Maram Kaff has been protesting since January 28, 2011. But like many Egyptians in her age group, the 29-year-old has seen little to no change as far as the youth of the country are concerned.
“I’m not happy about it,” she says. “Most of the country is youth, but still the decision is in the hands of people who are over 60.”
Kaff is one of many young Egyptians who, even after taking on a 30-year-old regime, still feel that they are being sidelined while older generations insist on taking the lead.
She would like to see her age demographic represented in government and for the country to start taking chances on new, fresh ideas rather than relying on experience for solutions.
“Until now, I don’t think people understand the power of the youth,” says Kaff. To help make them understand, she continues to protest to this day. “It’s a way of saying we’re here, include us,” she says. “We’re a force that shouldn’t be [thrown away].”
Means to an end
when the January 25 Revolution broke out, it was spearheaded by the nation’s younger population, who had had enough of unemployment, poverty, lack of social justice and political oppression.
They were celebrated as ‘shabab el-thawra’ or the youth of the revolution, but that phrase quickly became used and abused by those in power who claimed to be fighting for the rights of the younger generations.
And although President Mohamed Morsi himself has constantly called for dialog with revolutionary youth, no positive decisions have been taken toward empowerment, and the younger demographic can’t help but feel neglected.
“Morsi wanted to appeal to the youth of the revolution to get their votes, but now he has turned against them,” claims Ahmed Raslan, who took to the streets at the presidential palace in protest when the president’s constitutional declaration was announced in late November.
Raslan feels that with a constitution that does not represent all demographics of society, the youth have nowhere to go but the streets.
“The youth are not waiting to be represented in government and are not waiting for governmental positions,” he says.“They just want justice for the people.”
When it comes to political representation there is a clear marginalization of youth. Mohamed Gouda, in his late 20s, is a member of Al-Dostour Party.
Gouda claims that the problem started a long time ago, 30 years to be exact. “It all goes back to President Hosni Mubarak who didn’t allow anyone enough space to practice politics the right way, so [there was no] room for any youth to be politically active or even aware,” maintains Gouda.
And even with so many political parties springing up in the past two years, youth still seem to be absent on the political scene. “We have a lot of political parties but not all of them are playing an important role because they are still new.
I wish they could have a strong role, a positive one,” says Gouda. “Unfortunately, the only political party that is organized is the Muslim Brotherhood. And though I disagree with them, they [do] have resources.”
Although they may not find voice in a representative political system, younger generations are certainly now more willing to stand up for their rights.
“The youth are the ones who [started] the revolution. We have become increasingly aware and can go to the street to express our opinion,” says Mohamed Bassiony, a young protestor who also joined the Itihadiya demonstrations at the end of last year.
“That wasn’t there before, for the youth to come out, speak in all honesty and express their opinion against the government.”
“Their participation in protests and their presence on the streets hasn’t actually benefited them,” says Gouda. “Other people benefited from their presence in the revolution.”
He notes that while it was mostly young Egyptians who took part in the protests, older, more established political powers have since co-opted the tag line ‘Revolution’s Youth’ to sway people’s opinion for their own agendas.
The youth themselves have largely been left out of the transistion process.
From the bottom up
Aside from chanting in the streets, the revolution has also inspired young Egyptians to take part in rebuilding their society via different organizations and initiatives.
Among these initiatives is CISV, an international organization working in Egypt since 1979, which uses informal and experimental education to empower youth and help them develop the leader within.
“Showing young people that there is always another way to doing things is important, because you’re not only stretching their imagination but you are also training them to think critically and evaluate,” explains long-time member Heba El-Sherif.
Under their International People’s Program, CISV worked from 2006 to 2011 on different community development projects in the oasis of Farafra, carrying out informal education sessions in schools, organizing workshops for public school teachers on alternative ways of teaching, designing and constructing public shaded areas and building capacities of a newly formed NGO called Friends of Farafra.
Despite running purely on the volunteer work of youth, members of CISV still bear witness to the ever-widening gap between the younger generations and the rest of society.
“In a way it is [intentional] but not precisely because of their age as much as because of what young people stand for; being dynamic and taking risks is never the character of those who govern,” claims El-Sherif.
“Keeping us out is their way of maintaining some level of stability, which is favorable when you are not willing to change the status quo.”
Another youth-run organization hoping to change the status quo — but still also left out — is Students Against Corruption, an initiative by Ain Shams University students who hope to raise awareness about corruption and find ways to combat its practice.
“I’ve been subjected to corruption myself,” says Norhan Abdel Hakim, academic leader for the organization. “Corruption is in everything around us, it’s in education, health, even at our university.”
But as a student organization, Students Against Corruption often gets ignored. Abdel Hakim recalls that some of their members had drafted their own suggestions for the constitution and submitted them to the Constituent Assembly.
She claims that at the last minute, the assembly refused to accept their suggestions.
“There are youth trying to help but the people above them always find a way to discard their efforts,” says Abdel Hakim.
Getting into the field
Decades of marginalization inevitably mean that even if youth are given the chance to participate, they often might find themselves unqualified to do so.
Mohamed El-Sawy is a young businessman and a member of the Egyptian Junior Businessmen (EJB) who works with university students to help bridge the gap between their skills and what the market needs or requires.
He has found that there is a huge gap between the two.
“We’re once again going through the dilemma of feeling that the youth is incompetent so let’s hire the gray haired, let’s hire someone who may be overqualified,” says El-Sawy. “But the youth have so much energy that we’re not utilizing.”
Despite the gap, El-Sawy is seeing an increase in political and social consciousness among the younger generations. He recalls that he was walking into his office one morning and saw a group of young employees gathered around the television screen.
Naturally, he assumed that they were tuning in to the latest football match but instead he found them to be watching a session of Parliament.
“That was one of the proudest moments of my life,” recalls El-Sawy. “This is the first step of political awareness. Do they know where democracy is and where we are? Definitely not.
We have no reference. We don’t have political awareness, but we have the first step which is political involvement, and that is fantastic.”
As far as the system is concerned, El-Sawy believes that the lack of inclusion is not intentional in a sense. “I think at this time [those governing] don’t have the capacity to deal with the position.
They’re still figuring out where they are, what they’re doing. I think it’s going to take time before they start realizing that they actually need the youth to rebuild the country,” he says.
For the time being, Egypt’s youth are waiting and anxious for the time where they get to participate fully in a society of which they occupy the majority.
“I am hopeful, and we should all be,” says CISV’s El-Sherif. “Considering the [surge] of consciousness and self-worth that was brought about with January 25 and its aftermath, it is unreal that we are still governed by the older, more stubborn versions of our parents.” et