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Youth power to the fore

Atul Aneja
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IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The spirited revolt, which has continued to surge defiantly, has been ignited by Egypt's youth, which has included within its ranks, some of the country's brightest minds.– PHOTO: AP
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The spirited revolt, which has continued to surge defiantly, has been ignited by Egypt's youth, which has included within its ranks, some of the country's brightest minds.– PHOTO: AP

The Egyptian uprising has continued to flare despite the regular cycles of heavy violence that have targeted its supporters who are seeking an immediate exit of an archaic regime led by Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's President for 30 years.

Since the outbreak on January 25, the pro-democracy supporters have faced beatings, teargas barrages, water cannons, and more sinister of them all, attacks by State sponsored criminal gangs. Yet, despite repeated assaults, they continue to hang on, sensing that victory may not be far away.

The spirited revolt, which has continued to surge defiantly, has been ignited by Egypt's youth, which has included within its ranks, some of the country's brightest minds. Creative artistes, intellectuals, filmmakers, as well as a new generation of politicians and human rights activists have pitched in, imparting solidity and sophistication to the uprising. Quite remarkably, the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group, not expecting the rapid turn of events, has been late in joining the pro-democracy movement. The emergence of a new leadership core of the uprising — youthful and mostly liberal — minus the Muslim Brotherhood has been bad news for the Mubarak dictatorship.

For nearly three decades, Mr. Mubarak has tried to convince his own people and his Western allies that his authoritarian rule should not be opposed as it was a bulwark against the rising tide of Islamic extremism, represented by organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. But with the Muslim Brotherhood not occupying centre stage in a popular uprising, the lie of the looming threat of an Islamist seizure of power in Egypt has been nailed. On the contrary, the opposition, liberated from the moderate versus extremist narrative, was pushing for a political agenda of its own. As the uprising grew stronger, the debate was no longer over a choice between the threat of Islamic terror and stability, but instead over outdated authoritarianism versus democracy. For the first time during the Mubarak-era, the opposition, managed to bring into focus the regime's grave ills. It turned the spotlight on real issues such as the denial of civil liberties, police brutality, heavy corruption, spiralling joblessness, nepotism and crony capitalism, which have made millionaires out of the select group of people who are part of the regime's oligarchic inner circle.

Question of goals

Critics of the movement argue that apart from seeking Mr. Mubarak's exit, the pro-democracy activists are largely in the dark about their own political goals. However, the opposition argues that this is misleading. The broad principles of the movement are well defined and cover legal and political issues, including the call for the lifting of the state of emergency laws, which in the opposition's view have denied the people free elections, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, respect for human rights, besides imposing severe restrictions on the media.

The pro-democracy movement has also demanded urgent action against corruption, which in Egypt, according to Transparency International, is among the highest in the world. Besides, the protesters want a more people-friendly economic policy which can tackle the country's high unemployment rate. Nearly 40 per cent of the country's 80-million population currently earns an income of as low as $2 a day. Mr. Mubarak's claim that his regime has provided his people adequate physical security has also been dismissed by the opposition, especially after 23 Coptic Christians were killed during the New Year's day bombing outside a church in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city.

Social media tools

Egypt's on-going revolt is the result of careful planning on Facebook and other social media tools by a young group of bright people, who have managed to draw all major societal groups — the working class, government employees, professionals including lawyers and journalists, students and women — into a new age movement for fundamental change.

The build-up to the uprising has been the result of a collective exercise in which the April 6 Youth Movement appears to have played a leading role. This movement is essentially represented by a Facebook group started in early 2008 by Ahmed Maher and Ahmad Salah. It took root when in April that year, it supported an industrial strike in the Nile delta town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra. The organisers established a network of bloggers and citizen journalists and with their support publicised the strike by posting pictures on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. They also sent out alerts about police movements and mobilised legal aid for the strikers.

Turning point

The 26-year-old Asma Mahfouz, one of the late entrants to the April 6 group, has now established herself as one of the dynamic leaders of the revolt, playing a key role in organising a march of a million people on February 1. The mobilisation of nearly two million people at Tahrir Square for this march has emerged a turning point of the revolt. As the night thickened on that day, President Mubarak announced on State television that he would quit office in September, but till then would be in charge of steering Egypt's political transition. However, there was a sting in the tail as this speech was followed the next day by an assault on pro-democracy activists assembled at Tahrir Square.

