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Rights + Justice

Egypt's Youth-Led Revolt: Two Who Yearned for Change

Karim and Dina are very different, but share a firm belief that Mubarak's regime blocked their future. First of two parts.

Linda Herrera 15 Feb

Linda Herrera is associate professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is co-editor with Asef Bayat of Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global North and South, published by Oxford University Press (2010). Among Herrera's writings in the book of essays is the chapter "Young Egyptians' Quest for Jobs and Justice," from which this article was adapted. Herrera has also recently written about "Egyptian Revolution 2.0: The Facebook Factor" here.)

The Egyptian revolution, which succeeded on Feb. 11, 2011 in bringing down a 30 year regime in 18 momentous days, began as a youth movement. Though all segments of the population flooded the streets in a remarkable display of unity and people-power, the youth remained at the forefront of the protests. They arguably have the most to gain from overturning an order that has left them politically excluded and economically disenfranchised.

As an anthropologist of education, I have been conducting life stories of Egyptian youth for the past five years to understand how they have been dealing with the difficulties of coming of age in a period of deepening economic inequities and suffocating political repression. I'll be profiling two lives in this two-part series: Karim, an unemployed young man from Alexandria who began life with supposedly good prospects, and Dina, a university student who is trying to find ways to claim justice and pave a better path for herself and her generation. These interviews, conducted in 2006, can help explain how a generation was pushed to the breaking point and why it rose, in a non-violent movement, to demand revolutionary change.

Karim, a Muslim male of 22 years, like growing ranks of young men in the country, spends his time in a combination of hanging out, worrying, sometimes working, indulging in drugs and hoping. He is both living his life in the present, taking pleasure when and where he can, and at the same time hoping for a better future, but worried that he is embarking on a transition not to adulthood, but a transition to oblivion.

Following a long spate of unemployment and a recent breakup by his girlfriend, he sees his chances at a "normal" life of love, marriage and a family moving further out of reach. He spends much of his time in a coffee shop waiting to get picked up for a short-term construction job. Wavering between desperation and hope, he says, "They are saying there are opportunities. Where are these opportunities? Where is the starting point, the beginning? If only I could start, I could continue my life. But where is the starting point? Tell me: where can I begin?"

Rising toward middle class

As a young boy, Karim never imagined he would be in such a rut. He is still trying to understand his family's fall from relative prosperity to poverty in the space of just a decade. He remembers as a child when his family was enjoying mobility from the ranks of the urban poor to the middle classes. His father worked as a low-paid but resourceful construction worker in the 1970s. During the mid-1980s, when Karim was a small child, his father seized the opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia to work in the country's booming construction sector. He made a good sum of money, much of which he duly invested in property and the education of his children, although he himself had no formal schooling. He built two houses, one for his mother, the other for his nuclear family, and enrolled his four sons and one daughter in private schools in Alexandria. He believed in the promise of the education system to raise the social status of the family and to prepare his children for middle-class professions. But at the same time, as the family patriarch, he did not want his children to "flaunt" their education in the home where he, the father, was unschooled.

Karim's mother, who completed her education through the preparatory stage (Grade 8), possessed knowledge of the school system and enjoyed a decent standard of literacy. Karim's father, jealous of his wife's schooling and fearful she would use it to try to exert superiority over him, put a moratorium on the mother's involvement in their sons' studies. She was only at liberty to assist their daughter with schoolwork, because the girl was not perceived as posing a threat to the father's standing and authority. When the mother so much as asked her sons about school, he would shout and berate her. As Karim recalls, "In our home the father was everything and everyone was expected to obey him."

The brothers all attended an all-boys private school that, before the July 23 revolution of 1952, was the bastion of the elite. It now caters to a social mix of students belonging to the financially strapped middle classes and upwardly mobile working or laboring classes; the latter category is often chided by teachers and students alike as being "uncultured" and the cause of the school's declining standards. So ingrained is class discrimination that Karim himself -- a victim of it -- complains that the school's environment has deteriorated because it has become too "lower class" (bi'a).

