The Valuable Asset of an Excursion in the Field of Peace Education
In order to feel the temper of the Arab Spring Revolution a study group from the University of Innsbruck, conducted by Adham Hamed and Lena Drummer, went off to Egypt. An excursion on peacemaking to awaken new feelings and perspectives, strengthen understanding and integrate personalities into theoretical approaches.
It is a spring day in May. It is evening, but Cairo certainly is still awake. Our study group is sitting in a circle, the vivid city’s street noise and lights run through a big window. Each of us is eagerly listening to Noura’s* strong and enthusiastic words. Our safe space feels calm – and tense at the same time. Noura is an activist who has been actively participating in the Arab Spring Revolution. What she tells us about the female positions in Libya makes clear that her fight is not over yet. We feel honored to meet her and soon realize that we are experiencing something unique, somehow step into the revolution’s aftermath and the political situation in the Arab region. When Noura talks about her close friend being assassinated in her home in Libya due to peacebuilding activities, the big window adopts a frightening touch of insecurity. Honks of cars and rickshaws interrupt Noura’s reckless laughter and make us startle at one go. It is not merely a discussion round, but a special opportunity to feel – beyond listening – the words of an activist. Being this close to a political activist and her life, and to many more experiences to come during our excursion in Egypt, showed us how vivid peace education can become once being in touch with people in conflict ridden areas.
Indeed, in Cairo and Alexandria, we had the chance to understand the complexity of the country’s problems by looking at it from many perspectives: We got to know politicians, activists, artists, cultural managers and local tour guides and hence, felt both the power and the vulnerability of several actors of the Arab Spring with differing political views. It was a unique opportunity to witness Egypt’s situation between beauty, peace, political trauma and deep conflicts. Understanding “the other’s” views in open discussions is an important way to mediate between European viewpoints and local realities, represents a significant aspect of peace building processes and illustrates how peace education can successfully build up understanding.
Let’s Get Started: On Theory
The theoretical concepts of peace and conflict, the political past of Egypt, as well as the current situation elucidated the complexity of the research interest. This is what the seminar Revolutionary Processes: An Exploration of Tahrir Square and Beyond, held by Adham Hamed, showed us. Due to presentations and discussions dedicated to topics ranging from gender perspectives, refugees, political trauma, to historical struggles, we were well prepared. The mix of the academic methods, the expression of personal thoughts on peace and conflict, and the wide range of theories with the actual truth in the field was new to many of us.
It was for a unique opportunity to witness Egypt’s situation between beauty, peace, political trauma and deep conflicts.
In class, we focused on expanding our interdisciplinary theoretical knowledge. By discussing the arguments of Gene Sharp, a political scientist whom the German newspaper Die Zeit named “the democrator” in reference to his methods of non-violent resistance against the oppressor, in contrast to decolonization-pioneer Franz Fanon’s theory of the inescapability of the use of violence, made clear how different social structures can influence political changes. Keeping these and more theoretical perspectives in mind, it was impressive to analyze the protest of the Tahrir movement which forced President Mubarak out of office in early 2011. Additionally, the diversity of actions within the revolution became clear: Starting with demonstrations on Tahrir Square up to graffiti, movie nights and concerts, people became creative in individual expressionism.
Thrill and Tensions: New Culture, New City
Let’s face it: It is not easy to book a flight into a country that has recently experienced an attack by the Islamic State, was the scenario of violent riots, and now faces an unstable political situation. Certainly, our fear was involved. However, after a few month in class, the feeling when seeing the immense city of Cairo while arriving by plane, was indescribable. The way from the airport to the hostel was accompanied on both sides by cultural heritages that could fill entire libraries. And so, in the crack of the dawn, we arrived at Tahrir Square where our hostel was located. When the lovely local tour guide showed us around in the early morning, we witnessed a city guarded by military on every corner, yet peaceful and calm, and we felt happy when locals said “thank you for visiting us”. The neighborhood was as full of architectural miracles of ancient Egypts as of graffiti from the revolution. Even if the excursion focused on the uprisings and the aftermaths, we also had great opportunities to see and learn about old Egyptian history, from the Pyramids to the Egyptian Museum.
Theory in Action: Talks in the Field
The main goal of the excursion certainly was more scientifically than culturally orientated. Our group consisted of fifteen bachelor students from different study fields, ranging from political science, sociology, ethnology, up to media and psychology, plus five professors and PhDs from Innsbruck and Vienna. During meetings and reflections, we appreciated the mix of research fields and knowledge within the group. Different viewpoints and ways of argumentation as well as various research objectives led to vivid discussions that covered different approaches and topics. Yet, since it is impossible to cover all of them in this article, we selected three questions which then developed into central themes in our research. We were impressed to observe how many distinct opinions exist and to realize that there is not one, single, universal answer to any question. Experiencing this pluralism, in a country the political spectrum thereof is often underestimated from a European perspective, was precious for the whole excursion.
