by Khaled Diab
The failure of Egypt’s new leaders to address the needs and aspirations of young people means the youth-led revolution, soon to enter its third year, will not stop until real change is achieved.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has set his successors a hard act to follow… he managed the remarkable feat of going from hero to zero in little more than 24 hours.
After days of escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence that threatened to spill over into a full-blown war and even a wider regional conflict, Morsi bucked the expectations of doubters and succeeded in brokering a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza, eliciting a freak chorus of praise from all sides of the trenches: from Hamas, Israel, many Egyptians and even the United States.
The acclaimed ceasefire, which avoided the death, destitution and destruction of the Gaza war of 2008/9, went into effect on Wednesday November 21. Rather than rest on his laurels for a while and bask in the glory of Egypt’s minor diplomatic victory – which highlighted and underscored the power of diplomacy over violence – Morsi decided to seize the moment.
No sooner had the Israeli missiles and Palestinian rockets fallen silent than the Egyptian president decided to drop a massive political bombshell on the home front. A day after the cease-fire, on November 22, Morsi delivered a declaration which effectively immunises him and the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly – which then hurriedly approved Egypt’s controversial draft constitution pending a referendum – from legal challenges from the judiciary or opponents.
Although Morsi insisted his move was only a temporary measure, which would last only as long as it took for the new constitution to enter into force, and was designed to “protect the revolution”, opposition figures and revolutionaries were unconvinced, describing the President’s ambitions as being that of a “new pharaoh” and the declaration as a “coup against legitimacy”.
Many in Egypt saw the timing of this move as more than just a coincidence, with some going as far as to suggest that Morsi had received a nod and a wink from visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to launch his bid to become Egypt’s new, U.S.-backed dictator-in-chief.
We do politics differently now
Although Washington seems to look favourably on Morsi as the lesser of many evils for American regional interests, what seems the most likely is that the Egyptian president decided to reward himself for his success and prematurely cash in on his unexpected moment of popularity both within and outside Egypt by indulging in an impulsive act of flagrant opportunism – which has backfired spectacularly.
But even if the president has now, under immense popular pressure, reversed his decree, though not many of its rulings, he betrayed a seriously flawed understanding of the republic of which he has become the first democratically elected leader: the majority of Egyptians did not vote for dictatorship, and the Egypt that accepts autocracy is, like the past, a foreign country: we do politics differently now.
Most Egyptians, particularly the youth who spearheaded the revolution, no longer have the stomach for a “new pharaoh”, especially after all the sacrifices they have made to win their freedom (even if it is only partial, for now), and have developed a strong appetite for greater people power.
That is why Morsi’s attempt to impersonate ousted former president Hosni Mubarak was met by widespread contempt, opposition and anger… and in that longstanding Egyptian tradition, mockery and humour, such as the teenage protesters who placed a surgical mask on a statue in Cairo of Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, presumably to protect his bronze eyes and lungs against the stinging, suffocating effects of teargas.
Since the fateful decree, millions of Egyptians have poured out on to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Mahalla and other towns and cities across the country to protest Morsi’s actions and the referendum, originally slated for Saturday December 15, on the draft constitution which reformist Egyptians see as undemocratic and non-inclusive.
So many protesters came out to reoccupy Tahrir that one wit demanded the expansion of the world-famous square in anticipation of future missteps by the Egyptian president.
And in scenes reminiscent of Mubarak’s final days, the crowds chanted: “The people want to bring down the regime”, and vowed that they would not vacate the square until their demands were met. “Morsi has done in less than five months what it took Mubarak 30 years to achieve. With this latest move, he has messed up big time,” one young Egyptian diplomat observed. “I think his days are numbered.”
The new wave of protests has led to speculation as to whether Egypt’s stalled revolution has resumed. To me, it looks like we are entering the third phase of revolt: the first was against Mubarak, the second against the generals who replaced him, and now people are regrouping to take on Morsi and his Islamist cohorts.
To many, the battle lines in the current standoff are between Egypt’s new Islamist rulers and the disgruntled secular opposition who had started the revolution but were apparently unable to finish it. While this Islamist-secularist division is partly true, it oversimplifies an extremely complex situation of overlapping alliances and rivalries.
Other battle lines include pro-revolution versus anti-revolution, rich-poor, women-men, democratic-autocratic, neoliberal-progressive, socialist-conservative, etc. Throughout nearly two years of upheaval and change, one of the most constant divides has been a generational one, between the more privileged older strata of society and the more marginalized youth. This is reflected in every opposition movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose younger, more liberal, pro-revolutionary members broke away from the anti-revolutionary elders last year to join their fellow revolutionaries on the streets and squares of Egypt.
As was the case in February 2011 against Mubarak and in November 2011 against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), though people of all backgrounds and ages were out on the streets, the bulk of the protesters were young. “I just want to say how brave these young kids are,” one protester, Ahmed, said upon returning from Tahrir Square. “Not even the choking tear gas was able to stop them from fighting for their freedom.”