'Teachers beat students badly'

Karim displays a keen intelligence and interest in ideas and social issues, yet he deeply dislikes school. His memories of school, and especially his teachers, are bitterly painful. "Teachers used to beat students badly and I got a good share of the beatings." He recalls the first day of class in Grade 9 when his teacher began the lesson by warning him, "I've heard about you so you better beware." This was "a really black day," he sighs. His school career was spotted with failures and bare passes until finally, sometime during a repeat year in secondary school, he left school. Despite his own contentious relationship with schooling, his greatest regret is not having made it to the university and having to go through life as an "uncultured" and "unschooled" man.

All three of Karim's brothers also dropped out of school before completing high school. Their low performance at school could be attributed in part to the lack of parental support and their father's policy not to hire private tutors. The vast majority of secondary school students rely on the support of parents -- especially mothers -- and private tutors to prepare them for their examinations. Private tutoring in Egypt is so widespread that it makes up a shadow education system; the quality and repute of one's tutor is often considered more important than the quality of the school in ensuring success through the system.

As it turns out, Karim's sister was the only one of the five siblings who successfully completed her studies and went on to work in what the family considers a high-status job in a five star hotel in Alexandria. The fact that the patriarchal family structure served ultimately to disadvantage the male members of the family but not the female member is a fact that needs pause and rethinking about possible shifting gender relations in the "traditional" family.

Plunged into poverty

By the end of the 1990s, the family's savings were gone, drained from the rising costs of school tuition and health care, raising five children, and some degree of free spending. Karim's family swiftly fell into extreme poverty, making it imperative for the children to seek employment to support their basic needs. Without so much as a high school degree and no work experience, Karim initially relied on his father to help him find work in construction, in the sub-specializations of tiling and painting. But he has not been offered what he considers any "good jobs," because of what he believes to be age discrimination.

"Society doesn't give any chances to young people to prove themselves," he bemoans. "Young people can do some things adults can't do, but no one gives us responsibility. Even my parents still deal with me as a kid. They say youth is not the age of responsibility, but then what is?"

Even though Karim still lives at home, his family can no longer provide him with financial or even moral support, so absorbed are they in their own problems and struggles for survival. Karim measures his life as a series of failures, some of which he recognizes as his own fault, but others he considers are the result of barriers and setbacks out of his control. He explains, "I'm not satisfied with myself at all. How can I be? I failed in everything -- in education, in work, in building a family. I don't find my future in anything. I want to have a home and family, succeed in my work, but what will happen only God can decide." He finds some solace in God, and when he is in the right frame of mind he prays, but not on a regular basis.

He is drifting away from his family and is dissatisfied with what he describes as the indifference he encounters from his family, his government and his society. His friends offer some solidarity, but no real help about how to move forward. His peer group these days is made up of other young unemployed men who, like him, are waiting for an opportunity, a change of fortune, a girl who will love him regardless of his financial situation. Even though some of his old school friends and neighbours call in on him, he avoids the ones who are faring better in the world, the ones with jobs, family support and girlfriends.

Drugs, prayer, surfing the web

Among Karim's current circle of friends are those who fill their time with a combination of drugs, prayer and surfing the Internet for hours upon end. Many of his new friends are those young men who sit with him in the coffee shop for long hours waiting for a truck that might pick them up for a short-term construction job.

Feelings of despair mixed with boredom have led him in two directions. Sometimes he turns to the Qur'an and prays for solace, but more recently his preferred activity is to escape his woes through hashish. He justifies his hashish smoking by explaining that it provides him with some moments of gratification and peace, and, however fleeting, some moments are better than none at all.

"I haven't managed to do one thing in my life. I haven't achieved any of my goals, so I got into hashish. The best thing about it is that it kills free time (al-faragh al-taam). I burn away six to seven hours in a state of happiness. It takes you away (biya'azzil) and I can find myself, achieve everything I ever wanted without moving from my place. Do you understand what I'm saying? You find yourself having done so much when you haven't done anything. It's a way to escape from reality."

When trying to understand and rationalize his situation, Karim returns repeatedly to the question of rights (haq or huquq) -- the denial of rights, the importance of rights, and the devastating effect the lack of rights and political corruption has on the morale of youth and their ability to earn a livelihood and enjoy a decent lifestyle. He views the twin elements of justice and jobs -- or injustice and unemployment -- as intricately interwoven. He stresses that opportunity and advancement come primarily through connections, bribes and dishonesty, not through merit or hard work.

