-Taken from the Observer
-Cairo-Mahalla-Alexandria - January 2011
News of Egypt’s latest act of self-immolation reached Waleed Shamad whilst he was sitting in the bourse, a dense warren of outdoor shisha cafes tucked away in the back alleys surrounding Cairo’s old stock exchange. An unemployed man had just set himself alight in the middle of a busy street – the twelfth such incident this week. According to a television newsreader, the 35 year old moved to the capital some time ago in the hope of finding work and saving enough money to buy a home and get married, but lack of job opportunities had driven him to despair. “That could be a description of any of us,” said Shamad, pulling his scarf tighter against the cold. “These human blazes are coming so fast, it’s hard to keep track.”
Cairo is a city built for sunny days and balmy nights; come winter-time the wind can lash downtown with a ferocious bite, chilling passers-by to the bone. But that hasn’t stopped Waleed and his friends gathering for their customary late-evening tea out on the pavement to talk through the day’s gossip: the Friday sermons devoted to Islam’s disapproval of suicide, new government restrictions on the purchase of bottled petrol, and of course all the latest from Tunis – where developments have kept the whole group glued to Al Jazeera for days.
“We couldn’t believe our eyes,” grinned Shamad, recalling the sight of Tunisia’s ousted despot Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing a land he had ruled for 23 years. “I’m so proud of the Tunisian people. When you see a friend or brother succeeding in some great struggle, it gives you hope, hope for yourself and hope for your country.”
In common with two-thirds of Egypt’s population, Shamad has lived his entire life under the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, a key western ally whose three-decade grip over over one of the most pivotal states in the Arab world has looked marginally more shaky following the events at Sidi Bouzid. At 27, Shamad – university-educated, getting by on scraps of informal work here and there, and still living at home with his parents – is part of a demographic bulge that accounts for nine in ten of the country’s unemployed, and whose simmering frustration, according to some analysts, could tip Egypt towards its own intifada – and unknown consequences for the rest of the Middle East. “Not having a regular job affects every aspect of your life practically and psychologically; almost everybody I know of my age is still unmarried and dependent on their families – it makes you feel hopeless,” he explained.
Last year’s UN Human Development Report for Egypt declared that many of the nation’s young people are trapped in ‘waithood’, defined as a prolonged period “during which they simply wait for their lives to begin.” “It’s not as if we want to sit here passively and accept the situation,” Shamad added. “The problems come from the government, but the instinct of our generation is to avoid the state, not confront it. I know that there are big demonstrations planned for next Tuesday, but we’re taught from birth to be fearful of the police. They know how to hurt you, and hurt the ones you love.”
Tuesday’s ‘big demonstrations’ will take the form of a nationwide set of anti-Mubarak protests, dubbed ‘revolution day’ by opposition activists who hope that Tunisia’s uprising will embolden the vast number of individuals like Shamad – young people whose latent hostility to the Mubarak regime has never yet translated into action on the street – and persuade them that the time is right to come and make their voices heard. “In every neighbourhood in the country there is a pressure point which the government is afraid of and which will be brought to the surface on Tuesday,” insisted Ahmed El-Gheity, a 23 year old doctor and one of the regional organisers of ‘revolution day’. On the event’s facebook page, tens of thousands of supporters have posted comments suggesting that Ben Ali’s departure could be the precursor for Mubarak’s downfall. “If Tunisia can do it, why can’t we?” read one. “We will either start living or start dying on January 25th.”
Weary of the formal political arena, where even superficial opposition parties now find themselves blocked off from legitimate avenues of dissent (last November’s blatantly-rigged parliamentary ballot delivered a 93% majority to supporters of the ruling NDP), urban young Egyptians are instead carving out their own spaces in which alternative voices can be heard. If all 70,000 of those who have made an online promise to attend actually show up on Tuesday, it will represent an organisational triumph for the youthful activists and provide a dramatic boon to Egypt’s fragmented anti-government forces, who rarely muster more than a few hundred when demonstrating in the open. But such an outcome appears unlikely.
