CAIRO – The romanticism frequently associated with Cairo quickly dissipates at
the sight of the wretched poverty that afflicts this historic capital. With
nearly 20 million inhabitants, Cairo is one of the most densely populated urban
centers in the world. It is also one of the youngest.
It was Egypt’s
youth that initially spearheaded the revolution in 2011, in a liberal,
democratic movement that ultimately brought down the regime of President Hosni
Mubarak. Two years later, the prosperity and democracy that were the promise of
the revolution continue to elude most Egyptians. Many who supported the Muslim
Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in the presidential election last year now
acknowledge that the economic situation has grown significantly worse, while
fundamental rights are not respected.
George, a charming young Coptic
Orthodox Christian man, believes the revolution was hijacked by the Muslim
Brothers, who were better positioned than disparate liberal youth movements to
fill the vacuum created by Mubarak’s fall.
“We knew that we wanted
Mubarak out. We didn’t know what we wanted to replace him,” he says. “The young
people, the liberals, hadn’t thought that far ahead. The Muslim Brothers were
A veiled woman in her sixties hands George a
leaflet-petition, the heading of which reads in English, “REBELS.” The rest of
the script is Arabic and reads, “No dignity, no bread, no job,” a litany of the
broken promises of Morsi and the Brothers. As we depart, George observes: “An
old lady. Thirty years ago, she had nothing to do with politics. It’s been a
year [since Morsi came to power], and all the efforts have gone to the basket of
the Muslim Brothers who did this revolution for the people – then
The date of June 30 looms large in this city that commemorates
historic dates in its streets and bridges. It is especially poignant for Egypt’s
youth. Ashraf, an engaging cab driver, freely offers his dislike for Morsi,
saying it would be better for Egypt if Mubarak had never left. “On June 30,
maybe another revolution,” he says. Many young people in Cairo echo this
sentiment, though whether the will for a second revolution exists remains to be
If protests do resume on June 30, it will not be without cause. The
regime is not merely undermined by the failing economy and perceptions of its
incompetence, but also by the widespread belief that the Supreme Council of the
Armed Forces (SCAF) rigged the 2012 election’s final outcome following threats
from the Muslim Brothers. Such bullying is not well received by many Egyptians.
The Brotherhood’s Salafi allies exacerbate fears of economic decline by calling
for the destruction of the very pagan monuments that are vital for
The Salafi movement presents, in many ways, a greater challenge
to liberal reform in Egypt than even the Brotherhood.
movement that originated in Saudi Arabia, Salafism has spread in the past
generation chiefly through the abundant wealth of the conservative Persian Gulf
states – and a Saudi foreign policy committed to exporting Wahhabism throughout
the Sunni Muslim world.
This Wahhabi-Salafi movement, though linked to
the Brotherhood, is regarded by many as being less compatible with democracy and
generally intolerant of moderate interpretations of Islam or religious
“The older generation, they’ve seen the old way, secularism,”
“They don’t like what they see now.
corruption. Now there is corruption and extremism.”
When I ask him about
support for Salafism among Egypt’s youth, he says, “Yes, it’s there.”
the United States wanted the Muslim Brotherhood out of Egypt, they can
[accomplish that]. The people who think that America is the biggest devil –
[America] put those people in power,” says George. “Since they got in power, no
one is talking about America as the biggest devil.”
Who is the biggest
devil now? George pauses and grins.
“Morsi,” he says with a
Asked what he would like Americans to know about Egyptians, he
says, “Tell everybody that not all Egyptians are the Muslim
FROM THE October 6 Bridge en route to Tahrir Square, one
can see the Maspero television building, which houses government-sanctioned
television and radio organizations. The curved face of Maspero’s base structure
closely resembles the Watergate in Washington, which was constructed in the same
decade and is similarly placed along the river that passes through the
Outside this building in 2011, more than 20 unarmed Christians
were killed by government troops, many crushed beneath armored personnel
carriers. A young Egyptian man, now committed to building a democracy in Egypt,
witnessed the killings with his own eyes.
“It’s hard for me to talk
about,” he says, visibly shaken as he recalls the events a year and a half
later. “It was a hard day. Not easy to watch your friends, your family, everyone
you know... I know those people who were killed.” To this day, no charges have
been brought by the Egyptian government.
In Tahrir Square, we sip tea at
dusk with a view of the burned-out headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic
Party, and wait for Youssef, a human rights activist, who is more than an hour
late. “Six o’clock – Egyptian time,” he had warned with a laugh.
wait, a haggard man with leathery skin and only a few teeth stoops down to
impart an observation: “Two years ago, the young men smiled. Today they frown.”
Moments later, Ahmed, a chipper university student, approaches.
taking signatures for a new presidential election.” Asked how many he needs, he
replies, “Fifteen million.”
Youssef arrives and we depart Tahrir for a
discreet location. “It’s not safe here,” he says. There is a grimness about him
that belies his relative youth. His command of English is sound, and he is
“The world must stop supporting new fascism in Egypt,” he says.
Asked if he is speaking of the United States, he replies, “Specifically, I mean
the United States and the Obama administration must stop supporting this regime.
America has made many bad choices, supported extremists in the Middle East and
here in Egypt. It’s playing with fire.”
When Youssef is asked about June
30, his hope seems feigned. “If the whole Egyptian society united, it could
One wonders whether the youth who propelled the last revolution
are now too disillusioned and enervated.
Youssef’s spirit is not broken.
“The revolution didn’t end yet,” he says. “It will continue.” It would not be
the first revolution in history to outlive its architects.
revolution in France was, like Egypt’s 2011 revolution, a popular uprising in
the streets that resulted in the swapping of one autocrat for
The oft-forgotten Paris Uprising that followed in 1832, known as
the “June Rebellion,” was led by idealistic youth who felt betrayed by the
revolution two years before. It proved to be an unmitigated failure that was all
but forgotten when Victor Hugo popularized the uprising 30 years later in his
classic novel Les Miserables.
Two years after Egypt’s revolution, and one
year into the rule of the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, many of Cairo’s
youth clamor to see their revolution through to completion. “We are ready this
time,” says Ahmed. As Egypt’s youth clamor for the barricades, they know that
the struggle will not be simply generational, but far more complex, with the
Wahhabi-Salafi extremists of their own generation vying to pull Egypt away from
the democratic values of the West and toward the autocratic rule of the Gulf
regimes.The author served on the executive secretariat of the US
National Commission for UNESCO at the US Department of State, where he has since
worked as a consultant. The views expressed here are his own.