Eddie Saade

Where have youths of Arab Spring gone?

Published: Sunday, Sep. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E

CAIRO, Egypt – His Twitter profile simply reads: "I revolted and overthrew a dictator." In person Mosa'ab Elshamy, now 21, is soft-spoken, thoughtful, articulate. And an Egyptian revolutionary.

He reminisces about the first day of the revolution:

"I remember there being just 50 or 100 people hanging around with police presence all over, closing off roads. Some people holding flags, me and my brother, people just standing around staying away from the police. I remember wondering, is this it?

"I checked Twitter and there was supposed to be a march coming from somewhere nearby. Then, you could see from so far away, thousands and thousands of people with flags. And it was kind of a foggy day; it was just a bit dramatic to find all these people coming out of the fog. And the rest was history."

The "Arab Spring" was coined in the early months of 2011, when youthful revolutionaries won over Western hearts and minds by using social media, courage and popular anger to break the edifices of fear that kept their respective autocratic rulers in power. The youthful revolutionaries who initiated the protests, like Elshamy, argued for the universal values of freedom, tolerance and transparent governance. They demanded change and looked like underdogs in the process of achieving the unthinkable.

Now, nearly two years later, the same countries that inspired so much hope in the human spirit are again in the news, but as theaters of violent protests overwhelming vulnerable state institutions.

An Internet video, designed to incite hatred and malice, succeeded in highlighting the political weaknesses and excruciatingly slow pace of reform that are the responsibility of the elected caretakers of Egypt's revolution. The protests and storming of the American embassy took place amid raging street battles with security forces that drew a stark contrast to the 18 days of early 2011.

The context is completely different. There is an elected president in power and the people are no longer raging against an unjust ruler. The crowds this month are smaller, rowdier and not representative of the greater Egyptian populace. Overall, the message is no longer one of optimism and positive change, rather a reactionary and vengeful denunciation of outside powers. Throughout all this, young people seem silent.

The questions that many are wondering: Where have the youths of the revolution gone and where is their message of optimism and the indomitability of the human spirit? Are they satisfied with the results of their revolution?

The attempt to answer those questions begins with a quote by Wael Ghonim. Ghonim, now 31, rose to prominence for his role in organizing the "We are all Khaled Said" Facebook group that inspired Elshamy and others to become more civically active in Egypt.

In an interview with Harry Smith on "60 Minutes," Ghonim compared the Egyptian revolution to Wikipedia, saying: "Everyone is contributing content, (but) you don't know the names of the people contributing the content."

Islam Lotfy, now 34, was one of those content providers. He jokes that he was one of the old men among revolutionaries, having had a history in civic engagement. He was also formerly in charge of the Muslim Brotherhood's student movement. At the beginning of the revolution, he was among a cadre of younger members of the Brotherhood who did not heed the calls of their elders. He took to the street as an individual, but wearing his affiliation on his sleeve.

"Our organizing before Jan. 25 (the first day of protests) was beyond ideology," he told me as we sipped tea recently in a café in downtown Cairo. "(Even after it had begun), there were representatives from the Brotherhood, the April 6 movement, El Baradei's people, liberals and leftists, all together."

But he also hastened to point out that it was not just the youths who made this revolution happen. Every portion of the Egyptian population played a role, most significantly the poor.

"We started our demonstration in a very poor area and started walking, and we saw thousands join us. They did not ask where we were going, but they were calling for social justice and against the emergency law and the downfall of (Interior Minister) Habib el Adly. We did not coordinate with these people, but they shared our cause. Once we moved from this area (toward Tahrir Square) I believed that something different was in the air and the snowball had started."

Lotfy, like many others, is frustrated in the aftermath of the revolution with what he sees as political factions jockeying for power. To him, one of the major commonalities that brought together just about everyone who participated in the revolution was the common goal of overthrowing President Hosni Mubarak.

This was not like other revolutions, led by political parties and charismatic leaders with desires for political power, this was a people shrugging off an illegitimate leader, and winning the ability to have a say in their future. Whatever consensus existed faded after Mubarak was removed.

Lotfy eventually quit the Muslim Brotherhood and along with others, formed his own political party, the Egyptian Tayyar, focusing on what he saw as the true, post-ideological demands of the revolution. The party's platform emphasizes social justice, institutional reform, space for a robust civil society and infrastructure development to keep the country competitive internationally.

Has the revolution failed?

Elshamy is more mature than most 21-year-olds. He has become a respected photojournalist and is getting married. He wants to focus on his career and his future. To him the revolution has succeeded in pushing the country down a path of social evolution and change that will not be easily undone. There is a long game to play.

Many of the hardened young activists whom I contacted insisted that the revolution as most understood it was behind them. They played their part and wanted to focus on their own business ventures, or social or civic organizations. They wanted to live their lives as citizens in a country where they now at least have a voice, where they know a leader would not lord over them again. Their reactions and reasoning are different, but most request anonymity.

One young revolutionary who worked for a prominent government ministry took his first vacation in three years to help overthrow his government, then after those 18 days off, went back to work confident that he could better serve his people. He keeps a watchful eye on the politics of the country and insists that no one can hold the Egyptian people down again, because he and others like him would return to the streets.

Then there are those who were prominent parts of the planning of the revolution who are just burned out. One founding member of the April 6 Youth Movement, a much-oppressed group working for political change since 2008, suggested that he would be willing to talk about anything, his home life, his new business, anything but the revolution and politics. That was all behind him, he insisted.

Wael Ghonim insists that his focus is his new organization designed to help bring better education to Egyptians.

And there are individuals who were integral to the revolution like Salma Said, who are too busy for interviews because they are spending most of their time training a new generation of citizen journalists and activists.

One thing is clear: Elshamy is optimistic. For him the revolution succeeded in its first step – remove the dictator. Now things will play out and evolve in his country, and he will be around to monitor it with revolutionary eyes, knowing that his future family may live in a society that he helped shape.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Eddie Saade

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