“At the informal level – blogs, chat shows, social media – there’s been an explosion of political activity, entirely disconnected from the official mechanisms of government,” observes Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Carnegie Middle East Centre. And yet this dynamism has largely failed to spill out onto the street, where Mubarak’s ubiquitous security apparatus still maintains near-total control, facilitated by a perpetual emergency law that suspends basic civil rights and provides officers with effective immunity when combating any form of resistance. The only sector of society that has consistently succeeded in physically occupying areas controlled by the state is Egypt’s beleaguered workforce, who have confronted the regime over a range of economic grievances, from privatisation to the ludicrously inadequate minimum wage (unchanged at £4 GBP a month since 1984) – and succeeded in extracting concessions.
“This is where the regime is most fearful; they don’t want the young, online activists with their political demands linking up and inspiring the labour force who are campaigning for a better standard of living,” claims Gamila Ismail, a dissident politician who unsuccessfully challenged the NDP in the recent elections. “If youth in Cairo and Alexandria are connecting with Mahalla then the government knows it is in trouble.”
Sixty miles north of the capital, the textiles town of El Mahalla El Kobra has been the militant spearhead of an unprecedented wave of strikes and sit-ins sweeping Egypt over the past five years; in April 2008 a walk-out by factory workers in the town led to three people being shot dead by police. The road out to Mahalla passes through Cairo’s urban hinterlands which bleed messily into the Nile Delta and surrounding desert – here the high walls of sealed, fast-proliferating gated communities for the rich look down upon the redbrick clusters of ashwa’iyat, informal slum areas that are now home to 60% of the city’s population and offer a clear window onto the defining hallmark of Mubarak’s reign – a colossal appropriation of land and capital by the political and business elite, whose members have become increasingly indistinguishable.
Young residents of the private compounds live in a parallel universe from their counterparts in the ashwa’iyat, but both share a fundamental detachment from campaigns for political change of the sort planned for January 25th. “Of course we are all excited about Tunisia; the people there threw off their shackles and I pray we could do the same – rising prices are hurting all of us and something had to change” said Mahmoud Abdel Halim, a 29 year old construction worker from the far reaches of Imbaba, one of the biggest informal neighbourhoods in the capital. “But I don’t see how we could repeat Tunisia here. I haven’t heard about any protests and even if I had, it’s not like I can afford to stop work and go and get arrested.”
Omar Kandil, former student union president at the American University in Cairo, one of Egypt’s most prestigious and exclusive educational institutions, said many of his colleagues were equally unplugged from grassroots political activity, though for different reasons. “Most students here are happy with the current system. They’re not particularly aware of what’s going on politically, they just know that in their own circumstances they don’t need any kind of change to the status quo.” But, he argued, a recent strike by domestic staff at the university had punctured the bubble of privilege. “There’s a lot more engagement now,” he added. “The strike commanded huge support from the student body.”
Off Mahalla’s main square, through a narrow doorway partially obscured by mobile phone adverts and up five dimly-lit sets of stairs, a group of young people from across the Delta spent Friday morning carefully preparing a series of Tunisian flags, pinning each to a short wooden pole. Others sketched out placards expressing Egypt’s solidarity with Tunisia and condemning government corruption, police torture and poverty. They boasted a broad range of political backgrounds, though some had no affiliations at all. When around fifty of them took to the streets in the late afternoon, handing out pamphlets advertising the upcoming protests on January 25th, they were met with a bemused but generally positive response from passers-by, a handful of which joined in with the campaigning. A group of local political elders, all veterans of the more established opposition parties, watched proceedings from a nearby window. They had advised the younger activists not to hold a demonstration today but, following a chaotic internal vote, the latter had gone ahead with it anyway.
