at 7:31 am

Alfred DePew

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | January 21, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

Imagine bringing together different factions of Egyptian society — Islamist, Socialist, Christian, and Liberal — to discuss their views in an Egyptian garden.

This is what Cairo management consultant Hesham El-Gamal wanted to find out when he invited people from a wide spectrum of opinion to participate in what he called a “communication experiment.”

He wanted to discover their common ground.

“In the early stages of the revolution,” El-Gamal said in a Skype interview earlier this month, “there was conflict about whether this was the right way to go about things. We thought about creating a one-day workshop to see things from a different light without judgment or attacking.”

In his work with corporations, El-Gamal uses relationship coaching techniques developed by the Center for Right Relationship to mediate conflict. Ultimately, he wants to train volunteers in these techniques, so they can work on a larger scale with different political parties and factions. He had to start somewhere, and he wanted to film his experiment to give people an idea of how some of the techniques actually work.

El-Gamal posted notes on various Facebook pages announcing his experiment, calling for anyone with a strong position about the revolution to respond. Even though the announcement assured that the workshop would be conducted in safety and respecting and accepting everyone present, there was a reluctance to participate. Some expressed an interest, but “didn’t want to be exposed,” says El-Gamal.

Venting on Facebook was one thing. Showing up in person and in front of a camera for an entire day of dialogue was another.

It took about a month for El-Gamal to find representatives of every major direction or faction, as well as someone who might represent the Silent Majority, the so-called “couch party,” or those who “watch and feel anxious but are not willing to do anything.”

In the end, he found two Islamists, two Christians, a Socialist, a Communist, a Liberal, a revolutionary from the April 6 Movement, and one who felt she could represent the feelings of those who remained largely silent. Nine people in all. Then, he found a secluded place for the workshop near a park in Old Cairo and a weekend when everyone was free.

“Egypt is at a crossroads,” says El-Gamal at the beginning of the film which came out of the workshop. One road leads to the dream of a prosperous, unified country, in which everyone is free to worship according to his or her faith. The other leads to sectarian fights between narrowly defined interests of emerging political parties.

In interviews and scenes from exercises he led during the workshop, we get some moving glimpses into the thoughts and feelings of the participants.

When asked to speak in the voice of Egypt herself, one said, “I am one of the oldest civilizations. I survived for 7,000 years. I have been through many difficult times. I have suffered occupation and enjoyed prosperity.”

Another said, again, speaking as Egypt, “Don’t be afraid of freedom; don’t be afraid of the infinite skies.”

In another exercise, participants are asked to step into one another’s “land,” leaving behind the their own perspectives and becoming curious about someone else’s.

“On the map,” explains El-Gamal in the film, “Egypt is one large area where all Egyptians live. But there is another map, one we have created. This map divides Egypt into groups and factions: Islamic Egypt, Christian Egypt, Liberal Egypt.”

As one participant notices when he visits the land of the ‘Silent Majority,’ it “has the benefit of the helicopter view. They can monitor all the action from outside.”

It is this ability to get out of one’s own perspective and step fully into another that is perhaps the most striking thing about this film.

El-Gamal is pleased with the results of his experiment. “It went quite smoothly,” he says, “and the filming itself was easy.” The hard part was “to capture nine hours in 15 minutes, to create something meaningful for people that sends a clear message about what can be done to get closer.”

The response to Voices of Egypt has been extraordinary. Shortly after it was posted to the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page, the video was viewed by 1,500 in one day. El-Gamal was interviewed for a morning show on national TV that gave a link to the video.

El-Gamal has been encouraged by people’s comments. And relieved.

“When I started this experiment,” he says, “I wanted to help people. The joy of the experiment was more than enough. When you put your heart into something and aren’t concerned about the outcome, that’s when you get the best outcome ever. One of my dreams was to create a video. I was willing to accept that it would fail, not produce a significant reaction. I enjoyed the process—then of course, it was crowned by fantastic feedback.

“Now I know there is hope, a way for us to go forward.”


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