Egypt's youth have had enough

About the author
Negar Azimi is a graduate student at Harvard University and an editor of the New York-based arts and culture magazine Bidoun.

The blog of two of the young activists profiled in Negar Azimi's article, Alaa and Manal, is here

Alaa and Manal are not your average 20-something married couple. They met as children at a camp launched by a collective of activist parents with socialist tendencies. When the second Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, they distributed solidarity leaflets under the umbrella of the Egyptian Popular Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian People. On 20 March 2003, incensed by the American invasion of Iraq, they took to the streets in one of the biggest spontaneous demonstrations Egypt has known. Now, aged 23 and 22 respectively, the two of them spend nights preparing for Cairo’s weekly anti-regime street demonstrations – designing slick posters, drafting crafty slogans and maintaining a weblog of protest-related news in the weeks before the country’s fast-approaching presidential elections, to be held 7 September.

Alaa and Manal are part of an admittedly small but growing movement that is making demands of their government and daring to question the authority of the only head of state Egypt has known in their lifetimes. President Hosni Mubarak’s reign is older than they are, extended and re-extended through quasi-divine intervention and even more quasi-democratic elections (four referenda have been held asking Egyptians to vote on extending Mubarak’s rule; the official “yes” tally has consistently been well over 90%).

Nevertheless, since January 2005 Egypt has witnessed the growth of a nascent movement known as Kifaya (“enough” in Arabic). Marked by its iconic yellow stickers, Kifaya's central demand is as simple as its pithy brand name: an end to Mubarak’s uncontested twenty-four year rule.

Also on Egypt’s democratic argument and presidential election in openDemocracy:

Khalil al-Anany, “Egypt’s democratisation: reality or mirage?” (May 2005)

Tarek Osman, “Egypt: who’s on top?” (June 2005)

Tarek Osman, “Egypt’s crawl from autocracy” (August 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

The movement may be modest for a country of around 78 million people, but it is without precedent. While much international attention has focused on Kifaya’s roots in a combination of internal Egyptian forces and external (read American) pressures, the young people who are its mainstay – pioneering its populist tactics, taking their messages to the streets, using a marketing savvy new to the activist realm – have received less attention. In short, something is happening in Egypt.

“It’s an exciting time for us. We’re breaking taboos. Even if we don’t reach our announced goals, every day brings a little victory”, Alaa tells me. He and a friend are sitting at a Cairo cultural centre discussing plans to hold a candlelight vigil in solidarity with the victims of the recent London bombings.

While some euphoric pundits have readily hailed the extraordinary onset of an “Arab spring” or “renaissance” marked by novel democratic movements, in doing so they have silenced history. In Egypt as elsewhere, the upsurge in democratic activism was not born in a vacuum. For many young activists in Egypt, the second intifada was the initial galvanising event that bonded their hitherto isolated voices. The anti-Iraq war movement (known in Arabic as 20th March in reference to the first day of the US-led invasion) marked its coalescence. A younger organiser of 20th March remarks:

“Our protest in Tahrir Square on the first day of the invasion was as much about anti-American policy as it was about the fact that our government was allowing this to happen with its blessings. And that opens the door for a variety of attacks about who we are and what we stand for as Egyptians.”

A hunger for change

And so it began. While the government’s massive roundup and imprisonment of hundreds of protesters in the weeks following the anti-war demonstrations did impede the movement, the immediate war period constituted an important step in opening doors to critics of domestic policy, and critics of Hosni Mubarak, previously without venue, in particular.

Importantly, the tactics of this anti-war movement, often introduced by the youth element, were new to Egypt. Alaa, for example, made his computer savvy available to 20th March, hosting the group’s home on the web. SMS messages, digital cameras, and high-tech encrypting lent the movement's strategies a further sophistication. Today, he and Manal have created an internet hub for Egyptian bloggers, encouraging others to engage in “citizen journalism” by sending accounts of demonstrations, snapping pictures of police abuses, and posting them on the web as a contemporary archive.

But while Alaa, Manal and a handful of others are part of a loose network of “internet-based” activists who resist tying themselves to a particular group or political orientation, one group of young people have decided to organise themselves into a proper collective, remarkably slick in nature. Al Shebab min Agl Al Tagheer, or “Youth for Change” started out as a modest idea among five like-minded 20-somethings in February 2005. Today their core operating group is 250 on a good day, while they have become the semi-official youth arm of the Kifaya movement. Youth for Change’s five rotating committees (media, communications, culture, art and outreach) operate in a markedly democratic structure run by a five-person steering committee. The most active members of Youth for Change are found meeting in coffee shops, university halls, unions and syndicates throughout the city on a daily basis.

