By Amir Makar
CAIRO: A rather vague translation was the basis of the argument in a debate among university students over the eligibility for running for president, with both parties presenting arguments that are essentially two sides of the same coin.
In Arabic, the motion read “Should a person of religious background run for the presidency?” which was supported by the team from Future University in Egypt, participating in the Young Arab Voices debate held at the Qasr El-Ainy School of Medicine in Cairo University.
“It is the core of democracy to support this idea of accepting the other and not excluding anyone,” proclaimed Abdel-Ghany Sayed, the FUE third year political science student, who advocated that any exclusion would be a return to the previous autocracy.
Meanwhile, the English translation was rather different, with the character of the individual in question being translated as “a religious figure.” In theory, this left the door to run open for such figures such as the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar or the Coptic Pope of Alexandria.
“We have to separate between religious scholars and religious figures,” fired back Abdel-Rahman Fathy, fifth year Cairo University medical student. He saw that it was better to have religious politicians rather than politicized scholars, in essence agreeing with the other team.
Fathy based his argument on a Hadith that said that “scholars are the trustees of the worshippers for the apostles so long as they do not mix with authority, which if they may, would have betrayed the apostles, therefore be wary of them and forsake them.”
His argument was further supported by his teammate and colleague, Ahmed Zaher, who resorted to history and cited the corruption of the clergy in medieval Europe and the crusades, all the way up to the religious campaigning in the recent parliamentary election and the caliber of members produced.
The opposition however tore back, with FUE’s Mohamed Essam flipping the argument and pointing out that the historical examples, even those from Islamic history, were autocratic and that the argument now was over a fixed-term democracy.
Sayed then supported him by adding that it was easy to point out the dubious or controversial Islamist PA members, but there were also other unattractive examples from the liberal and socialist eras, such as alleged corruption of Safwat El-Sherif and the authoritarian rule under Nasser.
Discussions did not commit however to the heart of the motion throughout the debate. Rather, they strayed off into different areas such as the definitions and interpretations of democracy, ‘religious figure’, ideologies and the very concept of Islamism.
For instance, Reem Waziri, another medical student and audience member, presented such an argument to the teams, “I’m against the argument that religion deforms politics … but it is not the right of anyone to monopolize religion by any means.”
Fathy and Zaher’s entrenched response was that their grievance was against the ‘religious figure’ rather than religion itself, highlighting that people were fallible whereas religion was not.
“By the same analogy, you can’t elect a 10-year-old to the presidency, even if he had popular democratic support,” they remarked on assumption of good will.
As further defense, and on a more somber assumption, they reminded the audience that for reasons of “being able to influence the people,” military and police personnel were also banned from running.
Essam and Sayed however retorted that this was akin to discrediting and demonizing the Islamists respectively, refusing to accept the analogies presented by the other team.
Their final defense was a return to the motion according to the Arabic translation, repeating that persons of religious backgrounds could not be excluded on democratic grounds.
Another feature of the debate was the informality, owing to the smaller number of participants (who were entirely students), allowing for more interactions between panelists and the audience than what would’ve been permissible in other circumstances.
One student began to engage in a conversation with the panelists at one time, conditioning that they answer his question first (“whether Islam was both a state and religion”) as grounds for him to continue, which the moderator quickly shut off. Meanwhile, another asked for an ‘open space’ issue a similar long speech.
Regarding the general debate format, British Council program manager Shady Abdel-Mottalib remarked that it was part of the first phase of the program, which was mostly concerned with testing and fine-tuning, for avoiding future mistakes. The students did not vote on either motion.
He emphasized that the decision was made to carry out many smaller debates rather than fewer but larger ones, allowing for a greater degree of sampling and also to probe schedules and timeslots, which varied according to geography from urban Cairo to the rural areas.
Abdel-Motallib also said that the next step was to begin creating centralized hubs with the university partners, such as the Kasr El-Ainy School of Medicine, the FUE, and the Faculty of Sciences at the South Valley University, a sentiment that was shared by debate moderator Salma Fouad Dowara.
“Listening is a problem in our community and in the Mediterranean region. [We] speak in one voice in one direction, whereas we should listen and hear out the other opinions,” Dowara noted.
The final debate of the phase one will be held at Sakkia on March 14, with an agenda reading “Creativity between freedom of speech and censorship.”