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Where are the youth of the Egyptian revolution?

January 27, 2014 at 11:07 am

How and why did the Egyptian revolution evolve from a struggle of the youth and the people to an elitist concern? What must we do to restore the role of the youth and people together? It may be best to try to find out where the youth succeeded prior to the January 25th Revolution and why; and where they failed.

There is no doubt that the youth succeeded in several domains prior to the January Revolution. Young people were motivated by the knowledge they gained from the internet and social networking sites about two main issues: how to combat tyranny and human rights violations at home and about non-violent resistance movements abroad.

The youth used this newly-acquired knowledge to their advantage and began to publish and broadcast information on human rights violations electronically through every means possible. They also used the information to engage their communities and mobilise the masses. In this way, the youth were able to liberate themselves from traditional partisan affiliations and historical and ideological conflicts; they were able to discern the level of institutional liquidity and regulatory decentralisation.

Above all, their demands were based on a common denominator of rejecting tyranny, oppression and torture, and calling for freedom and emancipation. They also refused any and all partial solutions until their main demand, the departure of the regime, was met. The youth succeeded in being the driving force that mobilised the masses on the streets. The elite and traditional powers had been trying but unable to do that for several decades.

Nevertheless, the youth failed in several respects. They did not care to make an intellectual presence and they failed to crystallise a clearly defined political project. They also had no leadership that could express their needs and represent them. Perhaps this was due to their surprise that they were able to topple the regime so quickly. Whatever it was, they did not have sufficient time to prepare themselves for a suitable political alternative and to familiarise with themselves with nation-building skills.

After February 11th, events took an unfavourable turn, leading to the hijacking of the youth revolution by the elite. How and why did this happen?

After the regime was toppled, the elite and the military took over during the transitional period without any concrete participation from the youth. They had hoped that the elite and the military would at least respond to and respect the demands of the revolution; viz –

  • Building a new political system that changed the then-current balance of power and the ways in which power is exercised.
  • Enabling the youth and the politically disadvantaged to participate in the decision-making process by way of effective social and political institutions.
  • The accountability and trial of the individuals responsible for killing youth during the revolution, whose number at the time was fewer than one thousand martyrs.
  • Achieving social justice and embarking on a socio-political programme that would alleviate hardship for the vast majority of Egyptians.

The transitional period did not succeed in achieving these demands. The political elite became more polarised day after day until the youth became polarised as well. While the bulk of the political responsibility lay with the elite and the military, one must recognise that the youth were also partially responsible.

Perhaps the youth’s first problem is that prior to February 11th they preoccupied themselves with acquiring knowledge on how to topple tyrannical regimes as well as spreading information about human rights violations. At the start of the transitional period they became too preoccupied with side issues to familiarise themselves with the intricacies of state-building and political projects that would serve as an alternative to the authoritarian regime.

The situation became worse when the youth, along with other parties and factions, did not realise the true nature of revolutionary change. The most notable indication of this is the realisation that toppling a regime does not necessarily mean the fall of the system and institutionalised forces behind it. There is also the fact that a revolution’s enemy does not stop fighting against it at any time and that there is no appreciation for the driving force embodied by the youth and their desire for societal change.

The youth not only lost their direction after the revolution; they also lacked the focus necessary to achieve any of their strategic goals. This lack of interest (along with other political factions) led to the death of the process of change and prevented the development of any alternative political system.

The revolution’s opponents exploited many issues, complications and positions with great skill. Among them were the subject of identity and the application of Shari’ah law, as well as partisan demands. Thus, the youth’s lack of interest stemmed from not wanting to participate in the decision-making process, which was dominated by old parties and the long-standing elite. The youth did not succeed in establishing new parties that would continue with the goals of the revolution and the majority of their nascent initiatives were unsuccessful due to many divisions and problems as was the case with the April 6th Movement, the Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The situation worsened due to the issues that political forces focused on. These forces and traditional parties did not allow the youth to engage in the public domain or contribute to new policies or core issues; they did not enable or mobilise the youth, nor did they listen to their demands. Thus, the military imposed their presence on the people and became the main force behind any new laws.

