Meeting in the Middle: Youth Activism and Formal Politics in Egypt

On January 25th, Egyptian youth activists took the political fate of their country into their own hands. Although Egyptians from all walks of life took part in the recent popular uprising, it was the younger generation that established its identity over the eighteen days and made clear that the youth - rather than recycled political elites - would steer Egypt towards democracy. 

Why, then, have debates on Egypt’s political future overlooked these young revolution-makers and addressed instead the fate of former government officials, the composition of Egypt’s transitional cabinet, and statements from presidential hopefuls? Ultimately, there are major discrepancies between the style of youth activism in Egypt and the nature of the country’s formal political sphere. And unless Egypt can truly democratize during this precarious transition period, the two political mediums will remain incompatible. 

Youth activism in Egypt has flourished as an alternative to the political establishment rather than a part of it. It has allowed a new generation on the periphery of political influence to assemble and express its voice without dealing with corrupt, ineffective political parties. A 2010 UNDP report revealed that although the country’s youth have strong political convictions, they largely refuse to belong to political parties and instead share a general commitment to values such as human rights, pluralism, and democracy. Indeed, only six percent of the Egyptian youth surveyed were strongly interested in formal politics, and a mere three percent were registered as political party members.   

Reason being, youth harbor a deep mistrust of the formal political system and a total loss of faith in its abilities. Young, politically-minded Egyptians understand that political parties and associations are unwilling to address their concerns, much less able to solve their problems. The patriarchal structure of formal parties discourages youth from joining, and parties often fail to even provide credible information regarding the rights and contributions of members.  Young activists have become alienated by the corruption and empty rhetoric of politicians. Finally, because the state largely fails to extend services to Egyptian youth (as evidenced by their poor quality of education, low levels of employment, and general lack of upward mobility), they are averse to affiliating with the government. 

By pursuing a mode of dialogue and political expression antithetical to the system that festered under Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian youth have distanced themselves even further from formal politics. Thanks to new forms of social media, the rhetoric of youth activism is relatively uncensored, allowing Egyptians to raise issues too contentious for official debate. Communication between activists via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter is both individualistic and interactive, combatting hierarchical politics. The ability of formal political parties to adopt this sort of openness and translate it into internally democratic processes (for example, open avenues for dissent) is yet to be seen.

Several measures are currently under way to bridge the gap between youth activism and formal politics in Egypt. Restrictions on the formation of political parties have been lifted, prompting a sudden flourish of formal political activity and allowing previously-excluded or banned forces to organize. This will likely rejuvenate the long-stagnant political sphere, perhaps allowing room for new forms of expression. Existing opposition parties have praised the courageous efforts of Egypt’s youth in confronting the Mubarak regime and vowed to incorporate them into reformed party structures

However, as Egypt stumbles forward in its democratic experiment, just how far formal political forces are willing to bend in order to accommodate the country’s new generation of democratic activists is unknown. If the new political order emerges unfriendly to Egypt’s youth, surely the guardians of the January 25th Revolution, as they call it, will not hesitate to take to the streets a second time.

Photo Credit: Sarah Grebowski