Youth for Change’s strategy is novel – almost guerrilla in relation to some of the more conservative tactics of Kifaya. It takes its message directly to the street, targeting working-class Cairo communities like Shoubra and Sayeda Zeinab. Groups of two to four activists visit public squares or parks, erect mini-exhibitions with flyers, and engage people on the street in impromptu discussion (their internal motto is kilamateen wi bas or “two words is enough”). In seeking to link daily concerns with failures of the political process, activists broach issues that touch all sectors of life – from transport costs to healthcare access to unemployment. They’ve been known to ride public mini-buses, engaging potential supporters, hopping off as soon as they feel impending arrest (and they do get arrested). Soon, they will be adding street theatre to their repertoire of tactics.

Abdel-Halim Qandil, a Kifaya founding member, long-time dissident and editor of the Nasserist al-Arabi newspaper, recognises the importance of youth to the movement’s survival. In his sparse offices, dominated by a life-size portrait of a beaming Gamal Abdel Nasser, he tells me: “Without them, what do we have? They’re young and radical and keeping this movement alive”.

But while Qandil and others readily cite the import of the next generation, there are marked ideological rifts that separate the youth from their more seasoned progenitors: about the nature of outreach tactics; about Kifaya’s failure to reach beyond an exclusive, Cairo-based intellectual crowd; and about whether and how far the movement should be open to Egypt’s long-standing, popular, though illegal (since 1954) opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood. Many young people see their elders as reluctant to open Kifaya’s ranks to the brotherhood, particularly as the lack of clarity over the older organisation’s possible co-option by the government creates much room for discussion about which stance to adopt.

Sara is a member of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists and one of the more active members of Youth for Change. An activist since age 18, she is a vocal supporter of inclusion of the brotherhood: “We have to bring them in if we are to survive and be truly a mass movement. Without them there will be no change in Egypt”, she tells me after a protest in Cairo’s Opera Square where, as usual, there are at least three black-clad central security operatives for every protestor.

A gallery of activism

The generational tensions are evident in a heated August discussion in the downtown office of George Ishaq – like Abdel-Halim Qandil, a 70-something founder of Kifaya. Ishaq is with Khaled, a member of the steering committee of Youth for Change, and their disagreement centres on a demonstration planned that evening for Cairo’s Talaat Harb Square. Ishaq pushes for the demonstration to be silent; Khaled disagrees, wanting the movement to make use of its canon of slogans.

“Sometimes we struggle with them. Sometimes their slogans are rash, insulting, they’re too quick to be confrontational”, Ishaq tells me later. A few days earlier, Ishaq had been arrested minutes before a planned demonstration in Tahrir Square. One Youth for Change member had lain down in front of the security officials’ car, demanding that they let him go. Ishaq was released a few hours later.

Khaled is one of the architects of Youth for Change’s vigilante street tactics. His willowy frame, fiery eyes and restless movement make him appear physically wedded to the cause. Pinning him down for a meeting is a Herculean task; invariably an urgent telephone call, a committee meeting or news of another arrest lures him away.

One day I found him in his offices at the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights. There, he articulated Youth for Change’s central strategy:

“Our job is to link young people’s daily problems to the government, to explain to people that they have certain rights and someone has a responsibility to listen to their demands. The linkages are not intuitive to them. Our job is to uncover those links, to get the idea of reform on the table.”

Khaled’s words are a coded response to the classic criticism Kifaya is already encountering: that its occasionally lofty discourse of human rights and democracy fails to address the more fundamental, daily concerns of the average Egyptian, even that its almost singular focus on Mubarak has impeded the elaboration of a practical agenda.

Nora is already a Youth for Change convert. As a child, she would slyly remove the obligatory portrait of a smiling Mubarak from the classroom wall, begging the school’s cleaner not to expose her as the culprit. Her father, a columnist for the official al-Akhbar newspaper had repeatedly told her never to do anything unless she was completely convinced of it. The same man would later publicly challenge his editor Musa Sabri, over the paper’s support for the Camp David accords with Israel in 1978, a gesture that won him few favours from the state press establishment.

In 2002, Nora took her younger brother to a demonstration in solidarity with the Palestinians at Cairo University. Along with countless others, the two were teargassed and roughed up. Days later, she and five friends organised a protest in solidarity with Yasser Arafat, then besieged in his Ramallah compound. We are all Arafat and We will never be governed by the White House were their slogans. Their target was equally Mubarak. Only at the last minute did Nora’s father tell her that their plan to march on the president’s residence with their grievances was out of the question. “That’s how naïve and ignorant we were”, she laughs.

