For the last three years, Egypt’s streets have not experienced a day without protests.
It began with masses camping in the iconic Tahrir Square and similar venues across the country for 18 days, starting January 25, 2011, demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Youth sparked the protests with fiery chants of “Down with regime,” “Down with military rule,” and “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”. The slogans in the streets continued through the election of the Muslim Brotherhood and the current period of military rule. But the demands inspiring them were never really met.
Instead, the youth paid a massive price. Thousands of people, mostly 30 years in age or younger, have been killed since 2011, on the streets and in stadiums and universities. Only a few investigations have led to the detention of their killers.
Although protests still take place, and calls for fresh ones on the revolution’s third anniversary are being made, the vast majority of the country’s young population has adopted a different approach: apathy.
“It’s punitive apathy,” Malek Adli, an activist and lawyer at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, told Al Jazeera.
In this month’s referendum on a military-backed constitution, it was apparent that only a small minority of the younger generation, which make up about a quarter of the country’s 90 million citizens, were among the 20 million voters who decided on the text.
Official data is not kept on the ages of voters, but the head of the Higher Electoral Commission, Nabil Salib, acknowledged the youths’ limited participation, saying it was due to the vote coinciding with mid-year exams.
But Salib’s explanation may not be the only one.
“The youth didn’t participate in the referendum because the youth are in jail,” activist Salma Said wrote on her twitter account [Ar], which is followed by more than 122,000 people.
She was referring to Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Adel, Ahmed Douma and Alaa Abdel Fattah, the most prominent of many young activists who are in detention for allegedly breaking an anti-protest law issued by the military-backed government banning unauthorised demonstrations. The bill was enacted only months after mass protests were endorsed by the army to topple the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi.
The law, together with the criminal charges targeting youth opposition leaders who were at the forefront of protests toppling two presidents in three years, helped lead youths to boycott the referendum.
“They know that the young revolutionaries are the main bloc in any political change. We were the driving force which led to the ouster of two presidents. We were waiting for any sign of good deed, but they messed it up. We now refuse to be part of this retaliation-driven rule,” Adli said.
Although limited backing from the younger generation didn’t deter the constitution’s passage by a landslide 98.1 percent endorsement, the government was quick to pick on the youth’s reaction.
According to local newspapers, army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who led the coup against Morsi and is the country’s most powerful figure, addressed the matter in a cabinet meeting, reassuring the youth that Mubarak-era figures are not returning.
He also asked local media outlets to stop their vilification of the 2011 revolutionaries.
Egyptian media outlets, whether state-run or privately owned, are accused of conducting a campaign intending to discredit youth leaders who were at the forefront of the 2011 revolt, including the airing of fabricated phone calls.
One of those who has fallen victim to this campaign is Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook page, “We are all Khalid Saeed” [Ar] was set up in 2010 to fight police brutality, and became the birthplace for calls leading to the 18-day protests the following year.
Ghonim, who endorsed calls for protests against Morsi, was one of the first liberal figureheads to go silent after July 3, 2013 when Sisi deposed the elected president. Since then, the internet activist and extrovert has withdrawn from the scene.
But after a six-month silence, Ghonim made a return through his Facebook page on January 7 to denounce [Ar] what he described as “fabricated phone calls” aired on television channels with the aim of “distortion, vilification and incitement”.
“I have never been a traitor to my country, not excessive in my principles, nor contrary to law,” Ghonim said, adding he was forced by his family to defend himself against media campaigns accusing him of benefiting from the revolt he had helped orchestrate.
Abdel Rahman Mansour, co-founder of the Khalid Saeed page, which was named after a young businessman who was beaten to death by police forces, also faced the same media abuse. He has not yet issued a response.
“We are facing a formidable war,” Malek said. “We were never on good terms with any of those who came to power since 2011 and have therefore been the subject of endless atrocities and abuse, either through local media, which has non-stop defamed us, or through our efforts being hijacked, first by the Supreme Council for Armed Forces (SCAF), then the Muslim Brotherhood, then SCAF again.”
Since late 2010, the “We are all Khalid Saeed” page has been an inspiration to thousands of young change-seekers through daily posts which injected hope, triggered anger and raised awareness to different cases of corruption and human rights abuses. Its last post, on July 3, was the statement read that day by Sisi declaring the toppling of Morsi.
Al Jazeera’s attempts to reach Ghonim and Mansour have not been successful. However, close friends of theirs have confirmed that it is unlikely that the facebook page will return.
According to these sources, who asked not to be named, creators of the page decided to stop its activities as the “voice of reason became clouded and postings ended up being reactions to the fight over power between the two camps: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood”.
Although they were called for June 30 protests to pressure Morsi into calling for fresh elections, both activists are said to deem the July 3 announcement a coup and a victory for the counter-revolution forces.
However, they have not given up, sources told Al Jazeera, but have taken different paths. Ghonim is focusing on an educational project [Ar] to “liberate learning” in Egypt, targeting students between the ages of 13 and 18. Meanwhile, Mansour is working on another project that aspires to create leaders out of that younger generation.
Both activists, according to sources, believe their revolution will be reclaimed, but not in the next several years.
“There is little hope, but we will not stop. We will keep protesting and we will continue being a threat to their throne,” Gamal said.
The Ministry of Interior has warned against any unrest during the January 25 “celebrations”, according to local media, which said authorities are on high alert to handle any “threats”.
What adds to my frustration is that this imprisonment has no value. This is no struggle and there is no revolution.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and April 6 are two of the main groups continuing to rally in recent months. They have faced extensive force from authorities who are seeking to quell any dissent. April 6, however, made it clear it will not march with the Brotherhood.
“The only slight hope is that the majority of the youth decided together, and without mobilisation campaigns, to boycott the referendum. There was none of the usual social media campaigning, but such a notable reaction was reached,” Gamal said.
But not everyone is that hopeful. In a letter dated December 24 from Tora Prison to his sisters, Alaa Abdel Fattah said: “What adds to my frustration is that this imprisonment has no value. This is no struggle and there is no revolution”.
He continued: “The previous imprisonments had meaning because I felt that I was in jail by choice and it was for a positive gain. Right now, I feel that I can’t bear people or this country and there is no meaning for my imprisonment other than freeing me from the guilt I would feel being unable to combat the immense oppression and injustice that is ongoing.”
An award winning blogger and activist who goes by the name Sandmonkey, in a post [Ar] titled “The 1980s trap” issued after the constitution’s passage, blamed the older generations for resisting change.
“Our depression stems from our knowledge that you will not fix anything, and that whenever you’re cornered, you will admit not having an alternative, but will still prefer to make the pivotal decisions,” Sandmonkey said in his January 19 post.
“You will pity us and set up a Youth Committee in your parties, and possibly even allocate a quota of perhaps 5 percent in the People’s Assembly, to resemble a segment that makes up 70 percent of the nation. You will congratulate yourselves for giving the youth a chance.
“You will not understand why the youth are annoyed, unless the youth proposes that, instead of all this, we establish an ‘Elderly Committee’ parties, and a quota in the People’s Assembly for those over 60 (years old), which will be 5 percent, correctly representing your share in the nation. Would you like to join the Elderly Committee? Sounds nice, right? Just like the Youth Committee does.”