Other organisers of the uprising include “We Are All Khaled Said Movement,” named after Khaled Said, a young activist, killed in Alexandria in police custody. The Kefaya (Enough) movement, which had earlier played a pioneering role in breaking old taboos by openly and publicly launching a scathing attack on Mr. Mubarak's rule, is also a core member of the opposition. Kefaya has been a staunch advocate of constitutional reform, and has played a major role in highlighting the changes required in Egyptian law that would allow multiple candidates to run for the Presidency.

With President Mubarak announcing his decision to back off in September, and the appointment of Omar Suleiman as the Vice-President, the focus has suddenly shifted to the opposition and its preparations to throw up a credible leadership that is capable of holding talks with the authorities for a viable political transition. The opposition has been focusing on the National Association for Change (NAC) as one of the key organisations that should steer talks that could lead to the emergence of a post-Mubarak dispensation.

The NAC is a coalition, which also includes within its fold, the banned Muslim Brotherhood. It also has in its fold Ayman Nour, a well known Egyptian opposition leader of the ElGhad Party as well as a number of celebrities from the world of cinema, art, academia and business. But the NAC has faced the challenge of reaching out to Egypt's cyber-active young brigade, which has played such a seminal role in organising the revolt.

However, on January 30, a breakthrough appeared to have been achieved when the April 6 Youth Movement, “We are all Khaled Said group,” the January 25 Movement and the Kefaya backed NAC head Mohamed ElBaradei (the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief and now a pro-democracy reformer), as their representative to negotiate the difficult political transition ahead. Yet, despite the progress, the leadership issue within the opposition camp is still being fine-tuned. On February 6, the Muslim Brotherhood separately announced that it was ready to explore talks with Mr. Suleiman.

Pro-democracy activists camped in Tahrir Square have also elected 10 representatives who want to make their voices heard and shape the final position on specific issues that the opposition might adopt. The grim tussle for political ascendancy in Egypt, manifested in the uprising is a reflection of the generational shift in Egypt, where the country's young want to enter the political centre stage, so far occupied by an authoritarian old guard that has emerged from the ranks of the military. Ultimately, Egypt's young are seeking the political space that the military has occupied since the time of Gemal Abdel Nasser, modern Egypt's founding father. The late Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, both military men, have on the plain of domestic politics essentially extended the Nasserite legacy.

Challenge to authoritarianism

But by calling for democracy, which has been alien to modern Egypt, the anti-Mubarak camp has seriously challenged the well established authoritarian norms that have been ultimately guaranteed by the President and his coterie surrounding the military high command. It is therefore not surprising that the army declined to rein in the pro-Mubarak supporters when on February 2 they went on a rampage to evict the pro-democracy camp assembled at Tahrir Square. The negotiations for Egypt's political transition to a democracy, as and when they begin, are therefore likely to be messy and problematic.

Bound by its traditions, the Egyptian military is unlikely to step aside and surrender the entire political space to a civilian leadership. Besides guarding its own turf, there will be powerful external pressures that would exhort the military not to yield too much ground. The Egyptian armed forces were the underwriters of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Both Israel and its chief ally, the United States, can therefore be expected to push for an arrangement, where ironically, the Egyptian military, protective of Israel's core security interests, continues to retain substantial influence in the post-Mubarak dispensation.

On their part, Egypt's young and idealistic, after the loss of over 350 lives, are unlikely to accept political cohabitation with figures bound by traditional ties of loyalty to the military after Mr. Mubarak departs. A compromise would be all the more difficult as many of the activists at Tahrir Square have strong antipathy towards Israel, and had been active in opposing in cyberspace, Israel's assault on Gaza in 2009. Even when the street protests abate, the negotiating table can be expected to become the new battleground where a fading regime in its twilight, will confront Egypt's youthful aspirations that are defining a new political order, but which is yet to fully emerge.

Egypt's youthful aspirations are defining a prospective political order, which is yet to fully emerge.

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