Tahrir Square in Cairo, February 2011 (photo: AP)
Goethe Institute series: ''Receiving the World – Mapping Democracy''

New Challenges for Democracy

With a new series of events entitled "Receiving the World – Mapping Democracy", the Goethe Institute seeks to explore new challenges to our understanding of democracy. The focus of the series is on the similarities and differences between the new social movements in Europe and the protest movement in North Africa. By Claudia Mende

In four live events, the audience and experts at Munich's Kammerspiele theatre and in two other locations will discuss via video conference their hopes, expectations and fears on the issue of democratisation.

Listening in at each event will be speakers and audiences at two other Goethe Institutes around the world, namely Cairo and Madrid, Beijing and London, and Washington DC and Athens. This makes it possible, for example, for listeners in Cairo to speak in real time with audience members in Munich. The aim is to bring about a global conversation with multiple voices, in multiple languages and without time delay.

Space for experiments

"Culture today has to open up spaces for experimentation," says Hans-Georg Thönges, head of the science and current affairs division at the Goethe Institute headquarters in Munich, when asked to explain the idea behind the German cultural institute's new event format. For him, the real-time dialogue is a new format, which he hopes will counteract the volatility of the Internet. "We want to try out simultaneous dialogue", says Thönges, "and to create a focal point for reflecting on topical political issues".

The fact is that very disparate hopes are often associated with the concept of democracy. For the freedom movements in North Africa and the Arab world, democracy is a political ideal for the future.

After the overthrow of dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, the societies in these countries, which are currently swept up in a wave of transformation, are interested in more than just participation, the rule of law and self-determination: the fact that autocratic systems have been overcome and democratic institutions are being developed has nourished hopes of increasing prosperity for broad sections of the population.

At the same time, it is still not clear whether the brand of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa will have a specifically Islamic face and if so, what this face will look like.

Protests against President Ben Ali in Tunisia in January 2011 (photo: AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Freedom and democracy: for the freedom movement in the Arab world, democracy is a political ideal for the future. The fact that autocratic systems have been overcome has nourished hopes of increasing affluence and social justice


Can Islamist movements in the region move towards more democracy, or are they instead an obstacle on this road? Will the development of democracy only really begin after they have failed politically? And does more democracy in an Islamic society necessarily have to be accompanied by a separation of religion and state? These are the pressing questions being posed by intellectuals in the countries of the Arab Spring with regard to a specifically Arab route to democracy.

"Revolt of the educated"

For Wolfgang Kraushaar, a political scientist at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, the worldwide citizens' revolts that have taken place since 2011 represent the first global protest movement since 1968. Kraushaar has coined the term "revolt of the educated" to describe this phenomenon, in which the children of the middle class rise up, giving vent to their frustration that, despite their excellent education, they have no chance of finding work on the job market.

Nevertheless, there are also major differences between the various protest movements. In Europe, the questions being asked about the democratic system are completely different to those being asked in the Arab world. Buffeted by the financial crisis, people on the Continent are wondering how much democracy still remains when global financial players continue to drive political decision-making. What means of control do elected institutions still have at their disposal in the face of the overwhelming influence of economic players? Have policy-makers forfeited their power to mould and shape, reduced instead to the role of administrators of constraints?

In view of declining voter turnout and a loss of faith in the political elite across Europe, new social movements are setting out to find innovative forms of participation. Democracy must be reinvigorated in Europe. The English sociologist Colin Crouch uses the term "post-democracy" to describe the current state of affairs in Western democracies, because as far as he is concerned, all that matters these days is the efficient functioning of the system and no longer the participation of the citizens in that system.

Demonstration by Occupy activists in the banking district in Frankfurt, November 2011 (photo: DW/Guilherme Correia da Silva)
"Post-democratic" Europe: new social movements in Europe, such as the anti-Capitalist Occupy movement, are searching for new forms of participation that can revive and renew the meaning of democracy in Europe


The dawn of a global protest movement?

The sense of unease felt in view of recent developments in the democratic systems in Europe and the USA finds expression in movements such as Occupy. But isn't Occupy already long dead? Or are we witnessing the dawn of a global protest movement that opposes the application of economic principles to all areas of life?

The relationship between economy and state is one of the most intriguing questions at the present time. China's rise challenges the long-prevailing view that only a liberal system can be economically successful. This phenomenon will play a role in the discussion with the Goethe Institute in Beijing.

At the same time, national democracies are coming up against their limits today, because new challenges can only be solved multinationally. Such problems include the regulation of the unbridled financial markets, climate change and the increasing scarcity of resources.

"Are we talking about the same thing when we speak of democracy, or are we really at cross-purposes?" For Hans-Georg Thönges from the Goethe Institute, that will be one of the most interesting questions of the entire series.

Participants at the first event entitled "Protest and Participation", which will take place simultaneously in Munich, Cairo and Madrid on 25 November, will compare and contrast the new social movements in Europe and the protest movement in North Africa.

At the Goethe Institute in Cairo, the dancer and choreographer Karima Mansour and the film director Hala Galal will speak with the audience in Munich, with moderator Stefan Weidner leading the discussion. The other events in 2013 will explore the themes of "Democracy and Economy", "Utopia and Renewal" and "Democracy on the Defensive".

Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2012

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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