Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1132, 24 - 30 January 2013
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1132, 24 - 30 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

The youth must rise again

The need to turn attention to society at large in the interest of revolutionising its cultural structure is more urgent than ever, for which the youth is key, writes Muhammed Al-Araby

Al-Ahram Weekly

The year 2005 was a landmark in the struggle for change in Egypt under Mubarak. A movement of unprecedented scope gained impetus in its campaign to press for political reforms and to forestall the hereditary succession scenario. The regime was suddenly confronted by an opposition that had been stirred from its stagnation by new and dynamic movements such as Kifaya (Enough). The foci of this confrontation were the demand to amend constitutional Article 76, laws affecting presidential and parliamentary elections that year, and the cause of judicial autonomy.
I was in my first year in the Faculty of Political Science at Cairo University that year. I was strongly affected by the events that eventually demonstrated the superb deftness with which the regime could contain and outmanoeuvre demands for change and even emerge more capable of repression. It was an object lesson in some of the intrinsic traits of paper democracies. By 2007, the regime had skillfully pushed through constitutional amendments that were meant to pave the way to the end of the republic. Not only had this proven that the horizons for change were closed, but also that broad sectors of society were resistant to any type of change the effects of which they could not control. Society was to blame, I thought. It had to be reformed first. Political reform needed to be preceded by social reform in order to sustain and deepen the former. It was my premise and conviction that the regime was not only corrupt; it was corruptive. Over the years it had succeeded in assimilating broad swathes of society into its system and these people had come to fear changes that might jeopardise what I called their petty interests.
After the Tunisian revolution succeeded in ousting Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali and the hopes of a similar prospect reached Egypt, I felt that these petty interests would stand in the way of a revolution here. This belief was not without some basis. After the political setback of 2007, there followed some major protest movements and continual labour strikes, the largest and most famous of which were the strikes that took place in Mahalla Al-Kobra in April 2008. However, it was as though these actions took place on remote islands. They did nothing to sap the strength of the regime, which pitted its combined economic and security weight against the movements and emerged more tyrannical yet. Nor could the official opposition support them politically or take this as a kernel around which to build a broader social movement capable of forcing the regime to either reform or fall. Effectively, that revived labour movement had been socially and politically abandoned.
In fact, however, society was not as moribund as I had imagined. A new culture was coalescing beneath the heavy cover of stability. It was being forged by the generation to which I belong, although I had not initially sensed its potential and its ability to escalate the confrontation with the regime from the battle for limited reform to the battle for comprehensive change. Once blood was shed and martyrs began to fall it became a moral duty to weld my person to the body of the revolution. By the 18th day I had abandoned all my old perceptions and rigid theories.
I had hoped that what I saw unfolding in Tahrir Square would be the start of a real social revolution. I came to realise that that road was very long, and so it remains.
Revolution is a text that lends itself to many readings, each of which yields different meanings. One reading of the Egyptian revolution is that it was a generational one, because it was initiated and fuelled by the youth generation against older generations that refused to relax their grip on the capacities of the country. The youthful attribute was closely associated with the revolution from the outset. The “youth of January” and similar expressions that abounded in the press and politics acknowledged the youthful vibrancy of the revolution. Yet, surely this attribute applies to virtually any comprehensive revolutions in history. After all, new generations with fresh visions and accumulating demands are generally the forces that propel “radical change”, call for the rejuvenation of society, and for a definitive break with the attitudes and opinions of previous generations regarding their relations with power, the state and building society.
The political setback that I referred to above was a manifestation of the failure of successive generations that controlled political life, whether within the regime or in the impotent official opposition, to develop a strategy for dealing with a changing society, a strategy that would allow for even the tiniest amount of room for independent maneuvrability and action. The only way out of that captivity was to wrest the reins of initiative from the regime and then to topple it. But this required a new and revolutionary idea. The youth movements embodied this idea, and with it they lit the fuse of the revolution.
The youth movements that touched off revolution have been classified as social movements. Their fluidity and extreme decentralisation are their chief traits and the logic that governs their dynamics. We find coalitions, initiatives and parties with predominantly youthful memberships that transcend customary ideological divides and defy political categorisation. They are globalised in their culture and means of operation, and they breathe the principles of democracy and social justice. They are movements for radical change and two years ago they embodied their demands in a revolution that aspired to overhaul the structure of the state and its security, economic and socio-political policies. They encapsulated their aspirations in the revolution’s cries for “Bread, freedom and human dignity”.
The youth movements spearheaded the 18-day long sit-in at Tahrir Square and the accompanying demonstrations that took place in the streets and squares of Egypt’s cities. They created a Revolution Youth Coalition with a press office that voiced the non-negotiable demands of “the square”. This phase culminated in the fall of Mubarak, the liberation of the public sphere from the grip of state security, and the creation of a nucleus for a new regime. The period that followed this victory was the ideal moment for these coalitions that emerged from the womb of the revolution to reorganise themselves in order to move into the domain of public politics. But this did not occur.
The revolution had united the youth movements, which saw themselves as its sole legitimate voice. But soon the media machine began to work its insidious magic. It iconised the phenomenon of the revolutionary youth to the degree of commercialising and even trivialising it. Before long, faces that had been familiar in the streets and liberated social spaces had been lured into the captivity of satellite television studios and talk shows. Some were made into celebrities who now cared more about their image than about their chief and most formidable task of “revolutionising” society.
