Revolution and Rebirth: The View from Alexandria, Egypt
Ismail Serageldin discussed how Egypt’s BA saw the rebirth of an ancient institution of scholarship and learning and continues to be a landmark of revolution and enlightenment in Egyptian society.
On June 26, the Middle East Program hosted a discussion of “Revolution and Rebirth: The View from Alexandria, Egypt” with Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Library of Alexandria (Bibliotheca Alexandrina) and Former Vice President of The World Bank. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Serageldin began by explaining the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s mission was to recapture the ancient spirit of the original Library of Alexandria. The intention is to “mobilize Egypt’s intellectuals” and present the most advanced cross-disciplinary work and analysis from around the world. He described the BA as a complex set of institutions – including art galleries, museums, a planetarium and TV studio – that hosts hundreds of events and attracts over a million visitors each year. Serageldin stated that the BA is committed to giving “access to information to all people all of the time” and also providing outreach programs to the community, with a particular focus on education in the arts and sciences for children. He said that the purpose of the BA is to serve civil society, and it is committed, above all else, to defending liberal values and democracy.
Serageldin then reflected on the uprisings in Egypt and its largely peaceful protests that had a global impact. He alluded to the significance of the BA to the Egyptian people by describing its central role in the uprisings. During the demonstrations in Alexandria, protestors protected the BA from spillover violence and vandalism by forming a human chain around it, wrapping the building in an Egyptian flag. Serageldin credits the “will of the people” from preventing the Bibliotheca Alexandrina from being destroyed. The BA, he reflected, confronted anger and distrust with rationality and discourse, all while maintaining its longstanding values.
Serageldin discussed the recent elections, which he praised for being relatively non-violent, orderly, and fair. According to Serageldin, the fact that Egypt is deeply politically divided should not be considered unusual, as he sees it as a natural aspect of any democracy. He sees the future of Egypt as one which will be built by the Egyptian people, working together, promoting a tolerant understanding of Islam. He also discussed why a former regime candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, and an Islamist candidate, Mohamed Morsi, made it to the runoffs despite popular support for reformers. When Mohamed ElBaradei withdrew from the race this created a vacuum which was only successfully filled by the most organized and disciplined of the parties. The youth who empowered the revolution, he noted, were very “idealistic” but did not organize themselves into a party, despite consultations he had with some of them to do so if they wanted their candidates and agenda to succeed.
Serageldin took questions from the audience, one of which asked if the outcomes of the elections in Egypt would result in an Islamist societal shift, resembling that of the Iranian Revolution. He responded that he thinks it would be unlikely, although there are similarities, but that he fears women’s rights may become vulnerable and negotiable under a more conservative government.
By Samaa Ahmed, Middle East Program