“I’ve never been on anything like this before, although my brother’s friend was attacked by police back in April 2008,” said one 26 year old motorbike driver as he stopped to see what all the commotion was about. “Circumstances have got pretty bad now, and I think changing the big sharks at the top is probably the only way we can make things better. I’ll try and make it.” The demonstration ended with a recital of the Tunisian national anthem, which concludes with the words 'When the people will to live / Destiny must surely respond / Oppression shall then vanish / Fetters are certain to break.'
Back in their 5th floor offices afterwards, the activists whooped and high-fived each other, their faces flushed with excitement. “Yes it was very small, but it showed that other young people are receptive to our energy,” beamed Yasmeen Hamdy El Fakharany. “I think January 25th will be a great success.” Ahmed El Gheity insisted that links with Mahalla’s working class had been established, the exact thing which Gamila Ismail believes the government is most fearful of. “They too will be walking out on Tuesday,” he said. “It’s going to be a very important day.”
Not everyone agrees. Another seventy miles northwest, in a wood-panelled Alexandrian coffee shop facing out to the Mediterranean, Hossam El-Wakeel shook his head angrily at the suggestion that his own organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, was betraying the anti-Mubarak movement by refusing to participate in Tuesday’s ‘revolution day’. “Will those coming out on Tuesday bring down the regime? I think not,” said the 23 year old journalist. “The Muslim Brotherhood believes that change must come from below, that we must rebuild society layer by layer as part of a gradual process, not chase revolution and impose new leaders from the top.” Earnest, cardigan-clad and sporting a trim black beard, el-Wakeel explained why he has thrown his lot in with the only opposition movement that actually has the capacity to bring hundreds of thousands onto the streets – and yet persistently refuses to do so.
“As an Egyptian, you have no voice – at least not under this government. But the Brotherhood gifted me an awareness about the world that gave me the strength to stand up and articulate how I felt; their view of what’s wrong with society and how we can change it is a holistic one, and that was very important to me.” El-Wakeel is engaged to a fellow Muslim Brotherhood member, selected from a shortlist drawn up for him by one of the organisation’s senior ‘sisters’. “We have so much in common, you might call it love,” he smiled. “I wanted to find someone who was on the same ideological path as me, someone who could bear the pain of me being jailed for my political activities. Neither of us have any money but she’s a struggler, like me. We will get through. Our problems are nothing compared to many Egyptians who lack even the most basic supplies, and the Muslim Brotherhood is helping all these people directly, in every neighbourhood, every day. We’re busy doing that instead of throwing all our energies into spectacular protests which aren’t likely to amount to much.”
El-Wakeel’s vision of political change in Egypt is far removed from that of the Tunisian-flag waving activists in Mahalla. Yet both share a commitment to direct confrontation with the Mubarak regime, something which Cairo’s Shamad – along with many others like him – still considers too risky, despite his deep anger at the government. The young inhabitants of the ashwa’iyat buttressing Cairo’s ring road and their gated neighbours also feel severed from any process of political reform or regime change, although, like Shamad, if a spark was to set off a mass mobilisation in the streets there can be little doubt that many of them would quickly join in – especially if the regime’s worst nightmares come true and youth activists begin acting in tandem with the industrial working class. It seems doubtful that protests on the 25th January will provide that spark, although anything could transpire on the day. But when the spark does come, there can be no question as to who will be leading the way.
“The real story of Egypt’s future is not in what’s happening at the top; rather it lies in the dynamics amongst Egypt’s youth,” says Tarek Osman, author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak. “Most international (and many local) observers see that social segment afflicted by poor education, enjoying limited exposure to world-class technology, thinking and processes, and being mired in a coarse, uncouth, culture. These ills are true. Yet there are many positive trends amongst young Egyptians. The young are acutely aware of the need for serious and quick progress. They reject the sad present they inherited from the previous generation. That drive for development is a potent positive force, and Egypt’s future depends on which of these dynamics – negative or positive – shape their actions.”