North Africa, West Asia

Egypt’s January 25 revolutionary youth: where have they gone?

There are various sectors missing from the frame of 'the January 25 youth' that we are to blame ourselves for excluding. You could say that 'armchair revolutionaries' took all the credit for the revolution when other sectors only took the blame.

Hesham Shafick
18 October 2013

February 11, 2011 is a day that can never be forgotten. The people of Egypt believed in the power of 'the January 25 youth' and expected them to lead the Egyptian revolution forwards. However, from that day on, they seem to have stopped in their tracks and have now gone to ground, leaving us with one question: “Where have they gone?’’

When such a question is being asked by an ordinary Egyptian citizen, there is usually no reference to a specific group or individuals, but a search for a quasi-Superman concept; a search for those youth who would organize protests chanting revolutionary slogans refusing military rule; who would break the curfew; who would save women from widespread police harassment; and who would stand against human rights violations regardless of whomsoever the victim was.

A vicious circle

In fact, the problem is not the classical revolutionary problem of leaders running out of steam. If anything, the exact opposite has happened: they had too much steam that has kept them running around in circles. That they were deeply shocked to see the extent of the democracy failure emerging in the years after Mubarak’s removal is no news: it is universally recognised and accepted. Their mistrust of all sorts of authority, whether they be politicians, media magnates, scholarly experts, or even older people, convinced them that they had to hang onto their premises of Utopian rebellion, and not listen to the siren voices of ugly wisdom. But these youthful leaders were astounded on the several occasions when they found themselves representing a losing majority in the face of an organized minority. Kenneth Arrow has asserted the “impossibility” of any majority winning a totally free public choice; and Joseph Stiglitz has also averred that “organized minorities rule a disorganized majority”. Yet, our revolutionary youth leaders were far from understanding this.

Through January 25, what they learned was that everything we read in papers (books, news, etc.) is simply over-pessimistic compared to what we know we can do in reality. Two important agencies were completely missing from these hopeful calculations: the Islamists and the military. Both were supporters of the overthrow of Mubarak, but not at all the supporters of the January 25 revolution. In other words, “yes” the first step was very easy, much easier than we were informed in any books or by our elders and betters. But this result was not only due to youthful heroism as some of us fondly imagined.

Now that those two major former allies are joined in battle over who is to rule the country, the revolutionary youth of yesteryear have fallen into inaction and silence. Cairo 2013 is therefore very comparable to Paris 1848; in both cases, the masses believed that democracy had failed to achieve their goals and thus “revolted” against “the revolution". Staunch democrats made a paradoxical appeal to the military to put an end to their democratic choice once they realised the mistake they had made. Later, democrats in France (as in all likelihood the Tamarod of Egypt do today - whose leaders appear to have close ties with state security officers and the intelligence) came to bitterly regret this action after they realized what they had done. They have simply punished the new rulers for disobedience to their revolutionary demands by bringing the old rulers whom they first revolted against - “an enemy that we at least know well” as George Ishak once put it – back into power. And this vicious circle of choosing the worse over the worst simply goes on and on.

The choices before a political actor

On the other hand, it has to be said that society chooses certain kinds of revolutionaries to glorify and support. Have you ever noticed that all the martyrs on our t-shirts, pictures, and media are AB-class citizens?  Did you also notice that all popular “speakers” in the name of the revolution are English speakers - and probably graduates out of various international schools? There are various sectors missing from the frame of 'the January 25 youth' that we are to blame ourselves for excluding. You could say that these 'armchair revolutionaries' took all the credit for the revolution when other sectors only took the blame. These 'back office' revolutionaries may be bloggers, photographers, social media activists, and other forms of amateurs who did play a role in fuelling the revolution, but without really 'getting their hands dirty' – a version of revolution favoured at the time by nearly all the actors on the political scene. The state welcomed them in its media and raised the flag for “peaceful revolution” (or even “Facebook revolution,’’) as this caused little disruption to the state while at the same time bestowing some legitimacy on those acting repressively against “extremists” (or “savages”) on the streets. Political parties, Islamists and seculars alike, were happy to leave the revolutionary youth out of the street battle, through portraying this as a simple and sensible division of labour - “we take the streets, you the social media.”  

The old regime also preferred to make its moves against amateurs who knew little either about street politics, the games that regimes play, the key individuals, or Egypt’s political map – rather than pit its strength against revolutionaries on the ground. The international media, trying to make western sense (and money) out of the Arab spring, found it appealing to portray “westernised Egyptians” as the protagonists of a revolution constructed via western social media, thereby giving the west the old-fashioned credit for enlightening the east. It is also cheaper to capture tweets, contributions and interviews with English-speaking activists than to conduct an investigative in-depth study into the revolution in reality – a study that would be costly in terms of travel, widescale and in-depth interviews, translation, and research. France 24’s documentary “GiGi’s Revolution”, found it easier to name the revolution after Gigi Ibrahim, an American University in Cairo (AUC) student who spent most of her life in the US, and interview her and her family, to contain its insights into the whole revolution within this cosy family environment. Marketably enough, Gigi stated that she had never thought of becoming an activist until she attended a class in the American University in Cairo that inspired her to make revolution.  

Those who once organized us in the streets and the squares, and who are able to re-organize the power of Egypt’s youth to achieve its revolutionary goals are the ones we need most today. Although they were a threat to the whole gamut of political actors, the counterrevolution has not yet had to confront them directly. For the old regime, this was the traditional enemy that overthrew them. For traditional political powers, Islamist and secular alike, they were the rivals who are replacing them on the political stage. For the state, they were the main threat to its stability. For the international community, some scattered groups that were very hard to comprehend or understand, not to mention negotiate with. And for the elite revolutionaries of Facebook and Twitter, they are “savage” people who threaten their political/media hegemony with their very different perspectives. Real revolutionaries thus faced all kinds of censorship, oppression, and defamation. The state accused them of getting their funds from Israel; political parties supported the states' accusations; twitter activists tweeted the same news, and the international community just copied. Only one political actor was absent at the time, the ordinary citizen. This ordinary citizen is the one who is asking today, “where have they gone?” I hope he or she knows by now. 


This piece has been translated into Italian by Osservatorio Iraq.

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