In a recent TV interview, Egypt’s prominent opposition leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, captured the frustration felt by many revolutionary youth in his country.
“A large part of why we lost control over the revolution and our ability to fulfil its goals is the divisions that took place among the youth. Today, youth feel they have been robbed of their revolution,” ElBaradei said on February 12. “But, this is because they were divided. Every one of them [considered himself] a new Che Guevara. Everyone wanted to speak on TV.”
Two years after the revolution, youth leaders feel neglected, divided, and powerless. Only three youth leaders were elected to the People’s Assembly, the lower house of Egyptian parliament, which has since been dissolved.
The Revolution Youth Coalition (RYC), the main body coordinating between youth leaders in Egypt after the January 25 revolution, was dissolved last July; no other body has replaced it.
“All the political elite, including the Salvation Front (SF) [Egypt’s main opposition coalition] does not represent the youth,” Shady Al Ghazaly Harb, the founder of the Al Wai (Awareness) party and now a founding member of ElBaradei’s party, told Al Jazeera.
After the revolution
Al Wai was one of at least four parties established by young people active in the revolution. Others include Al Adel (Justice), the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP), and Al Tayar Al Masry (the Egyptian Current), which was founded by former Muslim Brotherhood youth leaders.
Harb said Al Wai was established to “politically empower the youth” active in a campaign that supported ElBaradei as a presidential candidate to compete against Hosni Mubarak or his son, Jamal, in a pre-revolution election expected in late 2011.
The Popular Campaign to Nominate ElBaradei was one of the main protest movements that attracted youth activists before the revolution, but youth leaders have since split up into different parties. When ElBaradei announced the formation of new party Al Dostour last summer, many leaders of Al Wai – including Harb – left to join it instead.
Al Adel founder Mostafa Al Nagar, who won a seat in the dissolved People’s Assembly (PA), likewise deserted his party, citing obstacles like a lack of funding and inability to work as a group.
As for Al Tayar Al Masry, it has still not received official recognition as a party. “We have been busy with ongoing political problems in the country. We have not had a chance to build a real structure that can act as a political party,” Islam Lotfy, the party’s founder, told Al Jazeera.
Like many others, Lotfy’s party suffers from empty coffers. “We have no funding – just some donations from our members,” he said, adding that his party has no full-time staff other than a secretary and an office boy in its Cairo headquarters.
Ahmed Maher, the leader of April 6th – one of the main youth protest groups in Egypt – told Al Jazeera he works as a volunteer like the rest of the group’s activists and relies on its members’ dues, which are just 20 Egyptian pounds a month (less than $3). He says his group has 15,000-20,000 members across Egypt as well as hundreds of thousands of supporters.
Maher told Al JAzeera that his group has been stifled by regular crackdowns from various authorities, including the Mubarak regime, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, and President Morsi himself.
“We supported Morsi during the presidential campaign and were a reason behind his victory. The Muslim Brotherhood loved us at that time. But when disagreement started over the constitution, a campaign of distortion started against us,” Maher said.
Maher said he believes Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood did not fulfil their promises when it comes to encouraging youth participation in the government and appointing a non-partisan cabinet.
“The status of the youth inside the Muslim Brotherhood and the SF is the same. Youth have no role inside the Muslim Brotherhood and their status inside the SF might be slightly better. But the youth don’t lead.”
Did Egypt’s Youth Movement backfire?
The roots of division
Lotfy, the Al Tayar Al Masry leader, attributed the problems with the youth movement to a “political culture that favours the elderly”, a practice he said stems from the belief that older politicans are more qualified because they have more experience. He also criticised abusiness elite he says cares only for its narrow interests, which often favours big, existing parties.
While Abdul Rahman Mansour, the admin of “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook group, also cited the country’s older political elite as a “big problem”, he likewise blamed the youth itself.
“In general, all youth groups suffer from widespread confusion,” he said. “We are still suffering the same crisis we faced the day Mubarak stepped down.”
Israa Abdel Fatah, a leading female activist and a senior member of Al Dostour party, told Al Jazeera that the youth are a product of the Mubarak regime. “They did not come from a country that helps qualify youth. Mubarak’s regime chased away and killed leadership.”
But she also blames the youth for failing to unite after the revolution. “The Revolution Youth Coalition [RYC] was divided. Our goal was to bring down the regime. But we didn’t know what to do after that.”
The RYC – a coalition of nine youth groups that helped coordinate the 2011 protests that forced Mubarak to step down – was dismantled after Morsi took office.
Zayad El Elaimy, a youth leader had been elected to the dissolved PA, explained that the “RYC was for bringing down the Mubarak regime, but it did not have a plan to build an alternative regime. The goal of the RYC ended on February 11, 2011.”
Still, youth leaders, such as Elaimy, Abdel Fatah, and Harb believe that some alternative forum with unifying capabilities is not far off. Between the three of them, they share similar views: they support the agenda of the NF to some extent, support ongoing protests movement, and are sceptical about including the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood in any future youth unity forum.
“The youth of the Muslim Brotherhood are part of the current regime. How can the opposition unite with current regime?” Abdel Fatah told Al Jazeera.
Lotfy, for his part, thinks the idea of uniting all pro-revolution youth in a joint body is “silly” because youth – like all groups in Egyptian society – are politicised and belong to different parties and ideologies.
Best way forward
Youth leaders are also divided on how to move foward. Nagar, Mansour, Maher, and Lotfy are taking a more cautious approach toward recent protests, believing that they must be used more carefully as a political opposition tool.
“Youth need to work more with the people. Limiting the revolution to protests is a mistake.” said Nagar.
Mansour agreed: “Protest movements alert society – they don’t rebuild the country.”
Egypt: The promises and perils of revolution
But these views don’t match those of Abdel Fatah, Harb, and El Elaimy, who all support ongoing protests to different degrees and believe the SF is not responding fast or strong enough to demands of protesting youth.
“The street is always ahead of the SF. It only follows what the youth say. Protests should continue as long as we have a government that neglects people’s demands,” said Abdel Fatah.
“The role of the SF is different from that of the youth,” explained El Elaimy. “The SF negotiates to reform the regime from inside. The youth want a new regime.”
Harb said he sees the youth are back in the street and ready to bring down Morsi’s regime. “There is hope of getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said. “I expect that we succeed in bringing down the regime in the next 3-4 months.”
Moahmed El Said Idries, the head of the revolution studies centre at Al Ahram research centre, told Al Jazeera he feels optimistic about the future of the current generation of youth activists in Egypt, predicting that current generation of youth leaders will lead most political parties in 2-3 years.
“They are a rejectionist generation and were only raised to reject the Mubarak regime. They were not given any formal political training or education in how to offer an a political alternative. Mubarak fought political education and activism at universities. Still, they triggered the revolution and transformed politics in Egypt.”