Egypt’s Silenced Youth

A look at Tahrir Square on January 25 during the 2011 uprising’s third anniversary would leave one wondering where all the younger protesters who led the movement have gone. Not only was the square packed with army supporters and devoid of any slogans referencing the original revolutionary demands, it included demonstrators holding posters of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the very target of the 2011 uprising.

Similarly, a conspicuous lack of young voters characterized participation in the January referendum on Egypt’s constitution. The constitution, drafted by a 50-member Constituent Assembly handpicked by military-installed interim President Adly Mansour, passed with 98.1 percent votes in favor, a remarkable victory for the government. Yet, the notable silence of Egypt’s youth, the very pride of the nation only three years ago, warrants closer inspection.  Announcing the results of the referendum, Nabil Salib, head of the Supreme Electoral Commission prefaced the numbers with his regret that Egypt’s “youth were busy with their university finals.” If this wasn’t the case, Salib said, the referendum would have witnessed an even larger voter turnout.

Meanwhile, young activists considered instrumental in the 2011 uprising, as well as prominent voices of dissent under Morsi—Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Douma, and the founder of the April 6 Movement, Ahmed Maher—all find themselves behind bars. While the Revolutionary Front, to which Abdel Fattah and Maher belong, and April 6 both initially campaigned for a ‘No’ vote on the referendum, there was a last minute shift in gears to a boycott, due to intimidation and arrests of young ‘no’ campaigners from the Strong Egypt Party. Diana El-Tahawy, Amnesty International’s North Africa researcher, said that the media portrayed a ‘No’ vote on the constitution as “treachery” or “support for the Muslim Brotherhood.” She added that the authorities’ crackdown on general dissent has encouraged some Egyptians to exercise self-censorship. There are likely many that simply did not go to the polling stations out of a returning sense of apathy towards Egypt’s political quagmire.

Under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), there was an obvious delineation of roles. The military-led government gained the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist majority, and in some cases, even pro-Mubarak groups. While secular movements and seasoned politicians were busy forming political movements and parties, youth movements and independent protesters faced off security forces in the street, continuing to call for the demands of the revolution.

Movements such as April 6, the No Military Trials for Civilians group and other unaffiliated activists took to the streets, despite an existing protest law and a heavy-handed crackdown on protesters, seen particularly during the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud Clashes and the Cabinet Clashes. They also faced similar accusations as they do now; of being spies and foreign agents.

When the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi came to power, the fight for the “revolutionary cause” became more complicated. With Mubarak’s supporters eager to unseat Morsi, revolutionaries found themselves surrounded by the same people they stood against the year before. A new youth movement, Tamarod, emerged but since achieving its goal of removing Morsi, has fallen in step with the military. 

Prior to Morsi’s removal, secular political parties and movements united to form the National Salvation Front (NSF) in November 2012, but the group was criticized for including members seen as remnants of Mubarak’s regime – among them former foreign minister under Mubarak, Amr Moussa.  Caught between a rock and a hard place, aligning themselves with yesterday’s enemy seemed the only way to fight back against the Brotherhood. Youth movements, including April 6, chose to do what they did not in the wake of the January 25 uprising: compromise.

The situation peaked on June 30, 2013, when millions of Egyptians took to the streets calling for early presidential elections. Following Morsi’s ouster on July 3, a move originally sanctioned by April 6, among other youth groups, the authorities’ stance against any Muslim Brotherhood street activity intensified, and aligning oneself with the Brotherhood became a danger. What little space the youth may have had under SCAF, and consequently under Morsi, was rapidly closing up.

Until the cabinet approved a new protest law, the streets were co-opted by Morsi’s supporters. One of the first opposition protests not organized by Morsi supporters to make headlines was held outside the Shura Council on November 26, decrying military trials for civilians and the protest law itself. The protest was violently dispersed, leading to dozens of arrests, among them No to Military Trials co-founder Mona Seif.

Participation in the Shura Council protest, and other protests organized by secular youth movements to oppose the current regime, has been generally low since July 3. Even the anti-military and anti-Brotherhood protests commemorating the January 25 uprising’s third anniversary did not witness a large turnout prior to their dispersal, unlike previous anniversaries. Independent, yet prominent voices, from among the youth announced they would not join the January 25 protests, including Ahmed Harara. The youth movements that did organize protests – April 6, the Revolutionary Front, and the Revolutionary Socialists – were forced to withdraw from the streets when they were met with a violent reaction from security forces.

While the ministry of health placed the official death toll on the third anniversary at forty-nine, independent figures are closer to 100.  The April 6 Democratic Front’s Sayed Abdallah, also known as Sayed Wezza, was among those deaths. The movement accused the ministry of interior of plotting against the “January 25 revolutionaries” and targeting them with arrests and killing with the intention of “eliminating” them. Those who remain are increasingly silent.

It appears that every step taken by Egypt’s youth in the past three years has been exploited to serve the gains of another player, be it the Muslim Brotherhood after Mubarak’s ouster, or the army after Morsi’s.

While calling on protesters to withdraw from the streets on January 25, the Revolutionary Front promised there will be “more battles for the revolution to fight in the future,” a reference to defeat. The statement reflects the youth movements’ eventual acknowledgement of their marginal weight in the street. For the time being, it seems many have chosen silence until an option better than “sleeping with the enemy” presents itself.

Rana Muhammad Taha is a journalist working for the Daily News Egypt.

Image: Photo: An image of the hand signal used by anti-military and anti-Brotherhood protesters (Hossam el-Hamalawy)