The revolution cannot be said to have been a popular revolution in the literal sense of the term. There are broad segments of society that as disgruntled as they may have been under the former regime did not take part in the revolution, and perhaps were even opposed to it. These segments of society should have been the first to receive the attention of the youth movements, which should have tried to make the revolution into a truely grassroots movement with substance that went beyond the demand to topple the regime. They should have worked to change society’s culture and the way it understands the nature and boundaries of its interests. They should have striven to revolutionise society’s values and transform it into a living engine driving to fulfil the goals and aspirations of the revolution.
Unfortunately, the youth movements fell prey to the euphoria of their first victory and were subsequently overtaken by an eruption of strikes and sit-ins throughout the country on the part of workers and other segments of society that now had the freedom of the new political openness to press for the improvement of their work and standards of living conditions. These actions were quickly dismissed as “sectorial demands”. Yet, as far removed as they may have appeared from the iconic Tahrir Square, in fact these demands were very much a part of the aims of the revolution with regards to social justice. Moreover, these labour movements had been the chief leverage for the campaigns for change that had arisen following the failure of the campaign for political reform (2005-2007). The events in Mahalla Al-Kobra in the spring of 2008 were nothing less than a social revolution in miniature, which inspired the creation of such new youth movements as the 6 April Movement.
The youth movements and coalitions that emerged from the 25 January Revolution should have picked up the thread of these labour movements and “sectorial demands” again and woven them into the revolutionary scene. Their failure to do so was a critical mistake. It was an indication that they had lost their political compass, a sign that they had believed, if only briefly, that the revolution had succeeded with the fall of Mubarak and his cronies. But the revolution had only achieved a partial success. It needed to continue in order to realise its aims and, as the literature on such radical social movements informs us, to do so it had to generate a state of revolution and revolutionary conditions.
What happened instead is that the youth of the revolution became a phenomenon that the old political elites exploited not to revolutionise their bases but to contain the revolutionary drive and its demands. The fluidity of the youth movements helped. Most could be easily absorbed and diluted in conventional political entities. Others split as political parties fought over them. The 6 April Movement was cleaved into two and the Justice Party dissolved into other emergent parties. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ironclad organisation and sectarian structure helped prevent a similar fissure among the Muslim Brotherhood youth, many of whom had formed a part of the revolution, so schisms within their ranks were minor. The process of fragmentation was so rapid that within months there were more than 120 coalitions, some with only a handful of members.
Moreover, by this time the political forces that had been taken by surprise and thrown into disarray by the revolution had begun to rally and reorganise their ranks. The coalitions appeared unaware of or unprepared for this. If the decentralisation of revolutionary ranks had been advantageous in that it helped them take the regime off guard, now more than ever they needed to unify against the counterrevolution, its bids to recuperate liberated spaces and its determination to rebuild its institutions and machinery of repression.
Revolution operates in accordance with calculations that are inherently different from those of pragmatic politics. In the two years since the revolution, the most organised fronts were those that were best able to score points and win goals. It is little wonder, therefore, that political Islam succeeded in gaining enormous inroads at the expense of the sacrifices of the revolutionary youth. To a large extent, the 2012 parliament was the fruit of the wave of protests that take their name after Mohamed Mahmoud Street. These events led (SCAF) the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to hasten legislative elections, which gave rise to a People’s Assembly and Shura Council that were heavily dominated by Islamists and in which there was only a paltry representation of youth. The revolutionary movements that led the confrontations against the armed forces and police in the streets had no political framework to back them and unify their voice, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by other political forces in their separate contests with SCAF. The result was more squandered bloodshed of revolutionary martyrs who fell — and continue to fall — in every confrontation against the counterrevolution that has effectively seized full control of the state again.
The presidential elections were another indicator of a stalled revolution and the routing of its youthful energies. The revolutionary camp was divided in its support for presidential candidates. Khaled Ali, the youngest candidate, a leftist and a rights activist, seemed the closest to this camp and its most logical choice. Yet, he received relatively few votes while the rest of the votes of the revolutionary bloc were split between the Islamist candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh and Hamdeen Sabahi. It was a telling sign that narrow interests had come to prevail over the realisation of the aims of the revolution the slogans of which the candidates of the old guard had now co-opted.
Clearly we need to examine the roots of the dilemma of the youth movement in order to reorganise and revitalise it. The demands of the revolution are a long way from being realised and it is unlikely that the ruling Islamists are interested in achieving them because this would entail a radical restructuring of the state and society that they had been working for 80 years to inherit.
As mentioned above, while the youth movements remain fluid, their main body has been absorbed into other political parties and movements. To insist at this point that they reunite as a revolutionary front is neither realistic nor desirable. Nevertheless, the need to turn attention to society at large in the interest of changing and revolutionising its cultural structure is more urgent than ever, especially given that the defeats of the revolution were the product of the exercise of popular will that was shaped by a prevalent culture characterised by dependency on the state, the desire for stability and narrow attitudes with respect to political interests.
There is hope. The youth have proven through their confrontations against the ruling regime before and after 25 January that the revolutionary flame has not been extinguished. Certainly, the original causes of the revolution have not been remedied, for which reason the phoenix of the revolution will rise again.

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