By Safia Aoude
(October 31, 2011) – “We can write anything now!” said an editor of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram to some visiting Danish participants in Cairo as a part of a recent Alexandria-based conference called “Media´s Role for Changing Society and Democracy”. The Egyptian revolution has certainly become a catalyst for free speech and for more political debate in Egyptian media. Yet, the chaotic climate of the revolution has also suffered some backlash. Another editor at Al-Ahram warned that the media in Egypt is now in a political limbo, and can sometimes even motivate the Egyptian public towards sectarian violence and false information.
The conference and the changing media landscape made it clear to all participants that both mass media communication, as well as Muslim-Christian dialogue, were of immense importance during this time of transition inEgypt. And participants did note that the media has the potential to promote positive dialogue. New media, especially social media sites like YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, has brought new players into the game of mass communication and challenged the hegemony of the “old” regular mass media.
Danish participant Peter Fisher-Nielsen pointed out that the limitations created by state censorship have loosened after the revolution, but that the current absence of any limits on what can be discussed in the media also poses a danger for more confrontation. That is why direct dialogue between religious minorities and groups has become more important than ever.
The conference brought together Muslim and Christian activists and leaders to do just that through discussion of the religious media and the on-going Egyptian revolution. Co-organised by the Egyptian Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS) and the Danish Christian organisation Danmission, the conference was conducted by the Forum for Intercultural Dialogue the first week of October.
Participants in this cross-cultural forum came from both Egypt and Denmark. Danish Muslims, representing the Muslim minority in a Christian country, and Egyptian Christians, representing a Christian minority in a Muslim country, met each other to talk about their experiences and share hopes for the future.
The main focus of the dialogue was to discuss the media from the point of view of religious organisations: what role did the media play for the democratisation process of Egypt, and what does a free press and the use of new social media tools, such as YouTube and Facebook, mean for the political climate in Egypt?
Delegates at the dialogue conference became first-hand witnesses to the problems with sectarianism and how it was reflected in the media as violence erupted between peacefully demonstrating Copts onTahrir Square inCairo and the military.
But there is still hope for Egyptian media and civil society. Copts and Muslims talked at the conference about their recent efforts to combat sectarian bias through cooperative action, such as Muslims protecting churches, and Christians and Muslims joining voices in the media for the unification and prosperity of Egypt. One example is the recent joint statement by five Coptic leaders and seven leaders of Gamaa Islamiya – a formerly militant Muslim group – urging both Muslim and Christian youth to listen to the voice of reason and respect religion. Important and sometimes even sensitive issues were discussed among the delegates with mutual respect for each other´s points of view.
The dialogue conference showed open and civic debate between diverse groups was not only possible, but actually happening.
During a discussion on a field trip to the pyramids ofGiza, a Coptic activist told the Danish delegation: “The dangerous part of the Egyptian revolution is not religious diversity. We are all Egyptians. The danger comes from the failure of some interest groups to realise that we are all Egyptians. Our task is to keep people talking with each other. “
Participants ended the conference by issuing a joint declaration about the importance of dialogue and a free media: “We must not let our lives be run by fear and bias,” said Samira Luca, Director of Dialogue at Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, one ofEgypt’s largest organisations aiding poorer communities in the area of economic development, healthcare and education. “Our continuous work for dialogue and peaceful co-existence is not just work, it´s our mission.”
Talking about Egyptians, another Egyptian delegate at one of the workshops at the dialogue conference exclaimed, “If you don´t communicate, you don´t exist!” This statement embodies the core of not just the troubles of the Egyptian revolution, but also the future of Muslim-Christian coexistence in the country.
* Safia Aoude is a Copenhagen-based lawyer and writer pursuing a Master’s degree in journalism at the Southern University of Denmark. She is also focusing on Islamic and Balkan studies atCopenhagenUniversity. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).