Ash Center: HKS Hosts Film Screening & Discussion with Egyptian Activist Esraa Abdel Fattah

January 30, 2013
Ash Center: HKS Hosts Film Screening & Discussion with Egyptian Activist Esraa Abdel Fattah
Esraa Abdel Fattah with HKS Professor Tarek Masoud

By Kate Hoagland

What motivates people across the globe to risk their lives in order to fight for democracy? At the January 28 film screening and discussion of documentary A Whisper to a Roar, panelists Egyptian Democratic Academy Activist Esraa Abdel Fattah, Slate Magazine Journalist William Dobson, Film Director Ben Moses, and HKS Professor Tarek Masoud sought to answer this elusive question and discuss why authoritarian regimes survive despite the recent expansion of democracy around the world.

Held to a standing-room only audience of students from across Harvard and the Boston community at Harvard Kennedy School, this film screening launched the Ash Center’s spring Democracy Seminar series and is part of the Center’s focus on the relationship between democratic governance and the persistence of urgent social challenges.

About the Film
A Whisper to a Roar follows the compelling struggles of pro-democracy activists and political leaders in five authoritarian countries—Egypt, Malaysia, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe—and is based on the scholarly work of Larry Diamond. As a renowned democracy scholar and previous Center Democracy Seminar speaker, Diamond’s 2008 book The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World documents the wave phenomenon of democratic movements around the globe.

Probably no better site to witness this firsthand was during the Arab Spring, and moderator Tarek Masoud served as a leading commentator on the film’s focus on Egypt’s 2011 revolution. As a key scholar on the Middle East and the Muslim Brotherhood, Masoud has become a go-to expert for the press, with appearances on National Public Radio, CNN, and PBS along with many other publications to offer commentary on both the revolution as well as the country’s current struggles to achieve a more democratic government.

During the event’s post-film discussion, Masoud questioned the nature of authoritarianism and its durability. Citing all of the countries in the film as examples of non-democracies with weak political rights and civil liberties despite the tireless work of democracy activists, he asked “even when you get rid of a dictator, why does authoritarianism still remain?”

Director Ben Moses responded that the film’s lack of a happy ending points to the fact that “democracy is never over,” drawing a parallel between the oscillating nature of a government’s transition from an autocracy to a democracy to how an airplane takes time to adjust to a new level of stability when it descends from a certain altitude.

According to Moses, maintaining a democracy can often be harder than the activism leading up to its formation. Despite the peaceful Orange Revolution which brought about Ukraine’s shift in power to elect President Yushchenko in 2004, infighting weakened the new administration and ultimately led to Orange Revolution opponent Yanukovych winning the 2010 presidential election.

The film also features the social media prowess of activists Esraa Abdel Fattah and others whose work leading up to the 18-day revolution in Tahrir Square resulted in imprisonment, torture, and for some, even death. Abdel Fattah had previously cofounded the April 6th Facebook movement, which led to her imprisonment.

During the film, Abdel Fattah expressed optimism that positive change would eventually occur in Egypt, a sentiment she reiterated at the post-film discussion. “I am still optimistic, even with everything that has happened in our country,” she said. “In Egypt, we are in the second wave of revolution and it is a healthy thing.” Abdel Fattah predicted that Egyptians will continue to protest until a genuine democracy is achieved, and instead of being pessimistic about the current state of government, we should be hopeful that a better future is possible.

In addition to Egypt, for many countries the struggle for democratic ideals is ongoing. The film explores Zimbabwe’s corruption-ridden election between President Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change–Tsvangirai party and their uneasy power share forged post-election. The film also tracks the work of Venezuelan student-led protest groups led by Roberto Patiño against the policies and practices of President Hugo Chávez.

During the panel discussion, William Dobson praised the effectiveness of the Venezuelan student protests. “The youth had higher approval ratings than the Catholic Church,” he explained in part because they avoided political rhetoric in their activism and choose more creative messaging to reach a moderate constituency. For example, because Venezuelans are extremely proud of their success in the Miss Universe contest, student activists described the unfairness of Chávez’s rule as similar to having a “Miss Venezuela for life” and protested with campaign posters of an aged beauty queen with a crown. He noted such activism is having an effect: while Chávez still won his latest election with an additional 140,000 votes over the previous election, the opposition gained an additional two million votes.

“I think this movie comes as a reminder that freedom is priceless and you can’t quantify it,” concluded Halimatou Hima Moussa Dioula, Harvard Kennedy School MPP student in attendance. “We need to fight for it every day.”

Democracy Series
Cosponsored by Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and the Middle East Initiative of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the HKS A Whisper to a Roar screening is part of the Ash Center’s spring Democracy Seminar series. Additional seminars include:

February 13: Nicholas Cull, University of Southern California
February 28: The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy with Kay Schlozman, Boston College; Sidney Verba, Harvard University; and Henry Brady, UC-Berkeley
March 13: Corey Brettschneider, Brown University
April 10: The Participatory Budgeting Project with Joseph Curtatone, Mayor of Somerville, MA; Brad Lander, Council Member; Josh Lerner, HBS; and Hollie Russon Gilman, Ash Center