Playing it forward
It is the energy of youth in Egypt that can cast anew a just, vibrant and open social contract for all citizens, writes Seif Abou Zeid*
"He is wrong that thinks that Egyptians know of their social contract, and he is foolish that believes that a social contract even exists."
My aim is not to claim wisdom by proposing a self-made quote to be the lead of this article. My intent is to show, simply, what Egyptians -- particularly Egyptian youth -- really believe.
A social contract is not merely a bilateral agreement between the government and the people. It is a set of demands that is continuously put forth by the people, forced on a succession of governments to accept, adopt and operate within. But in Egypt, the social contract is a "nonexistent document". For Egypt's youth, it is something at best they do not participate in creating.
Egyptian youth are either scared or indifferent; they are either disempowered and fearful, or privileged and "do not care less". This is the paradox we have amongst the public and private schools of Egypt.
Going through financial problems day in and day out, and suffering from the lack of basic human rights on Egypt's streets (crammed transportation, overpopulated classrooms, excessive presence of needlessly and generically repressive Central Security Forces on their campuses), makes the majority of Egypt's students scared. They are scared to enunciate their opinions. They are afraid to raise their voices. And they feel that what they say or do does not matter.
Even the exceptions that exist in some university faculties (such as political science and economics faculties) and some active student groups make sure to do whatever it takes to "protect" themselves and their activities from being banned or prohibited by avoiding politics. Furthermore, they refrain even from exercising their most basic "political" right, namely asking for their rights as students. "Student leaders" have consistently failed to mobilise other students to advocate any academic or social rights on campus.
Almost all historical accounts recognise the very active nature of student movements during the early 1970s. They also observe a major discrepancy in such activism starting in the 1980s. The reasons for that range from restrictive oversight by university administrations over student activities to direct governmental policy, but the most significant reason for the halt in activism is the "Student Activities Policy", enacted by the Highest Council for Universities in 1979.
The Student Activities Policy represents a major obstacle to any student groups that have a political view that is different from that of the ruling regime. The policy gives the right to university administrations (those appointed by the government) to take away the right of any student to run for election through very "elastic" criteria for nomination (the definition of the nomination criteria is largely left up to the discretion of the administration).
For example, one of the criteria is to have a "significant" record in student activities, with no further explanation of what "significant" means. Another clause states that a student- candidate must possess a "good reputation". These clauses in effect give the right to the administration to approve or de-list any student wishing to run for elections. Therefore, students react in three ways: some work closely with the administration; others direct their energy to charity work, which, though important, does not necessarily qualify them for candidacy; and others choose to remain totally inactive on campus.
Further, it has been communicated by many students in youth conferences I attended that there are what they dubbed as "security students", those students who report any acts of political activism on campus to the Central Security Forces.
This is the case with schools and universities that comprise the majority of Egyptian youth (16 to 23 years old). What about those who are privileged, wealthy, and do not go through the daily sufferings that their counterparts in the public schools go through? The answer is, they "don't care".
Unfortunately, the majority of students from private schools, despite having the awareness and the resources to push for change, deliberately choose not to participate in the formulation of a meaningful Egyptian social contract. It seems that the competitive nature of the private schools -- being corporate entities at the end of the day -- results in detaching their students from their Egyptian societies.
In particular, private (commonly known as "international") schools, including the whole spectrum of British, American, German, Canadian, French and even Dutch schools, tend to enclose their students in a "social bubble". This social bubble allows the students to be physically in Egypt, but to mentally -- and that includes interests, cultural orientations and beliefs, and mindset -- belong somewhere else. If American schools teach US history and British schools educate their students about the geography of the UK, then it makes perfect sense that it is hard to find an Egyptian student from those schools talking about Egyptian society.
I have personally come across a group of wonderful students from a private (ie international) school that when asked to write down a list of issues they are concerned about, chose euthanasia to be one of the issues on the top of that list. Euthanasia, being a widely debated issue in the Western world, must have been brought up to the students in their school, thus redirecting their thoughts towards a topic that is so distant from what most Egyptians are interested in, such as getting a decent loaf of bread for a cheap price or receiving affordable healthcare, that it appears alien.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." That quote of Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, is the solution. It remains the task of a small group of committed citizens to change their "country". This small group must come from the group that historically has always induced change, namely the middle class.
Middle class citizens are -- by nature -- the most sensitive to social and political changes, because they have "something to lose". They risk being demoted to a lower socioeconomic status, or losing the chance of rising up the economic and social ladder. The poorest, on the other hand, do not have enough resources to organise and participate politically. Those in the middle are those responsible for effecting positive change through more participation.
A group of middle class youth has to lead by example and should participate politically. More importantly, those youth have to influence the people around them in a "play it forward" manner to create a critical mass of active Egyptian youth who are committed to effecting change in Egypt, to deal with the challenges facing Egyptians on daily basis.
The writer is Co-Founder of the Agency for Development And Advancement (ADAA'), and a Project Manager for the Junior Incubator for Social Enterprises at Nahdet El Mahrousa NGO; a project aiming at empowering youth to initiate social enterprises
* The writer is Co-founder Agency for Development and Advancement and Project Manager, Nahdet El Mahrousa NGO.