Because Karim does not have the family connections to boost him up, he thinks his best option is to build a future abroad in the West, because, as he understands it, "abroad you can take your rights; here you cannot." But the path of legal emigration is closed to him because he cannot so much as obtain a passport until he completes his military service, something he is categorically opposed to doing as a result of his distrust and abhorrence of the regime. He explains, "I can't serve in the military forces of this country. Why? Because it's just like Adel Iman says in the movie Terrorism and Kebab (al-Irhab wa al-Kabab), 'I do not serve the country; I serve the respectable Pasha,' and this is very bad. I cannot do this."

'Where is this US aid?'

He describes the Mubarak regime as fundamentally corrupt, squandering the country's human and natural resources and serving the interests of a small inner circle of cronies. He also takes issue with Egypt's most important ally -- the United States -- and regards its military presence and development aid as highly dubious, divisive and self-serving. He asks, "Where is this U.S. aid? No one sees or benefits from the aid and it divides us. Why can't Egypt undergo any real development without foreign aid? The U.S. took its opportunities. It had its dreams. But now she's going around starting wars and is driven more and more by [greed] and evil. I can't accept this way of doing things."

Were Egypt to have a regime that operated on some basic principles of fairness, the country could, he believes, enjoy prosperity and pursue a very different course. He explains:

"Imagine Egypt's potential if the ruling elite had a consciousness. We would see that in Egypt we have the Suez Canal. This is a great resource! This alone can let people live like Pashas. We have power through our workforce. We have agricultural land and we have a massive desert. We have good things, very good things, but there is no mind!"

Despite his strong opposition to the Mubarak regime, Karim is skeptical about formal politics and has no interest in taking part in oppositional political activities. He especially does not want to support Islamist political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which he thinks share the same tendencies toward authoritarianism and corruption as the current government. He disapproves of terrorism and views 9-11 as a reprehensible criminal act. But he explains that terrorism is the offspring of oppression, and although he personally is not pulled toward this path, he understands how others like him could be drawn to it.

How terrorists are made

He cautions that when young people do not have rights, when they lack outlets to express their discontent, when their paths to gainful employment and the pathways to autonomous adult life are closed, when they face discrimination and observe injustices around them, they could resort to violence or terrorism. He says:

"I want to emphasize that the young person who becomes a terrorist sees his life as a closed path. It is closed in its past, its future, its material and moral aspects. This person needs someone to help him, but doesn't find anyone. He doesn't belong to a powerful family that can protect him from failed laws. The social and economic conditions don't provide him with any opportunities."

The youth drawn to terrorism, Karim says, "is angry that all the important things in his life -- work and love -- have failed. He doesn't believe in the social structure since it's neither just nor legitimate. He considers this system responsible for his own failures and problems of his society. He expresses his anger by attacking Israel and the United States because no act, no matter how enormous, will have an impact on his own life or change the course of his society. This person has nothing to do but to escape."

When young people are unable to secure a livelihood and live a life of dignity, it is often thought they are more susceptible to populist politics or fringe movements that promise them a sense of power and belonging. Although this is the case for some, Karim is categorical that he would not get involved in Islamist or other political movements because he views them as opportunistic and fundamentally corrupt. He is distrustful of Islamist political movements, whether those of the illegal al-Qaeda variety or the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, because their leaders tend to misuse the teachings of the Holy Qu'ran for their own political gains. And, more important for him, such groups and parties fail to provide a viable solution or approach to the problems of youth.

'Life can turn upside down'

Despite the barriers, Karim lives with a hope that a big change can transpire and his life can take a turn for the better, but he needs to find a way out of his current condition of being stuck and is not sure how to proceed. He says:

"I see constraints everywhere: constraints from the ID card, the army, education, many things. I feel if I do something I will do it in a right way. If I get interested in something, I will do it 100 per cent. I need to succeed in something but I can't find my way. I feel that something big will happen. What is it? When?

"Sometimes you find your heart secure. You think something will happen, but you don't know what it is. No one can say what will happen tomorrow. Life can turn upside down. I will wait."

Tomorrow: Dina, a pious college student, and the power of social networking among Egypt's young people.  [Tyee]

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