Egypt’s youth are still clinging to the 2011 revolution

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.

June 22, 2013 22:44
A protester opposing Egyptian President Morsi during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Jan 25

Anti-Morsi protest in Egypt 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

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 better organized.”

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 nothing.”

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 seen.

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 tourism.

The Salafi movement presents, in many ways, a greater challenge to liberal reform in Egypt than even the Brotherhood.

A Wahhabi-related 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 minorities.

“The older generation, they’ve seen the old way, secularism,” says George.

“They don’t like what they see now.

There was 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.”

“If 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 laugh.

Asked what he would like Americans to know about Egyptians, he says, “Tell everybody that not all Egyptians are the Muslim Brotherhood.”

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 capital.

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.

As we 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.

“We are 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 direct.

“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 happen.”

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.

The 1830 revolution in France was, like Egypt’s 2011 revolution, a popular uprising in the streets that resulted in the swapping of one autocrat for another.

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.

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