The predominantly youthful nature of the protests is a natural by-product of Egypt’s young population – with more than half of the Egyptians born after Mubarak came to power in 1981 – and the ongoing marginalization of young people by the establishment, whether official or opposition. Although many young Egyptians have found success in all walks of life, politically they still occupy the fringes, leaving the main arena open to them the democracy of the street and the utopian possibilities raised by the egalitarian, if short lived, tent Republic of Tahrir last year.
“I believe Egypt’s political revolution is the product of Egypt’s ‘social revolution’,” says Nael Shama, an Egyptian political researcher and columnist. “This young generation is very dynamic and rebellious. They break taboos, revolt against prevailing institutions, norms and mindsets, and heavily assert their presence in public spaces, which usually puts them on a collision course with the official establishment.”
Although it is true that the Egyptian revolt started in January 2011 on the back of its sister revolution further west, events in Tunisia really only provided the spark of hope and inspiration required to trigger the chain reaction which shifted the existing movements for democratic and revolutionary change from the margins of Egyptian society right to its very heart.
During the decade preceding the revolution, calls for change were gathering pace, as reflected in the greater daring civil society and the opposition exhibited towards Mubarak and his men. In a society where criticising the president was once tantamount to political sacrilege, and like cardinal sins carried hefty consequences for the “sinner”, it was remarkable that an entire political movement existed, Kefaya (Enough), which united activists of all political stripes under the single platform of openly demanding that Mubarak step down. It even forced him, in 2005, to organize Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election, even if it was hardly free and fair, and this was an early sign of radical change in the making.
Even though Kefaya’s leadership, like much of Egypt’s established opposition, was dominated by older secularists, it had a strong youth element. Moreover, young people came into their own when they pushed beyond the consensus position of the opposition – which called for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and rejected Gamal Mubarak’s suspected plans to take over power from his father – and set up a movement to agitate for more far-reaching social and economic justice. For example, the April 6 Youth Movement, which is credited with being one of the main driving forces behind the January 25, 2011 revolution, was originally established, in the spring of 2008, by young activists, most of whom were well-educated and had not been political beforehand, as an expression of solidarity with striking textile workers in Mahalla al-Kubra.
Moreover, the revolution of the mind, which had been building up gradually in the years prior to the revolution and which exploded in the regime’s face in January 2011, was nowhere more apparent than among youth, who have surpassed their elders in their confidence and courage and their determination to overcome the traditional fear and deference which has paralyzed Egyptian politics and society.
When people think of politically conscious and active youth, their minds tend to wander towards universities, and despite the Mubarak regime’s studious efforts to depoliticize Egyptian student life and the many years of apathy and indifference this spawned, campuses played, as they had in the anti-colonial period, a crucial role in young people’s political formation.
But the radicalization of youth did not stop at the university gate. Despite or perhaps because of the poor education Egyptian public schools generally provided and their reputation for creating conformity in young minds, Egypt’s state-run school system was unwittingly producing a generation of politicized youth under the regime’s radar, as groundbreaking research carried out by Hania Sobhy of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), convincingly demonstrated.
And this rebellion and disaffection is hardly surprising, given the non-curricular lessons on class, youth exclusion, corruption, arbitrary and harsh punishment and the importance of connections and nepotism pupils receive in school. “The school gives very practical and concrete citizenship lessons to children, lessons about their differentiated entitlement to rights,” describes Sobhy.
One boy who spoke to Sobhy demanded portentously: “To fix things, everyone has to be removed…We need all new people.” As a foretaste of what was to come, less than a month before revolutionary fever gripped the entire country, pupils at semi-private state schools known as national institutes went on strike and organized sit-ins and marches in opposition to a ministerial decree they believed threatened their schools.
The sport of revolution
But perhaps the most surprising breeding ground for revolutionary fervour was not the education system, but sport. Around the world, football fans are rarely associated with politics, and soccer, in fact, has traditionally been regarded as a tool for channelling disaffection and discontentment into harmless club loyalty. But in a country where the government had managed to shut down all outlets for youth discontentment besides the mosque and (later) the internet, many of those who did not find Islamism appealing turned the stands of their favourite football clubs into political salons.
The Egyptian Ultras, as these politicized supporters are known, have truly put the fanatic, in the most positive sense of the word, back into fan. As someone who only has a passing interest in football and finds the petty tribalism of fan culture unappealing, the passion, commitment and courage of the Ultras during the 18 days it took topple Mubarak, and the vital role they played in holding on to Tahrir during the infamous “Battle of the Camels”, has filled me with a great deal of respect for these young idealists.
And the Ultras’ willingness to put their lives on the line for the cause of freedom has helped sustain and revive the revolution when it looked set to falter amid harsh repression. “I think the battles and clashes have kept the revolution alive, in the sense that they materialized the feeling, which persists, that there is still something to fight for (both in the pessimistic sense of ‘we’re not there yet’, and in the sense of not giving up hope),” observes Alya El Hosseiny, a 23-year-old Egyptian graduate student.
