Tonight’s class at the School for Politics, in the Egyptian Democratic Academy (EDA), focuses on socialism versus liberalism and the meaning of a civil state. The students are men and woman in their 20s or beyond, who’ve arrived at the end of their work or university day to spend the next four hours on a balcony turned classroom. The heat is only occasionally broken by a single rotating fan, and the noise from the traffic below is relentless. But no one seems to mind, and all eyes are on Esraa Nouh, the 25-year-old teacher. She wants to know: what have her students heard about liberalism?
“Huriyah,” one man answers. Freedom.
“No connection to religion,” a woman responds.
It’s the first lesson in a crash course in civics: four days covering a semester’s worth of material: basic political ideologies, the definition of a constitution, direct versus representative democracy, presidential versus parliamentary-led government, Egyptian political trends and more. In breakout groups, students draft their own constitutions and advocate for different political visions.
Esraa walks the class through the early highlights of liberalism—from the Greek origins of the word to John Locke. She teaches the historical context of the oppression by the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther. She explains, “Liberalism challenged a power that happened to wear religious clothing,” clarifying that liberalism did not challenge religion itself. She wants to debunk the popular idea in Egypt that to be a liberal is to be against religion.
The students are engaged—it’s impossible not to be. Dressed in a hijab and black Converse high-tops, Esraa exudes hope and boundless charisma that belie her tiny size. Though she is still in training to be a doctor, traveling to a hospital well outside Cairo several times a week, she ends nearly every day at EDA. Her father was a not-so-junior member of the Muslim Brotherhood who spent many years in Mubarak’s prisons. In the year before the revolution, Esraa came up through the classes of EDA’s Rocna Liberali, or Liberal Corner, a sort of book group for Egyptians teaching themselves about alternatives to dictatorship, theocratic states or military rule. She believes strongly in Egypt’s future, liberalism and John Stuart Mill.
EDA is the less glamorous front in the struggle for the new Egypt. Its classes are not live-tweeted in English by MTV-friendly youth, and one must leave Tahrir Square and cross the Nile to get to its Cairo headquarters in Doqqi. Leading such efforts are those who believe that Egyptians cannot rely on Tahrir Square to express their political goals, but must have access to a viable and self-sustaining democratic process in which they can meaningfully participate. More practically, they recognize that the unity displayed in Tahrir when it came to unseating Mubarak has given way to major disunity around the question of how to move the country forward—and that Egyptians will have to advocate for their competing visions, not in the square but on the electoral field. This reveals optimism that through electoral participation, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which have a lot of popular support despite being unproven politically, can be cut down to size. But this can happen, they believe, only through the participation of an educated and mobilized voting public.
EDA was founded in 2009 by liberal activists when the country was effectively under a one-party dictatorship. Its goal was to raise political awareness among Egyptians, who receive little, if any, civic education in school. Members started a radio station and began offering the Liberal Corner and other programs, advertising online, on the radio and on the street. Recognizing that only a quarter of Egyptians live in the capital, they opened several centers outside Cairo. In 2009, 500 Egyptians attended some sort of program at EDA; in 2010, 2,000 came through.