At the salon, Egyptians plan their future

Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany's weekly salon provides a crucial space for discussion during this time of flux. Ousted President Hosni Mubarak had suppressed such events.

Young and old Cairenes recently packed into a smoke-filled room in downtown Cairo for famed novelist Alaa Al Aswany’s first post-Mubarak salon. The anachronistic evening was a reminder of Twitterless days when people sought face-to-face communication to talk about political concerns.

Throughout Middle East history, salons such as Mr. Aswany’s have provided forums where compatriots conspired, formed alliances, and criticized their nation’s leaders. While the author has been holding salons for 15 years, it was only in the days following Hosni Mubarak's ouster that the gatherings have revolved around the real possibility of building democracy in Egypt.

“I think there is a new enlightenment,” says 60-year-old photographer Ninette. “The gathering is very important these days because it’s important to exchange ideas.”

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As Egyptians guard reforms hard-won over the past two months and push for more change, people like Aswany are making sure there are forums to discuss the democratic transition. A co-founder of opposition movement Kefeya ("Enough") and prime voice in pushing for the resignation last week of former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, his salons have been held every Thursday since Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11.

Unprecedented criticism

At the first discussion held in the giddy days following Mubarak's ouster, more than 100 political activists, academics, businessmen and youths sat in rows before Aswany and crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in the back of the room. Celebratory garland and boxes of pastries adorned a table. A man in a mint green shirt squeezed through the crowd, placing cups of Turkish coffee on ring-stained tables.

Laughter came in bursts throughout Aswany’s talk when he referred to the regime as “pets” and “darlings.” But aside from the occasional joke, his words remained largely serious and primarily political.

“Constitutions fall with regimes. So the constitution we had before cannot work for us now, especially because it is not a proper one,” Aswany said during his hour-long talk Feb. 17 in a building belonging to the center-left political party Hizb al-Karama. “It gives [a great deal of] power to the president. He's almost the president of life itself."

Such political criticism has rarely been voiced so freely here. Mubarak’s regime tried to suppress intellectuals like Aswany, even kicking him out of a café several years ago for hosting a political discussion.

“[The government] didn’t want his articles and voice to reach the people because then the people would have opinions and think about what’s going on,” says Bassam Awfiq, who has followed Aswany’s writings for several years. “Hopefully this will change now.”

5,000-year-old tradition

Twenty minutes into the evening, women in the crowd broke into elated Zaghrouta (the popular high-pitched ululation) when Dr. Ahmed Zewail entered the room. Cheers continued as the Nobel-prize winning scientist took a seat next to Aswany and the two carried on with a political chat, continuing a five-millennia-old tradition.

The concept of meeting to exchange ideas dates to 3,000 BC when this type of gathering was a plaything of the elite, says Samir Ali of the University of Texas’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies. Their composition shifted in 9th-century Iraq when they became more accessible to the middle class.

Gatherings then known as mujalaset, the root of which means “sitting down together,” popped up in Basra and Baghdad, and later Damascus, Cairo, and Aleppo. “They become a way for people to gain influence and form alliances,” says Dr. Ali, who has attended five of Aswany’s discussions in Cairo.

The concept became popular in 17th-century France where they were named “salons” after the rooms in which they were frequently hosted. The term has since made its way to the Middle East, where French culture is viewed with prestige, even if the forums predate France itself.

'The window is open for change'

Now, revolutions spreading across the Arab world have infused the salons with a new sense of excitement. Several attendees to Aswany's first post-Mubarak salon said it was the most crowded event in 15 years.

The room was filled with a feeling of hope, yet breaths of unease, about the uncertain days ahead. Many grappled with the question of what will come next. One university professor distributed a survey that solicited visions for Egypt’s future.

“The window is open for freedom and for change,” said Dr. Zewail, as he sat next to Aswany. “The circumstances are difficult, but this isn’t the end. This is the beginning.”

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