But it would be a mistake to think of the Ultras as simply urban warriors, as I discovered for myself at one of their sit-ins. The protest was well-organized and self-policed, and the participants were good-humoured despite their obvious anger at the lack of progress. They sang and danced to a whole repertoire of newly coined revolutionary songs, from the thunderingly defiant to the mockingly ironic. In one sarcastic song, they advised fellow citizens “Keep your head down, hang it low, you live in a democracy, you know.” Given the machismo of football, the Ultras themselves are all men, but there were also plenty of women in the crowd, from the hip and modern to the hip and traditional.
And the longer things change without really changing, the more the aspirations for change will grow. Mubarak and the generals of the SCAF have already learnt this lesson the hard way, but the Islamists are intent on repeating the same errors: the more they try to suppress and contain Egypt’s new revolutionary spirit, the wider it spreads. In fact, the sustained campaign to put the brakes on the revolution has only widened resistance to the previously unpoliticised and the even younger.
“What we’ve seen [in the latest confrontations] are very young people, including children, fighting the police,” says Wael Eskandar, a Cairo-based journalist who follows the revolution closely. “Not all of them are particularly aligned with what we think is the revolution, but such a generation is learning not to accept the status quo and to revolt against injustice.”
A revolution in search of a leadership
Over the past nearly two years, so much change has taken place that there are those, in Egypt and beyond, who wonder why there are still such large-scale protests, especially amongst the young. Not only has Mubarak been removed and the army increasingly sidelined, but Egyptians got to go to the ballot box to select their first ostensibly democratically elected parliament and president.
Part of the reason is that much of the change has been superficial and has not delivered the fundamental freedom, equality and economic opportunity young Egyptians yearn for. “The youth revolts but the leadership is still ancient. The youth want change yet the leaders cannot walk away from their comfort zone,” says Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian writer, broadcaster and blogger.
“Young Egyptians have more than once demonstrated that their aspirations are greater than the elite, that their vision is more farsighted, and that they are more willing to sacrifice for the cause,” echoes Nael Shama. “It looks as if the young live in a different time zone from the one within which the largely conventional political elite operates.”
In the eyes of many young revolutionaries, Egyptians have so far effectively substituted one set of fossilized leaders for another. The former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of the semi-autocratic Mubarak years has made way for the authoritarian-inclined Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and the wannabe-dictator Mohamed Morsi – with the only key difference being that one leaned more towards secularism, while the other is inclined more towards religion – but Egypt has changed, so its new rulers do not have the same room for manoeuvre as their predecessors.
Moreover, though young Egyptians started the revolutionary juggernaut rolling and arguably suffered the greatest pain for the revolution, they have seen precious few gains to date. Not only have they been largely excluded from the official political landscape by their elders, the country’s new leadership has shown little interest in empowering the very people who brought them to power, beyond paying lip service to their courage.
To add insult to injury, Egypt’s draft constitution – which is a wonderful document if you happen to be a conservative, middle-aged, male Muslim – takes a patriarchal and paternalistic attitude not only towards women but also young people, despite its insistence that Egypt’s is a “democratic regime” based on “equal citizenship”.
Joining the political party
Part of the reason for the continued relative disenfranchisement of young people, as well as secular revolutionaries in general, is their lack of political experience in comparison with the savvy veteran Islamists. This was compounded by the divisions and rivalries within revolutionary ranks, eloquently and tragically expressed in the splintering of the April 6 Youth Movement into two rival groups.
“At the beginning, young people had a clearer vision of what they wanted, which was to topple Mubarak and the old regime, and see some change in the country,” notes Lamia Hassan, a young journalist and filmmaker based in Cairo. “But as soon as this was over and the revolution was first hijacked by the military then later by the Islamic groups, the youth started to lose their way a little bit and were less [certain] about what they had to do to keep it alive.”
The reason for this disarray is partly due to the failure of a clear leader or group of leaders to emerge to steer the revolution. While the leaderless nature of the early uprising was a key factor in its success because it made it almost impossible for the regime to shut the revolt down, this one-time asset has turned into a liability.
“Yes, it’s the revolution of youth and the Egyptian people but they do not have a leader – an agreed upon leader. But the country needs a president and a whole cabinet of revolutionary leaders,” asserts Rakha. “In the 1952 coup, the officers had a president, a cabinet, and an array of consultants ready to replace the toppled king and his entourage. The 1952 revolution was disastrous on many fronts but at least they got that part right,” she adds.
To move out of the current intergenerational impasse, young revolutionaries need to become better organized and politically savvy, not just at toppling regimes but at building a new and better state for all Egyptians. In addition, the new political elite must realise that their future and that of Egypt’s is in the hands of young people, and so they must start sharing power with and creating opportunity for the new generation.
“To be effective, and even to survive, political forces (both old and new) need to understand the youth and incorporate their ideas and visions into their political doctrines and plans of action,” concludes Shama.
This article will appear in the forthcoming issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal (PIJ) devoted to The Younger Generation. Because of its timeliness, we are also pre-publishing it on the PIJ blog.