Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina seeks to recapture the spirit of the original ancient Library of Alexandria, while aspiring to be a leading institution of the digital age — a center for learning, tolerance, dialogue and understanding.
National Geographic News Watch contributor Andrew Bossone attended the Annual Arab Youth Summit at the Library this past weekend, an opportunity for young Egyptians and others from across the Arab world to discuss their role in the recent Egyptian Revolution and their hopes for their future society.
In this blog post, Bossone interviews Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria.
Photo of Ismail Serageldin, Librarian of Alexandria, by Andrew Bossone.
Q: In the context of the Library of Alexandria as a historical place of keeping knowledge, what does it mean to the Library to be hosting this event?
A: The Library of Alexandria was inaugurated in 2002 to recapture the spirit of the great ancient library with the tools and the means of the 21st century. This is an institution that was built by young people. The average age of all those working in the library is 29. It’s a digital institution. It’s one of the most advanced institutions in the world in informatics.
We’ve been demanding attention to free speech, political reform, economic reform, social reform and cultural reform throughout the Arab world. Censorship, openness to ideas, discussions with the other and all of that was reflected in our activities: about 700 events per year and about 1.4 million visitors per year, of which three quarters are Egyptians.
“We’ve been demanding attention to free speech, political reform, economic reform, social reform and cultural reform throughout the Arab world.”
So we’re very proud that the young people who launched this great revolution did so on a peaceful means based on the highest ideals possible. They brought out the best values in Egyptian people. We saw Christians praying in Tahrir Square protected by Muslims and Muslims praying and Christians protecting them.
After 18 days, where the police had disappeared after the clashes when they tried to stop the demonstrators, there wasn’t a single church attacked. Hundreds of thousands of young women and young men in demonstration after demonstration, not a single case of [sexual] harassment. Neighborhoods coming together becoming communities as neighbors join together to protect their homes and their business and their families against the hoodlums that had been released from jails.
It’s been an absolutely wonderful experience to see what those young people have achieved. And the Library salutes them and is very proud to see them come back to the Library and use it as a venue for formulating their ideas and thinking of new stages and for imagining the new.
Q: On the topic of free speech, there were images up on the big screen of irhal (Arabic for “leave,” referring to former President Hosni Mubarak) and pictures of Mubarak and things like that you never could have said before this revolution…
A: We did say them here in the Library.
Q: In the Library you said them?
A: Yes, even though Mr. Mubarak is the patron of the Library and Mrs. Mubarak was the chairman of the board, inside the Library we always agreed that there would be no censorship. That was one of the early things I insisted on in the Library, that people — as long as they respected each other — as long as there were no ad hominem attacks — as long as people spoke with mutual respect and rationality — all opinions were open.
Here in the Library when we talked about reform in 2004, when we issued our Alexandria Declaration people stood up and said, “Mr. Mubarak should not run for office,” “He’s been in office long enough,” “We should have term limits on presidents,” “Presidents should be elected by popular vote, not by a single referendum.”
People said, “Monarchs in the Arab world should all resign or become constitutional figureheads and transfer power to elected prime ministers.” A lot of that was written in the documentation that existed.
So the Library was always open to all ideas as long as they were respectful in terms of the examples that I just said.
Actually the margin of freedom of speech in Egypt was bigger than people imagined in the sense that it was almost unthinkable in other countries in the Arab world that you could have a place where people would openly talk about tawreeth, passing on to the future role of Gamal Mubarak — whether or not he would be entitled or not entitled to a role.
People criticized the National Democratic Party. People spoke about corruption. We organized meetings here on corruption in the health sector, corruption in the education sector. We called the ministers to come and speak to the young people who were present at these meetings.
So the Library has played a role, I hope in some small way, to spread the ideas that these young people embodied so magnificently.
Q: Egypt was more open than a lot of other countries.
A: That’s true, and even more so in the Library.
Q: And the difference now than before is that there is a sense of empowerment — that people can do things. Do you feel that not only is it legitimate to have these feelings of empowerment, but that they’re going to be able to be expressed fully, to organize parties to really be able to participate in society and not be stifled?
A: Oh yes. We’ve already begun to see this. The Wasat party that Abouel Ela Madi wanted to create for the last 15 years was finally created. He actually came to the Library and spoke at one of our conferences.
The Muslim Brotherhood is talking about forming a party. There are many people talking about forming other parties. But more importantly the general sense of empowerment and the freedom of expression I think is pervasive.
That’s great. And that’s wonderful because I’m a great believer in freedom of expression. I’m a great believer that whatever shortfalls there are in democracy, the cure for them is more democracy.
Q: About the Modern Egyptian Memory project that you have, now you’re also going to be adding to that images and video and multimedia from the revolution itself. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
A: The Library is really a state of the art facility in informatics to the point where very quickly — within less than three years in existence — to join the digital library federation, which has the top 35 libraries in the world dealing with digital material.
And the Library of Congress signed an agreement with us in 2007 to co-design with them the World Digital Library, which is co-sponsored with the Library of Congress and UNESCO. We have the only copy of the Internet archive outside of San Francisco.
We even got elected. I’m currently the chairman of the executive committee of the World Digital Library. It has 95 libraries from 63 countries and they elected the Library of Alexandria.
So we are going to do something very special to document in a digital fashion the information on this revolution, be it pictures, videos, text, also some other things. Now we’re in the stage of collecting it. Whether it becomes like the Memory of Modern Egypt or part of it or something separate, I think we have to begin to get the flavor for the material and then we’ll begin to set it up.
And to me of course there was a certain symbolic quality. Here you had youth connected with social media, whether it be Facebook or Twitter and Internet and so on.
Q: The way that people were peaceful was incredible.
A: The most beautiful is how they protected the Library of Alexandria, which you probably saw. (Young Egyptians Rally to Protect Egypt’s Ancient Heritage.)
People just came out of the demonstration and held hands and protected the library. I’m proud to say there was not a single stone that was thrown at us.
The Library was designed in a way — I was very adamant about that — that it has no fences and no gates. As you can see it’s wide open from the street to the Corniche; anybody comes in and out. And what’s more is the doors are all in glass, both buildings. So if people had wanted to attack it there was nothing that could prevent them.
But it was the people themselves, the demonstrators, who stood and held hands, and said, “This is our Library. We’re not going to allow anything to happen to it.”
I was deeply moved. I was here everyday. Then the young volunteers made a huge flag, a hundred meters [328 feet] long and ten meters [32.8 feet] wide that covered the entire stairway of the Library, and as demonstrations would go by there was a flag and they would wave and wave back. It was really moving.
It was a wonderful demonstration that shows the whole revolution was a magnificent demonstration that shows the power of non-violence, the power of ideas, the power of peaceful demonstrations to change the world.
Q: Yes, a word that every non-Arabic speaker needs to learn is selmeya (peaceful).
A: Yes, selmeya. Thank you.
Andrew Bossone is a regular contributor to National Geographic Daily News.