The constitution of 2012 failed to keep pace with the progress made around the world in the 21st century, not only in Egypt as a country but also in terms of democracy itself. In the wake of June 30th, young people have suffered from the absence of a true political project and the failure to establish a democracy, and have become an integral part of the political polarisation in Egypt. By endorsing the army to take over the political landscape once again, they have contributed to aggravating an already sensitive situation. There has been talk of establishing some semblance of a participatory democracy that places particular emphasis on the youth’s participation by creating a new faction for their initiatives within a larger institutionalised political framework. The media has contributed to making this more appealing by bribing the youth with money. The same media contributed to the politicisation of youth movements that did not originally have political foundations because they failed to meet the youth’s demands for retribution. As a result, the security situation in Sinai has continued to decline because violent Islamist groups have emerged as a way of confronting the state.

Egypt has witnessed a great deal of turmoil in the months since the coup. The youth-based Tamarod movement reconciled with the former Mubarak regime and allowed its key players, the “deep state” which used to justify the aggression of the regime, to gain political control once again. Of greater concern is the fact that the youth do not see the dangers of politicising the military and are calling for military intervention to resolve their political differences with the Muslim Brotherhood. One must also note that the youth have overlooked the abuses committed by the military and the failure of the transitional phase and consequently see military intervention as the only solution to oust the first elected civilian president in the history of the country.

Unfortunately they do not see the dangers of what they have done, whether it is in regards to preoccupying the military from its main responsibility to defend the republic or in reference to the nascent democratic experience. These decisions have pushed Egypt to the edge of civil strife and a zero-sum game. The youth are not only suffering from the absence of a democratic political project but are now also an integral part of the political polarisation in the country. They have contributed greatly to aggravating the political situation and helped the military to take hold of the political scene once again. The youth-based Tamarod movement also contributed to this reality because it helped to demonise the Muslim Brotherhood and have it labelled as a terrorist organisation. Indeed, it made no effort to condemn the military for the killings over the past few months. The youth have contributed, consciously or unconsciously, to deepening the political divisions in society.

In order to find a way out of this dark tunnel, I believe that the youth must do a number of things:

The first is related to knowledge, for it is imperative to recognise the dangers and risks that surround the revolution, society and the state. This comes in addition to recognising the universal pillars that are needed for making political changes. The youth must once again engage the community and educate and train them to understand the political framework for building a modern state. They must also provide the people with the proper tools to analyse situations and calculate political risks. Politics is a science and an art and it is everyone’s responsibility to obtain knowledge and skills on this subject.

Secondly, the youth need to restore national unity as well as the original goals of the January 25th Revolution. They must establish a common strategic goal and focus on the bigger picture, avoiding smaller side issues. We are in need of a common political vision that will include the largest number of political factions possible in order to protect and restore the values of the revolution in an attempt to protect the state itself. On the other hand, we also need to protect political freedoms and focus on the future and work on a new constitutional, legal and institutional political framework. This must be coupled with a strong media platform that will provide the masses with valuable information as well as a sophisticated an effective policy for communication.

The third thing that must be done is to occupy all public spaces and workplaces within each political party, trade union or civil society organisation. We must work to infuse the entire society with the values and goals of the revolution. We must also rely on institutional management of any organisation, whether it is old or new.

Fourthly, we need to tie all community issues with the revolution. We need to raise community awareness on the importance of prioritising the process of establishing an alternative political system.

The fifth thing we need to do is take a deep breath and remember that revolutions often go through several phases. Many countries have gone through political periods that are much more challenging than our situation and they have experienced one revolution and counter-revolution after another. Nevertheless, they have been able to overcome these obstacles when it became apparent that political leadership and the elite came together under one common political vision and strategy.

The sixth thing to do is to use the knowledge and advice of experts in situations where there is a shortage of expertise on a particular subject pertaining to state building, the constitution or the management of the modern state. We are facing complexities that cannot be dealt with exclusively by one person or group of people.

Finally, we must agree upon a set of rules and political etiquette that respects differences among all ages and socio-political groups. We are in need of a political etiquette that will lead us away from having an exclusive mentality based on mistrust, suspicion and conspiracy.

The author is an Egyptian researcher and academic. This article is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Jazeera net on 19 November, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.