Have the youth lost out?

12-04-2014 05:19 PM

Sheri Abdel-Massih

Before 2011, the political opinion of young Egyptians, who represent some 60 per cent of the total population, was all about likes and comments on Facebook.

 They began to reveal a more informed understanding when they took to the streets as a major presence in the revolution that started on 25 January 2011 and brought down longtime president Hosni Mubarak. Youth groups were formed, and there was a more youthful participation in the political and public spheres. As the Islamist Muslim Brothers (MB) rose to power and shocked Egyptians by the manner in which they usurped democracy, the public tide turned against them. Again young people were at the forefront of the events; the grassroots Tamarud (Rebel) movement they formed was instrumental in mobilising the 33 million-strong second revolution on 30 June 2013 which overthrew the Islamist president Muhammad Mursi exactly one year into his presidency. The young people’s political presence dwindled following the second revolution, and there was talk that many of them did not bother to show up in the referendum on the Constitution last January.
Did they vote?
Claims on TV talk shows that Egypt’s youth refrained from voting in the referendum on the Constitution last January found reasonable credibility in light of the fact that young people have constantly been on the side of discontent and rebellion. However, analysts are divided on the issue; activist Hazem Abdel-Azeem for one denies that young people refrained from voting and insists they formed long queues alongside the women’s queues which were legendary in length. It is worth noting that the Constitution was nonetheless approved by a landslide 98 per cent vote.
Film director Khaled Youssef warned against what he termed the anger of the young. “That many young people refused to take part in the referendum is a catastrophe,” Mr Youssef said. “It indicates an underlying frustration that might snowball to unpredictable proportions. The State should try to understand the situation and the reasons for the young people’s withdrawal.”
“Young people feel they have been robbed of their revolution and that the set goals were never achieved; so the current ruling regime no longer represents them,” revolutionary socialist student union spokesperson Mahmoud Nawara said. “The interim period is managed without involving any of them in any way, and this makes them feel they are being excluded. The violence and ‘massacres’ on the streets between the MB and the police makes the young feel torn between two parties, neither of which represents them. The result was that young people feel frustrated and depressed, and believe their participation leads nowhere.” 
However, Mr Nawara is on the optimistic side and believes this frustration is not the end point. “There have always been ups and downs; at one point we feel frustrated, then we get motivated and act again with interest.” 
Mr Nawara believes the State played a significant role in excluding young people and putting them in the boxes of ‘the young people of 25 January’ and ‘of 30 June’. The former are now branded as conspirators and the latter are the ‘good’ revolutionaries who restored Egypt after it fell into the hands of the MB. 
So why is it that the youth movements which were formed in the wake of the Arab Spring Revolution in January 2011have now vanished into thin air? Mr Nawara says most of the young people who formed these movements were either university students or unemployed graduates, and had neither experience nor funds. As for the attempt by the government to communicate with the youth by appointing a young deputy for each minister, Mr Nawara says this was a major problem because the government selected only young persons who were loyal to it and did not represent the majority.
Which ‘revolution’?
Opinions that see the 25 January Revolution in 2011 as no more than a conspiracy between the United States and the MB, and believe the real Egyptian revolution was on 30 June 2013, have found a strong voice in the media. As though in confirmation, leaks of phone calls between the young activists who launched the Facebook campaign that led to the January 2011 Revolution have implicated them in the alleged conspiracy, even though they claim the leaks are no more than a smear campaign against them. Compounding matters is that the 30 June 2013 supporters insist that the sheer numbers of protestors then—at least 10 times those involved in the January 2011 event—indicate that the mainstream silent majority of Egypt had decided to revolt against what the January 2011 Revolution had brought about. The end result is that there exists today a futile conflict of public opinion as to which of the two revolutions was really conducted by the Egyptian people, an argument which serves no purpose at all but may have worked to alienate the activist youth.
Glass cage
“Young people will never leave the political arena,” says Mahmoud Afifi, a member of the executive office of the national partnership movement. He points to an initiative by the movement, under the name Leaders of the Future, which aims to encourage more young people to participate in political activity and discover capable young people from all over Egypt. Mr Afifi says young people may not have voted in the referendum on the Constitution, but their participation in the presidential elections depends on the acts of the current government. “In a meeting with the cabinet we had one clear target, which was stopping all oppressive acts against young activists and releasing young detainees.” 
