Egypt's Twitter users materialise in first #TweetNadwa

Yassin Gaber, Tuesday 14 Jun 2011

Activists and bloggers from across Egypt's political spectrum discuss in 140 seconds at a time the question of Islamism


A gathering of Egyptian activists and bloggers convened Sunday in Dokki, Cairo to take part in the first ‘Tweet Nadwa’, a meeting organised for members of the social networking and micro-blogging service Twitter “to engage in new conversations and discover new contacts” according to organiser Alaa Abd El Fattah. El Fattah qualified, however, that the meeting was “not a replacement for the street; the fact of the matter is [Twitter] is present and it’s growing.” The meeting, as outlined, was meant as an extension of the many 140-character-message discussions taking place in the Twitter-verse on a daily basis. The discussion focused on the subject of youth Islamists, bringing several such activists to speak and participate, including Ibrahim Hudhaibi, Abdel-Moneim Mahmoud and Ahmed Samir.

Hundreds of Twitter subscribers huddled together in a room far too small with computers and phones at the ready. A large screen had been erected, displaying the Twitter page created for the ‘Tweet Nadwa,’ streaming all the messages and photos related to the meeting. The first half of the meeting consisted of El Fattah asking his guests questions regarding their Islamist backgrounds and beliefs: “Are you an Islamist?”, “Is Egypt an Islamist nation?” and “Why did you leave the Muslim Brotherhood?”

The youth Islamist focused largely on the inability to pigeon hole any Islamist, Salafist, Liberal or any person into one belief system or another. Hudhaibi, a former member of the Brotherhood, stated that “not one word can describe someone,” later adding that even the Muslim Brotherhood could be divided into four schools of thought: followers of Qutb, Banna, Al-Azhar and Salafists. Many of the speakers also focused on the influence Islam had on Egyptian culture, pointing to the majority of Egypt’s population being Muslim. Some of the speakers argued that there was no need to separate the term Islamist from Muslim as Islam was more than a religion. According to Arwa, a Twitter user and Islamist, “Islam is a system that encompasses everything.”

The form of debate and discussion interestingly took elements from the Twitter-verse as El Fattah limited speakers to 140 seconds -- recalling the 140 character message format of Twitter -- and asked attendees to cease clapping, instead they were told to wave their hands in silence in order for the conversations to flow uninterrupted. The debate itself, which brought activists from a vast stretch of the political and religious spectrum, was carried out in good humour and allowed many diverse voices a stage to air their views.

The second half of the ‘Tweet Nadwa’ consisted of an open round of discussion, encouraging members from the floor to speak to each other. El Fattah stressed that members should speak to each other as people with beliefs that might not necessarily echo or represent certain political parties and movements on the outside.

Early in the second half of the conversation, a participant furiously stated that he didn’t understand why the discussion was proceeding as if Egyptians were eagerly anticipating an Islamist takeover. In fact, he stated, “I am afraid; I don’t want the Islamists of Salafists to win; I want to maintain my way of life and the freedoms and liberties I have.”

The remark ignited a storm of remarks, leading to the poignant question: “What would an Islamist state look like?” Conversation bounced to and fro, as Islamist activists said they just wanted a state that would allow them to continue their religious duties and practices while others argued that the military council, the de-facto rulers of Egypt in the interim, were the main problem as they were creating divisions between all groups in the country. Others attacked Islamists for using religion and the fear of eternal punishment to gather followers and voters, citing the often criticised methods used during the constitutional referendum in March.

As the question drifted further and further away, El Fattah restated the, perhaps forgotten, question: “Without looking down at our feet, let’s look forward and envision the perfect state; I myself don’t want a state but I know that isn’t possible; instead I must focus on the steps that might lead me there; what steps are needed to build this state.” It was perhaps the biggest question of the evening, the elephant in the room. Islamists and non-Islamists alike brought up early 20th century Islamist thinkers such as Rashid Reda and Mohammed Abdu, dancing around the issue and in the end leaving it wholly unanswered.

The meeting, in the eyes of many, was a success. Twitter users flooded the ‘Tweet Nadwa’ page with appreciative words, pleased that such a meeting could occur and that such a wide range of views could be expressed so amicably and humorously. As the attendees left, it seemed clear that another ‘Tweet Nadwa’ was sure to follow: “Was a great #tweetnadwa thanks for all the team, am internetless but we discuss next one soon,” stated El Fattah (aka @alaa) as the participants retreated to the Twitter-verse. 

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