|For the first time in their lives, young men and women feel that they may actually be able to
determine their own destinies [REUTERS]
As police stations and ministry of interior installations continue to burn through the night in many of Egypt’s cities, the Arab World is waking up to a new dawn.
In more than 18 years of living in Cairo, I have never felt the sense of cautious hope that exists in Egypt now, particularly among young men and women who feel that for the first time in their lives they may actually be able to determine their own destinies.
Young Egyptians that say that despite the number of teargas canisters fired at protesters and the number of those who have been beaten and detained, long-dormant patriotism and pride have been finally awakened.
They feel emboldened by the positive changes in Tunisia and believe they share common cause and aspiration.
Many of the students I teach at the American University in Cairo have taken part in the protests, avoiding tear gas, seeking refuge in shops and alleyways. They have been reporting and participating in the protests. Some have been beaten only to return the next day and face off with riot police.
To them, they have known no other president, no other ruling party and no other political system. They have for years been groomed on the government’s realpolitik on the one hand, and the empty rhetoric of opposition groups on the other.
They have made it clear to me that these opposition parties, long defunct and impotent, have been replaced by grassroots social action. Their fears of detention and torture have been supplanted by the need for better living conditions and better wages.
The protests have drawn Egyptians from all walks of life, many of whom have never participated in demonstrations and feel that the time has come for them to voice their resentment.
What started with a few dozen protesters on January 25 quickly mushroomed as passers-by and ordinary citizens joined in.
This was the Arab Street – the silent majority which has finally found a voice to express palpable anger.
Listening to the protesters, one gets the feeling that they have not been deterred by the severity of the beatings; rather, their resolve has been hardened.
In an unprecedented show of civil disobedience and open revolt, young Egyptians have clearly and forcibly delivered a message that is still resonating in the Middle East and North Africa: Authoritarian rule in the region is over.
The common yet indigenous, denominators – political and economic disenfranchisement and disdain at rampant corruption – between the two countries were conveyed through social media networks, helping to create a momentum that seized popular anger and provided it with a dynamic that produced mass mobilisation on the streets of Tunis and Cairo.
By calling for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, and persevering in the face of tear gas, water cannons and baton beatings, young Egyptian men and women have beat back decades of one-party rule, brutal repression against civil liberties, iron-clad control of the media, and corrupt economic policies.
The protesters have been dismantling archaic forms of governance in which the ruler is considered to be beyond reproach and economic policies are determined by his self-preserving business elite allies.
They are demanding equity in the distribution of wealth, an end to state corruption, greater employment opportunities and a curb to rampant inflation.
They want to be able to express themselves freely – both in mainstream media and online – without the specter of arrest, torture and imprisonment looming overhead.
Just three months ago, Egyptian authorities released Kareem Amer, a blogger jailed in 2007 for defaming Islam and the presidency. His release came just a few weeks after several stations were taken off the air by the national satellite carrier NileSat for allegedly failing to abide by their contracts and/or failure to pay licensing fees.
They are not interested in a change of government – as Mubarak promised on January 28 – and they will not be dissuaded by repeated promises of economic reform and prosperity. They believe that Egypt’s current socio-economic malaise is rooted in the political system itself, a system which has not evolved since the first revolution overthrew the King of Egypt in 1952.
When the ruling National Democratic Party swept Parliamentary elections amid allegations of widespread fraud last November, Egyptian youth said that they felt their votes had been stolen and the entire process of political reform hijacked.
Some observers at the time warned that the government would likely suffer a backlash. The young protesters that we now see on the streets of Cairo, Ismailiya, Suez, Alexandria and Mahala want a political process that safeguards their democratic participation.
Few in Egypt have a desire – or expectation – to see Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, inherit the presidency in a contrived political gimmick to convince the public that there was a democratic transfer of power.
Among my students, Copts and Muslims alike, there is a call for social cohesion. In the aftermath of the bombing at the Two Saints Church in Alexandria, many Egyptians blamed the government for failing to adequately protect minorities and allowing sectarian strife to fester.
Now, the momentum – and history – is on the protesters’ side.
Firas Al-Atraqchi is an associate professor of practice at department of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo.