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The Primary Force of Egyptian Uprising: Revolt of the Young
Egypt's population has exploded over the past decades, average age is now 24 years old, and unemployed youth have had enough of an oppressive regime.
By Azza Karam
“Al-Sha`b, yuried, isqat al-nitham”
[The people / want / the downfall of the regime]
—Motto of the Egyptian protesters
I have just listened to President Mubarak’s second speech since the events that rocked us on January 25th, delivered on the chilly Egyptian evening of Tuesday, the 1st of February. I watch al-Jazeera Arabic as it shows endless scenes of the crowd’s reactions on the streets of Cairo—specifically, at Tahrir (Liberation) Square, where they report that a million or more Egyptians were camped on this day, which has been declared the Day of a Million Protestors. Interestingly, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya are just showing the scenes; as I write this, no commentary has been provided as yet, as if both (proudly) Arab-owned, quality networks are letting the voices of the people, all resonating in a jumbled cacophony of deep anger, speak for themselves.
As I listened, and watched the crowds listening, there were several moments in which a sense of disbelief was discernible amid the seething, boiling anger. Midway through the speech, I think that all Egyptians were asking themselves whether it was possible that their leader of thirty years did not hear his people’s demands. Is it conceivable that, despite the whole world having heard the demand for him to go, he would assert that he will remain in his position until his present term is over (in September 2011)? In other words, is it at all comprehensible that the message he is giving to his people is: “I do not care what you want . . . you do not know what is good for you . . . you have been manipulated . . . I will do as I see fit”? Does this Egyptian Nero not realize that he is burning his people?
The images being shown on the screen include people taking off their shoes and shaking them at his figure on the screens around them—the ultimate symbol of disdain in Arab cultures.
Now the commentators have begun to try to marshal their thoughts and feelings into something sensible and to articulate it into the microphones of the media. Their voices are rough, hoarse from the collective screaming—the “hysteria of anger,” as one commentator put it—that erupted after Mubarak had finished. The same commentator continued: “We cannot believe this. We were expecting him to announce his stepping down. . . . As soon as we heard him say . . . ‘I will stay for the remainder of my months in office,’ you could feel the waves of anger rising among us. . . . We all started shouting: ‘Leave, leave, Mubarak, leave! We will not leave [Tahrir square]—you leave. . . . Our people are burning [with resentment]!’”
Another woman commentator, in a voice shaking with emotion but eloquent nonetheless, said:
This is a trap. This man [President Mubarak] is setting us a trap. He wants time to take his revenge on us. This speech humiliates us, belittles us, is full of nasty allegations. . . . He is trying to steal our revolution. This speech is a point of transformation in our revolution. He has now solicited our wrath. My grandmother used to say: when God wants to punish a man, He turns his mind against him [makes him lose his sanity]. This is what he has done [acted stupidly]. We will prosecute him. He will be judged; he will be prosecuted for all the countless crimes he committed against us. We will prosecute him. We were being very generous and kind to ask him to go decently. But now we will take to the streets even more, we will prosecute him.
A third commentator, reflecting on the unpleasant surprise of Mubarak’s speech, said: “We learn from the Bible that God created the world in six days, and on the seventh he rested. In this case, this particular pharaoh, on the seventh day, seems to have taken leave of his senses.”
No one expected this unfolding series of events—certainly, no one of my generation (those of us in our mid-forties), nor of my parents’ generation, and the generation in between. But the death, in December 2010, of twenty-six-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, who doused himself in petrol and set himself alight, which was soon followed by that of Sidi Bouzid, who electrocuted himself, sparked Egyptian youth into an unprecedented mobilization for radical change—not just political, not just economic, and not only social, but a comprehensive call for the overthrow of a regime that is seen as embodying all that is socially unjust, politically illegitimate, economically corrupt, and legally impaired in Arab societies.
The fact that it took all of us by surprise—and this we must acknowledge to honor those who have paid with their lives—speaks to the blanket of despair and humiliation many of us were dangerously comfortable living under. We had become frighteningly accustomed to asking ourselves “What is wrong with us? Why are we accepting this?” It took a generation that has known nothing but the one face of a government that offered them nothing but fear, intimidation, inefficiency, corruption, and injustice. It took this generation’s uprising, which did not make use of any of the generally suppressed traditional venues (political parties, NGOs, even mosques, cafes, and cultural salons) to restore a sense of pride in nations that emerged out of the world’s oldest civilizations.
The youth bulge in the Arab world (where nearly 60 percent of the population is under thirty years of age) has produced a dividend of human dignity across the region and way beyond. Regardless of what actually transpires, priceless milestones of social awareness, political savvy, cultural pride, and creativity have arisen. A deep yoke of humiliation—from a fear born of oppression and injustice, from a silence created by decades of clinking chains and printed lies, and from the combined pains of hunger, sexual frustration, and the stigma of poverty—has been thrown off. The process that the youth have engineered and chartered has unfolded with an integrity, dignity, and efficiency that impressed even the country’s toughest institution—the army. From the army emerged the Free Officers movement, which led Egypt’s first revolution against British colonialism in the middle of the twentieth century. Then, as now, the Free Officers stood shoulder to shoulder with the nation’s youth and civic activists. Then, it was an army-led revolution. Today, the army is—ostensibly—protecting the youth of the nation who are leading its people in revolution.
Egyptian youth have organized, deliberated, coordinated, and effectively built—almost overnight—a movement for change. What are the specific demands of the youth? Not only the President, but the entire regime “has to go.” As the motto above makes clear, radical change is required. But the commas, or pauses, separating the various segments of this short motto are not coincidental. In fact, the way the motto is being articulated is itself a declaration of change in action. The people have found their voice, and they announce themselves. Their want, their demand, is not just a matter of a verb or a matter of course; it is the act of making this demand in and of itself that is critical. Finding and speaking their voice and making their demand are part of a revolution that is reversing a long silence and humiliation. And what are they asking for? The downfall of the regime. Not a change of head, not even a transfer of power, but rather nothing less than a radical, comprehensive, and speedy change—the downfall of a way of being.
Various opposition voices are elaborating aspects of this call into concrete stipulations, including the provision of a transitional governance structure devoid of Mubarak, constitutional reform, the dissolution of illegitimate legislative councils and the national assemblies, proceedings towards genuinely free and fair elections, and so on. But, in my estimation, the subtext of the demands of the youth is: “Listen to us and respect what we have to say.” However, an ongoing challenge—perhaps one more endemic than chaos, lawlessness, and insecurity—is a continuing attitude of condescension on the part of those representing the regime—the attitude that “offers to dialogue” while keeping the entire regime in place, and with the implication that this is a huge concession on the part of a ruling elite, and that it matters not that the offer to dialogue comes so late in the day. This is precisely the attitude that the youth—and the majority of the people—are decrying. This is the attitude that, if not radically changed to one of humility and some form of contrition, will spell unrest for a long time to come.
One of the many aspects of Arab political culture that has been demonstrated in the unfolding events is a remarkable capacity for tolerance, or patience, though some may refer to it almost as obstinacy. But this patience is finite, and people, when pushed, implode and explode simultaneously. Constructive marshaling of these energies has to be systematic, deliberate, and organized, but also humble, because decades of oppression produce social trauma. And, as with any social trauma, its overcoming requires the deliberate devotion of time, active and respectful listening, consideration, and constructive marshaling and deploying of energies into productive channels. The least productive course to follow would be to create more of the same circumstances that induced the symptoms in the first place. And it is even more politically inept to appear not to heed the anger of those who are known to be obstinate.
Among the many immediate and long term challenges that will shape the framework of social and political realities in the time to come is the generational gap currently manifesting itself. Perhaps one of the most evident signs of it is the great difference in the reactions to Mubarak’s February 1 speech. The older generation of Egypt’s politicians is reacting in the old manner of being almost grateful that the President even mentioned, or reiterated, some of the demands made by protesters over the last seven days (e.g., to review Constitutional Articles 76 and 77 relating to nominations for presidency and the duration thereof, etc.). Whereas the Egyptian youth (and much of the rest of the population) are livid, the older generation of opposition party leaders is trying to see how they can coexist and make the best out of what the President has offered. The younger generation is refusing to hear or speak of anything short of Mubarak’s resignation, and that is where their energy will be directed in the days to come.
As the country becomes increasingly administratively handicapped, only those with the knowledge required to keep social services in operation can attend to the peoples’ needs. Whether we like it or not, the track record in this domain points to the Muslim Brotherhood’s civic and social networks. Given that the older generation of Egyptian politicians is affirming its redundancy, and given the utter lack of contriteness in Mubarak’s speech, there is a very real political vacuum developing, which, in combination with the anger and frustration on display in the streets today, may prove dangerous. “We’ll see who is more obstinate,” as some are frothing, is hardly a constructive plan. And young people who were overjoyed with their coming together are now feeling robbed by their own leaders of their nascent sense of pride and dignity. Unless and until Mubarak steps down—thereby responding to the very basic demand of his people—the cauldron will continue to simmer and may soon spill out into real chaos.
Moving forward—Development as freedom
Economics Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen’s articulation of “development as freedom” is being called for here and now. Sen saw human development not as a model of economic reductionism—as some pro-government ”economic experts” on official Egyptian TV have been doing over the last few days (”We were doing so well before this havoc,” they imply)—but as a matter of ethics. Sen saw development as freedom because it concerns the expansion of capabilities, including the capacity to choose between different ways of thinking and living. This is precisely what Tunisian, Egyptian, Algerian, Yemeni, Jordanian, and Sudanese youth are demanding and enacting through their protests. This is now the message coming to be articulated—belatedly—by the (relatively) older leaders of the (relatively) more structured ”political opposition.” Development as freedom is what Arab youth are claiming, and what has to be the roadmap for all policy makers.
The concrete policy implications of this roadmap are as follows:
If the United States wishes to maintain its credibility among the next generation of Egyptian—and Arab—people, then now is not a time to sit on the fence and appear diffident. Sustained pressure from the Obama administration has to be exerted to ”convince” Mubarak to step down—and to do so now. Every moment lost in removing the strongest symbol of oppression is causing not only loss of life, not only mounting internal dissent, confusion, and violence, but, critically, every moment Mubarak remains in power is an opportunity for those calling on God to dominate the emerging scene. There is already a culture of appealing to God (and those who speak in his name) when there is a sense of helplessness. The Egyptian youth who have been fashioning—with their lives—a new discourse of change over the last eight days, without resorting to Islamist discourse of any kind, but with dignity, with passion, with love for their country and their heritage, must not be let down now. If they are, we will have to accept responsibility for allowing the forces of Islamism to step in as the people’s liberator.
Meanwhile, a national dialogue, along the lines charted by several opposition representatives (with the military keeping peace and maintaining order), needs to take place. This national dialogue has to include the guidance, participation, and direction of youth leaders across the country. They have already demonstrated their legitimacy on all fronts. They have already started to carve out and lead their people to freedom, and they have earned their right to lead Arab human development.
Azza Karam, Ph.D. is an Egyptian political scientist. She serves as a Senior Technical Advisor at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in New York, and is the author of numerous articles and books on religion, politics, and international development. This article expresses her own views, not the U.N. and appeared at the Immanent Frame.
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