Meeting in the Middle (Part II): Youth Activism and Formal Politics in Egypt

In the aftermath of Egypt’s youth-led revolution that brought the country’s political establishment to its knees, old-guard politicians and official political parties are grappling with the political presence of this new generation of activists. Recognizing that they must adjust to the vastly more democratic style of youth activism, formal political forces have stated intentions todemocratize internally and incorporate youth into decision-making processes.

However, the shortcomings of youth activism in Egypt also account for the challenges that politicians and activists face in “meeting in the middle” to forge a political future for Egypt. Youth protest movements in the past have struggled to achieve the level of political development necessary to shape actual policy. Unless they can translate their demands for change into a roadmap for change, the youth of Egypt may stand in their own way of becoming a stakeholder in the political order that emerges from this transition period.

Over the past ten years, the political discourse of youth activism in Egypt has been characterized by broad, negative demands. Activists have mobilized around general calls for democracy and human rights, rather than addressing specific government policies (besides Egypt’s notorious emergency law). This is partly because individual political issues could prove divisive for the heterogeneous makeup of youth protest groups, which derive strength from the universality of their slogans and the absence of polarizing political affiliations.  

Furthermore, youth activism has been fueled by negative demands, using the former regime’s failures and transgressions as ammunition for passionate protests. Frustration, sarcasm, and resentment - not optimism - pervade the language of youth protest. However, while young Egyptians are powerful in rejecting elements of the political and economic status quo, they are less able to articulate what they do envision for Egypt’s future. Especially now that the Mubarak regime has fallen and the paramount object of criticism is thus removed from the arena of youth activism, youth protest groups must translate their negative demands (“no” to succession, “down” with Mubarak, “enough” of Egypt’s authoritarian government) into positive, constructive ones.  

Past protest movements in Egypt have been unable to mature beyond this stage of stoking a political fire under young Egyptians in order to provide them with further direction. Kifaya, a pro-democracy protest movement that emerged in 2004, rallied Egyptians behind its brazen rejection of the continued presidency of President Mubarak and the hereditary transfer of power to his son Gamal, among other issues. However, it failed to offer new ideas regarding how to realistically achieve the change that it championed. And while Kifaya’s activism inspired Egyptians to stand up to the regime, the movement achieved nothing concrete and became politically obsolete within two years. 

The April 6th Youth Movement, which played a role in organizing protests throughout Egypt’s revolution, appeared to be destined to a similar political fate until quite recently. This group organized large-scale protests in 2008 in solidarity with workers’ strikes in the city of Mahalla al-Kubra. But, while the April 6th Youth struck a chord among Egyptians by calling for economic justice and making political demands as well, the movement struggled to transform its message into meaningful follow-up actions, much less a specific plan for economic and political reform.  Consequently, it temporarily faded as an initiative for change and for almost two years failed to rally Egyptians behind anything other than token protests

There are encouraging signs that Egypt’s youth activists may have risen above this lack of political know-how. A group of politically savvy protestors from diverse affiliations known as the "Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution" is voicing youths’ demands in a professional manner. It has offered suggestions to move forward, for example the creation of a diverse transitional political council, the setting of a fixed date for fair presidential and parliamentary elections, and the creation of a committee to draft constitutional changes. Additionally, several youth coalitions have announced plans to form political parties

But, true to form, activists’ demands are mainly focused on tearing down the former political establishment and prosecuting it for past transgressions. The Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, for example, demands the dissolution of the state security apparatus, parliament, the National Democratic Party, and the current Ahmed Shafiq government. What will replace these institutions? If youth activists are to assume a formative and lasting role within Egypt’s new political order, they must channel the incredible political conviction that they displayed throughout Egypt’s revolution towards answering this question.

Photo Credit: Sarah Grebowski