Nora stopped demonstrating the day she saw Saddam Hussein’s statue come down in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in April 2003, crushed by the Americans’ show of force and overcome by a feeling of pan-Arab solidarity at seeing young GIs draping the stars & stripes on the fallen icon. “I just withdrew completely. I stopped caring”, she recalls.

Nevertheless, it was referendum day, 25 May 2005, which effectively recativated her. The referendum asked Egyptians to vote on a constitutional amendment that would provide for the country’s first multi-party presidential elections – a gesture dismissed by more than one commentator as cosmetic, a sort of democratic decor. A Kifaya gathering in Cairo’s Saad Zaghloul Square called for a boycott of the vote, citing serial restrictions in electoral participation. There, in front of the Journalists’ Syndicate, Mubarak supporters – burly young men bussed in from the provinces and kindly compensated for their efforts – assailed Kifaya members, sexually harassing women, tearing their clothes. Nora was among them.

Within a week, a new movement was born: El Sharie Lena, or “The Street is Ours”. The Street is Ours organised a press conference and candlelight vigil to highlight the events of referendum day. Nora and others created posters bearing the images of the police officers who supervised the abuse with the words “try him” prominently displayed. Since then, Nora is on the frontline of almost every anti-Mubarak demonstration.

Between referendum and election

The street protests continued with increased momentum in the post-referendum period. On 15 June, Alaa, Nora and a handful of others organised a demonstration in the neighbourhood of Sayeda Zeinab. In this area named after the prophet’s granddaughter, Zeinab herself is believed to hold court, listen to people’s problems. She receives symbolic services (such as sweeping floors) from visitors to the mosque that bears her name in exchange for blessings.

The organisers first hit the street around the mosque in what was essentially a symbolic act. When central security blocked them from speaking to people – they moved inside the mosque, encountering a captive audience of sorts. There they spoke of the elections, the Mubarak dynasty at large as well as the daily, arbitrary interrogations and harassment that the interior ministry is responsible for - something that most anyone could relate to. The demonstration’s posters and slogans appeared so slick that Rose al-Youssef magazine speculated that its organisers must have hired a media consultancy.

Nora demurs:

“There was actually no strategy at all. We just talked to people. Nobody thought of even putting together a piece of paper that said what we were about or even contacting the media to cover us. We got lucky because people really responded to our message. I guess we learn something new with every demonstration.”

But little victories such as Sayeda Zeinab leave big questions. How long do street tactics remain sustainable; will their current momentum carry on beyond the September elections, or instead lose steam once international attention shifts away from Egypt? As ever, the media's attention span is short, particularly in this neighbourhood.

And in a country in which there is precious little reward for challenging the powers that be and in which security reigns unrivaled in all sectors of life, many are understandably hesitant to stick their necks out for a cause that may seem hopeless. In mid-August, al-Arabi reported the results of studies of youth engagement in politics: one, conducted by the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies found that 92% of Egyptian youth are afraid of getting involved in politics; 92% see no point in political participation; and 80% don’t know the meaning of “a political party”. Kifaya’s George Ishaq goes so far as to say that the country is stricken by a “culture of fear.”

Somaya’s answer

But activists offer reason to be optimistic: young people, albeit in modest numbers, are joining the cause each day. Somaya, a recent graduate of Cairo’s Ain Shams University, is among them. She joined Youth for Change after learning that a friend of hers had been attacked on referendum day; in trying to report the abuse to state security, she faced repeated threats from officials. “I couldn’t believe that the police, who are supposed to help, did the exact opposite. I knew then that I had to do something.”

Somaya’s parents, a civil servant and a housewife, live in the working-class suburb of Shoubra. They know nothing about her involvement in the movement. After a demonstration at the Journalists’ Syndicate on 30 July she confides: “My family would never allow me to be involved in such activities. They’re scared like everyone else. I once stuck a Kifaya sticker on my door and the neighbours told my father that they would be keeping an eye on me. That was a signal to me to keep this a secret from them”. That afternoon, baton-wielding security personnel as well as plainclothes security men had beaten up a number of protesters, and arrested at least twenty-three. Her fiancé was among them.

Somaya remains undeterred all the same:

“This is a fight for young people like me who want to have jobs, buy a house and get married. I can’t do that when I get paid 300 pounds (approximately $50) per month. I have friends who have no work. These are our concerns about the future. This is what we have to fight for.”

She shows far less interest in the presidential elections or wider notions of democracy. Indeed, in a sense, engaging Somaya and others who have historically been otherwise apolitical will be crucial for the survival and growth of the movement. When asked about the movement’s chances of success, Somaya’s answer is unambiguous: “I have no idea about success, but I do know that for now I suddenly have the opportunity to say ‘no’. How can I not use it?”