Ahmed Hazem, a human development trainer, suggests that the current state of depression among Egypt’s young people is caused by a general feeling on their part that they are in a glass cage where they see things but can’t reach them. “Political participation among young people can be a fad and might leap from zero to 50 per cent, but it quickly goes back to zero when conditions return to a more normal level. This is what frequently happens with youth participation,” Mr Hazem says. “In politics there are the leaders, the followers and the indifferent. In the January 2011 Revolution each young person was a leader, and that’s why they didn’t achieve anything.”
The activists
For his part, writer and political researcher Soliman Shafiq told Watani that claims of youth alienation were far from the truth. “Nothing so far confirms such an allegation,” Mr Shafiq said. “I reject the idea that such brouhaha should be stoked on a mere assumption. Obviously, the youth activists are the ones with the loud voice, but the facts on the ground indicate a wide gap between them and mainstream Egyptian youth.”
In total agreement was Watani’s Nader Shukry, who was among the monitors of the January 2014 vote on the Constitution. “Youth participation was minor only in a few polling stations in Cairo and Alexandria. Otherwise, their presence was strong, especially in provincial and rural areas across the country,” he says.
According to Mr Shafiq, only a small fraction of Egypt’s young people are abstaining from political participation. Among the activists, however, there is a general feeling of frustration. They see themselves as the leaders of the 25 January 2011 Revolution, but now leading figures among them, such as the activists Ahmed Doma and Alaa Abdel-Fattah, have been arrested on various charges. Young activists feel unsafe, and because they are harshly attacked some of them prefer to stand aside.
Egyptian political movements are unable to actively contain the youth, Mr Shafiq says.  “Only Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi with his strong decision-making and charisma will be able to adequately accommodate the young people.”
“What was wrong with the Mubarak times?”
Talking to young mainstream Egyptians seems to confirm how far apart they are from the activist youth. Mina Tawfiq, a worker in a garment factory, told Watani that he did not take part in the 25 January 2011 Revolution, and nor did almost all the young people he knows. “It is more than three years now since that revolution which led longtime president Hosni Mubarak to step down,” Tawfiq said. “Throughout that time we didn’t know one good day. I am today my family’s sole breadwinner; my father lost his job because the factory he worked in had to close down.” Even when there is work, he said, the pay is meagre because the entire economy is down. “What was wrong with the Mubarak times?” Mr Tawfiq asked. “I have yet to find someone who can explain that to me.”
Watani asked Mr Tawfiq whether he would contemplate joining some political party or movement in order to be part of ‘running the country’. “The political movements have been such a disappointment,” he said. “The activists always blamed Mubarak for not giving them a chance to attain power, even though they exercised the utmost freedom in criticising and opposing his regime when he was president. Today, three years after Mubarak is no longer president, the political movements and parties are an utter disappointment; they appear to be out of touch with the Egyptian mainstream, and Egypt is the last thing they work for.”
“It’s not that I’m apathetic,” Mr Tawfiq continued. “When the MB came to power matters reached a new low as far as freedom and economic conditions are concerned, so I took to the streets on 30 June 2013 to bring the MB president Muhammad Mursi down.  I also voted on the new Constitution last January and was so happy when it was approved by a landslide 98 per cent.”
Out of touch
Mr Tawfiq’s opinion is typical of the talk you hear on the street in Egypt. The young taxi driver Saad Rizq, who took part in the 25 January Revolution in 2011, told Watani that he was totally disillusioned with the outcome. “The political conflict in Egypt and the greed for power by the various political streams has robbed the revolution of its focus,” Mr Rizq said. “I refuse to join any of these parties. I was among those who took part in the 30 June 2013 Revolution which put an end to MB rule, and I also voted for the Constitution in January 2014. I did this of my own accord because I believe in Egypt. I don’t need some political leader or party to tell me that. The coming days will see better, more aware Egyptian youth build this country. I have confidence, as many other young people do, in Field Marshal Sisi.”
Nothing, however, comes close to expressing the utter disappointment of the mainstream Egyptian young with the ‘youth activists’ as the response to the court ruling last week which sentenced three prominent activists: Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Doma, and Muhammad Adel to three years in prison. Ahmed Fawzi of the Egyptian Democratic Party commented that the ruling would discourage the young people from voting in the upcoming presidential elections. Out of some 60 reader comments to this news, not one agreed with Fawzi. Most came from young people who derided him and the activists for being out of touch, and harshly criticised them for having an agenda far removed from the sentiments of the Egyptian street.
Watani International
13 April 2014
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