By Heather Moore
CAIRO: Egyptians are seeing the rise of a debate culture through organized, monitored debates. Aiming to cultivate that culture is the Young Arab Voices, a regional program teaching Egyptian youth skills for debate and advocacy.
Program director Shady Ahmed said Egyptians have a newfound urge to speak up and speak out since the revolution.
“Egypt is ready now for people to talk, to listen to each other and understand each other. When people start talking to each other, it basically ends in … fights or they never reach a settlement and everybody’s convinced with their own point of view. The idea or knowledge of debate is not widespread,” he said.
For him, now is the perfect time to promote debates. “Now, people for the first time have a will. They want to do something and they want to contribute. They want to improve themselves and they want to take Egypt a step forward. That’s what’s happening right now.”
Young Arab Voices is active in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan. The program’s funding is split between the International Language Center, the British Council, and the Anna Lindh Foundation. Anna Lindh receives half their funding from the European Commission and the other half from 14 Egyptian NGOs.
The program has also received approximately €250,000 from the Egyptian government. Most of the government funding has been in kind, for example, hosting the program at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
The latest debate was held last week between Cairo University and South Valley University. The two teams debated the topic “Do women need a parliament of their own?” Cairo University’s students and staff chose the topic to draw attention to women’s rights in Egypt.
Cairo NGOs help the debaters in the program gain access to information to make educated arguments. Nehad Aboul Qomsan, the chairwomen for the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, helped both sides of last week’s debate prepare.
She believes it is important to bring debates on campus. “Islamist groups are using universities to spread their ideology. It is important to give these students a chance to see more ideas and be able to choose based on their knowledge — not based on only one idea presented,” Aboul Qomsan explained, “Debate [is] not just an exchange ideas for or against. It helps with research and advocacy skills. It helps students understand the meaning of advocacy. [By debate,] they will have a better way to spread their ideas.”
All student participants in the debate said they had a positive experience in the process.
Representing Cairo University was Emil Samir, who said it was important that the educated youth discuss important topics.
“Women’s issues in most developing countries are devastating. The impact of this problem is disappointing. It’s an obstacle in the path of development. This issue, and women’s issues in general, provides more understanding to people and the impact of the problem…when people understand an issue, they can learn how to overcome them,” he said.
South Valley University debater, Sarah Sayed, said having debate skills would help Egypt become more democratic. Her debate partner, Mahmoud Mohamed Hussein, said, “All students should debate with each other, because … it will help with dealing with others.”
Aya Ouf represented Cairo University in the debate. She said she has become more politically aware in post-Mubarak Egypt. “Since the revolution, I’ve been watching news and analyzing news. We were never encouraged to have political views before.”
Ouf said knowing how to debate properly is crucial for all Egyptians in their everyday lives. She said the influence of the debate culture will make a “change in the culture of the way people think and the way they interact with their surroundings. It surely means democracy is on the way.”
In April, Young Arab Voices plans on expanding their project to Palestine, Libya and possibly Morocco.