The diversity of actions within the revolution became clear: Starting with demonstrations on Tahrir Square up to graffiti, movie nights and concerts, people became creative in individual expressionism.
#1 How did locals experience the revolution?
In order to stand up for bread, freedom and social justice, after the revolution’s slogan, millions of people gathered on Tahrir Square in January 2011. Everyone experienced the revolution in his or her way. We witnessed an eclectic cultural memory of the eighteen-day revolution: A woman told us that she joined a sit-in and that people were camping and singing all day long. An artist, who enriched the protest by singing with her band on stage, explained that Tahrir Square at that time was a big party: “People could sign up at the waiting list for the stage and perform whatever they wished.” On the other hand, she admitted that she participated only twice due to attacks and arrests on the way and because her father would not let her go. Further, the vibe among policemen was fragile: An activist witnessed policemen taking off their uniforms because of their fear of the huge mass of protesters. Additionally, we heard stories about extremely violent street fights and gender-based violence around Tahrir and saw graffiti that covered killings. Those individual experiences proved again how complex the revolution was, involving different people and attitudes.
#2 Which role does violence play in the revolution?
Riots, tear gas, police interventions, abuse of violence amongst protesters and by the state apparatus – the revolution on Tahrir Square was often mediated as a violent riot. Non-violent approaches such as Gene Sharp’s deny these acts categorically. However, some locals and activists experienced the dynamics in a rather pragmatic way. Ahmed*, an academic researcher and activist who has been actively involved in the protests and beyond, explained for example: “The revolution was extremely peaceful from the beginning until 5 pm, the state security apparatus has been under siege. The dynamics only led to violence when the state security threw Molotovs. Then, it escalated and became aggressive.” We met him in a safe room at Goethe Institute in Cairo because talking about rebellion is still avoided in public. In his words, the protesters had two possibilities: strike back or leave. “Someone had to stay in the square and people would shoot you down if you didn’t fight.” He did not defend violence itself, but “once it started, it developed its own dynamics. It is important to see it in context: When there is a reason, it might be legitimized, violence for the pursuit of joy is senseless.” He made clear that violence – whether conducted or consciously avoided – played a big role in the revolution. However, the sensitive approach consisting in not legitimizing violent acts in any way but in condemning them categorically, must be questioned. It was impressive for us to realize what role violence plays in a peacefully and nonviolently planned resistance: its impact cannot be denied.
#3 How did gender equality become an issue in the revolution?
Besides the huge solidarity, people undeniably faced sexual abuse on Tahrir Square. Some protesters got violent against women, gender equality was again being questioned in Egypt. “In the revolution, sexual harassment became violent, got its own dynamic and became random,” told Mohammed*, an activist who also created an app for help calls in case of sexual harassment. “Initially, this has been denied to keep negative elements out of the revolution, but then people began to talk about everything. Many groups mobilized against sexual harassment.” In Libya, Noura* experienced that women would become victims of another repression when they stood up against their leaders before men did and protested against laws and repression: They would simply be excluded from the state building process. “In the regime’s eyes, they became a threat for the government. For instance, they initiated a travel ban for women in order to control them.” These examples demonstrate that women take on many roles. On the one hand, they are portrayed as victims of sexual violence; on the other, as active protesters who have a direct impact on the rulers. In our view, though, this cannot be generalized as representing gender equality.
Experience for a Lifetime: The Takeaways
We spent one evening with a journalist on a Feluka-boat on the Nile. He explained in a rather chilled atmosphere how hopeless he feels about the situation right now: “There is no functional education system, no appropriate medical system. The disparity between military investment and social investment will lead to a collapse.” At that point, we felt troubled and rather frustrated. Well, what about the future of Egypt? The journalist’s answer was: “We need a plan.” Later, we met a politician whose goal is to become the future president of Egypt. He faced us with his agenda which involves investments in environment, infrastructure and medical care. He was spreading hope and doubt at the same time.
Nonetheless, our feelings were mixed and we came back to Innsbruck with tons of input and the awareness that we might never be able to fully understand the political situation. This understanding seems important because it prevents us from judging the situation from one perspective and allows us to realize the inconsistency of a single reality. We could accumulate an immense amount of crucial experiences during the excursion to Egypt. Yet, we feel the need to finish this article by Socrates’ saying: “We know that we know nothing.”
* Due to the unstable political situation in Egypt, we allowed ourselves to change the names of people to protect their identities.