There is a wind of change in Alexandria, giving the inhabitants a hint of the oncoming autumn. Here at the Swedish Institute Alexandria (SwedAlex) the autumn activities are resuming after summer vacations and Ramadan holidays. The energy is on top and all of the staff is looking forward to an enriching period of collaboration with our partners in the Middle East North Africa and Europe, MENA.
On the 8th of October SwedAlex will launch a book “Alexandria – City of Layers”. The book is a result of an exploratory workshop “New Urban Topologies” organized together with Färgfabriken and the Urban Planning Office in Alexandria. New Urban Topologies is a dialogue project that in principle inspires a process of participatory democracy. SwedAlex has witnessed how decision-makers, architects, artists, experts and researchers, students and civil society advocates in Alexandria have met and discussed prospects for their city and how these discussions and networks have continued and moved beyond the project itself. In a participatory process citizens are able to take part of the decision-making process and affect the outcome of the decision. Participatory democracy is central to Swedish society and Färgfabriken has developed a method in the field of urban planning that embodies this approach and creates a platform for dialogue and communication with different groups and the public. This project is not merely bringing together representatives of Alexandria and Sweden but also linking cities in the MENA region together, thus giving the opportunity of sharing urban planning experiences and views on each other’s cities. With us were participants from the city of Beirut, Amman, Damascus and Istanbul. We feel very proud of the book since it was written amidst the uprisings in Egypt and there was a lot of uncertainty among the citizens. The book provides insights to the city of Alexandria during a period when Egypt is writing history.
SwedAlex organizes most of its activities in the MENA region but has the ambition to arrange a few seminars annually in Sweden or Europe. I would like to give a description of the two last activities we had over the summer in Sweden. The first workshop for the network “Think Tank for Arab Women” brought a group of 15 women from the MENA region and Europe together for three days in July. The objectives of the workshop were to share recommendations for the work of the think tank, explore cooperation within research, activism and advocacy and develop a joint policy document. The third day the group travelled to the island of Gotland and Almedalen in Sweden during the peak of the political week. The idea was to provide the network with an experience of how Swedish democracy works on a grass root level. During the political week of Almedalen, Swedish politicians; from local to the prime minister and all the ministers in government, mingle with the population and discuss all kinds of issues whether indigenous or global. SwedAlex invited the public to a debate “Has the Arab Spring failed Women?” where four members of the Think Tank network gave an account of the current ongoing situation for women and their rights in the MENA region. It was a successful day in many ways; numerous people were interested in the topic and the members of the Think Tank received a lot of attention. One of the organizers at Almedalen said; “Who are you? There was such an increase of energy here as soon as you entered the area!” And yes, energy is definitely something that these activists, researchers and politicians from the MENA region have. This is what keeps them fighting regardless of obstacles and sometimes impossible challenges they have to overcome and hope for the future was something they all conveyed to the audience.
One member of the network was interviewed by Swedish radio; another was subjected to a love-bombing campaign by the international organization Kvinna till Kvinna (Woman to Woman). The group spoke with the Minster of Foreign Affairs, Minister for International Development Cooperation and the Minister of Trade. Sweden’s maybe most famous Feminist politician Mrs. Gudrun Schyman met the group during her public speech by switching to English and touched on the Arab uprisings and the global struggle for women. Most encounters were spontaneous unplanned events that made the day into a lovely informal networking opportunity.
Our most recent activity took place 22-24 August in Stockholm when our Youth in Politics platform organized a study tour/workshop for 25 young politicians and journalists from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Iraq meeting with their equals in Sweden. The programme was initiated in April 2011 and is a platform for learning and experience sharing between youth involved in politics and civil society in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. The program aims to inspire a sense of active Arab-Euro citizenship, solidarity and tolerance among youth and to involve them in shaping a common future based on peace and justice. The main objectives of the program are to promote young people to be active citizens in decision making and civil action as well as to foster mutual understanding and social cohesion between youth in the MENA region and Europe.
The theme of the workshop was Politics and Media. Media plays an important political role of developing and enhancing democracy. Media is used by the political powers and civil society to reach out with their message, as well as it has a role to monitor and scrutinize societal developments. That makes media an interesting and important tool for politics. It is also an instrument for the ordinary citizens to make his or her voice heard. In recent times media has also expanded in the sense it is more readily accessible through social media to reach out and make an impact. Media and politics are inextricably linked and important to understand for any political actors.
The study tour gave participants insights to Swedish political structures, how youth in politics can make their voices heard. There was a visit to Riksdagen (Swedish Parliament) where the group met with Swedish parliamentarians. Further they visited the Press Ombudsman, the Equality Ombudsman and political youth affiliations and much more. Three hectic days of learning, sharing and building networks, one of the participants said; “This is a new dimension to transparency, the openness of Swedish society goes beyond transparency that requires a new definition”
Deputy Director SwedAlex