To explore innovative forms of democratic dialogue – that's the idea behind the project "Mapping Democracy", which saw experts and audiences taking part in a simultaneous debate in Cairo, Madrid and Munich. Claudia Mende reports
This was a multimedia experiment: Via a live videolink on Sunday (26 November), artists and academics from Cairo, Madrid and Munich discussed the future of democratic participation and forms of protest. The German event took place on the invitation of the Goethe Institute and its project partners at the Kammerspiele Theatre in Munich. Visitors to the renowned Munich theatre were also able to convey their questions to moderator Geraldine de Bastion via Twitter.
The occasion marked the start of a series of events taking place under the "Mapping Democracy" banner, aimed at facilitating a global dialogue in real time. And as it has already become clear at the outset, democracy is an ideal that is permanently under threat and never completely attained. And there is also great dissatisfaction with governments in Europe, while in Egypt, the revolution is just entering its next phase.
Democracy has lost some of its sheen
In Europe, the financial crisis has dented people's faith in the authority and validity of democracy. While in previous decades there were parties that aligned themselves either to the left or right through their electoral programmes, these days agendas often appear to be interchangeable.
"Politics is struggling to keep up with the financial markets and their global consistency," says Spanish political scientist and analyst Jordi Vaquer Fanés.
In Spain, a group that's enjoying great success with new forms of protest is 15-M. These protests are not only aimed at political parties, but also banks and businesses. German sociologist Hartmut Rosa says that although there is also widespread malaise in Germany, it is chiefly expressed on a local level and is all too often afraid to challenge the status quo. Protests have typically been against the building of railway stations, runways, power lines and mosques – and are motivated by fear that existing affluence will be in some way curtailed.
In Egypt, on the other hand, fresh protests on Tahrir Square show the fragility of this transition to democracy. Negotiations over a new constitution have been going on for months with no prospect of agreement, and the elected parliament was again dissolved in June 2012 by Military Council decree. There are no imminent plans to hold new elections. Both the Egyptian artists on the podium in Cairo – the director Hala Galal and the dancer and choreographer Karima Mansour – agreed that democracy is not the only goal, but above all an instrument for the participation of Egyptians in the organisation of their country.
Karima Mansour, artistic director of the Cairo Contemporary Dance Centre, joined a group of independent artists who wanted to be involved in the reorganisation of the Egyptian Culture Ministry – but who have hit rock in their endeavours. Their call for transparency in the way the cultural budget is spent was rejected by those responsible at the ministry.
As far as Karima Mansour is concerned, this gulf between the people and their rulers is evident throughout the world, not only in Egypt: "I think we're all talking about the same thing, even if we sometimes use different terms. It's about overcoming this deep chasm between government institutions and the people."
Social media not the answer
But the experts were unanimous in their view that in efforts to lessen this divide, the new social media are not granting citizens greater participation in the political process per se. For Hartmut Rosa, a comment on Twitter or Facebook is not yet the kind of genuine discourse necessary for democratic decision-making. Social media are important, he says, but up to now no one has come up with a way "to put them to targeted use in the formation of democratic ideas."
Polemic expressions of opinion such as what are known as "shitstorms" are not representative, says Rosa, but rather often just the opinion of a highly vociferous minority. For the theatre director Stefan Kaegi, even in the digital age theatre is still serving a key function during times of upheaval.
"I was in Argentina in 2001, at the time of the major crisis there. People were going to the theatre in their droves, because it was a place where you had the feeling that the discussions meant something, because you met people who wanted to be involved in the process." And in the best-case scenario, something will also come of it that "pervades the world outside," says Kaegi.
© Qantara.de 2012
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de