Tahrir Lounge: Hannah Arendt’s “sphere of appearance” in action

From town hall meetings to workers’ councils, from demonstrations and sit-ins to struggles for justice and equal rights,” is how Hannah Arendt described the manifestations of the “sphere of appearance,” a place where “I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things, but to make their appearance explicitly,” and one that exists “wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action.” While this space is an intangible one, it has had physical representation in public spaces dedicated to political discussion and subversive action. One such public sphere, called the Tahrir Lounge and held at Cairo’s Goethe Institut, has been created in Cairo as a new public space dedicated to frank and open discussion about the issues facing the citizens of Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations, with the goal of increasing political awareness and civic engagement.

In an article for German media outfit Deutsche Welle, the Tahrir Lounge is profiled as a new sort of venue where the politically minded can discuss the political issues of the day and refine their political agenda by meeting with those with both contrasting and complimentary views on democracy and the democratic method. In a region where political discourse is often discouraged, and speaking out against the government is often a punishable crime, it is all the more important to create a safe haven where politics can be debated without fear of reprisal. The Tahrir Lounge offers such political edification. Through seminars, debates and workshops, the Lounge enables established thinkers to share ideas and a younger generation to formulate their voice. This is of particular importance to Egypt, a country where freedom of communication and knowledge sharing has been threatened through cellphone service and Internet shutdowns and filtering, as well as restriction of press freedom. Here, the communication of political beliefs in a safe and personal environment can be a vital tool to the promotion of democratic ideals.

In addition to open forums where political ideologies and philosophies can be discussed and debated, Tahrir Lounge also hosts training seminars and workshops, where specific roadblocks to democracy, such as discrimination against women, religious intolerance, and other human rights issues can be challenged, and action plans can be made. Political revolution has been compared to tectonic shifts, where the force and friction of conflicting political ideas pushing against one another can produce a new political landscape. As this cannot happen in an insular, one-party system, public spaces like Tahrir Lounge can foster true political discourse, and enable attendees to form educated responses to the political challenges faced by Egypt today. Tahrir Lounge’s success can be summed up in the response to Tahrir Lounge by one young man who is a frequent guest at Tahrir Lounge events, who said that while “a year ago [he] would have accepted” the government’s stance, Tahrir Lounge has enabled him to take an informed and critical look at the real issues facing Egyptians young and old. To use his words, “Now I see.”

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