Shaking the patriarchal cage in Egypt

One year on from the "January 25 Revolution"

By Magdi Abdelhadi

It’s been a year since the Egyptians did what many thought unthinkable: they rose up and toppled the “pharaoh” Mubarak.  But today many are wondering whether this ancient nation has really shaken off — once and for all — millennia of submissiveness. Could it be slowly sliding back into old ways?

“Bread, freedom and social justice” – a banner in Tahrir Square (Magdi Abdelhadi)

Shortly after the ouster of Mubarak, one political commentator wrote that the most dangerous enemy of the revolution was not the supporters of the old regime, but the prevalent stereotype held by Egyptians about themselves: that they are a nation that can only be ruled by a whip and an iron grip.

Such ideas are common here. I’ve lost count of the times my taxi driver has told me “this country can only be ruled by a military man.”

It’s an attitude that has played into the hands of Arab despots. People are encouraged to see themselves as children: they’re not worthy of democracy; they need a custodian or a patriarch to protect them from their own folly and immaturity.

But there’s a catch. This time the old and wily rulers are up against something completely new: Egypt’s young.

The savvy rebellious young

More than half of the 80 million population here is under 30 years old and many of them are rebellious, ambitious and, crucially, media savvy. They’re plugged into global culture in ways that their fathers never were.

Maha, 27, a post graduate student at the American University of Cairo, is a new breed of Egyptian Prime Minister Ganzouri, 79,  and de facto ruler Field Marshal Tantawi, 77,  will never fully understand.

Maha (Magdi Abdelhadi)

 

Articulate and charismatic, Maha is a natural leader. She is a human rights activist and a blogger, and like many of her peers was in Tahrir Square throughout the uprising  that toppled Mubarak.

“I saw youth in their prime die in front of my eyes in Tahrir Square.  And my phone was ringing with my relatives urging me to leave the square out of fear for my safety.”  She didn’t.

The older generation couldn’t understand us, Maha continues. They thought we were asking for too much especially after Mubarak sacked his government and offered some concessions. But when he was finally forced to step down they realized that we were right, Maha adds proudly. The main difference between her generation and theirs is, she says, “that they accepted a life under oppression”.

Maha and her billboard laptop

Maha’s laptop is a mobile “billboard” against the military rulers. On it she has pasted a yellow poster denouncing the “emergency laws” that suspend a civilian’s right to a fair trial, referring them instead to a closed military tribunal.

Thanks to people like Maha, the military have relented, at least in part.

This past weekend, on January 21, it announced the release of nearly 2,000 prisoners convicted by military tribunals. Thousands more are still in jail. But clearly the move was meant to defuse growing anger, anger that was amply on display today on the first anniversary of the revolution in Tahrir Square. The banners were explicit: Down with Military Rule.

Maha was born to middle class parents – both are physicians. But they are also activist parents: they live and work with poor peasants in a rural area of Egypt. Interest in politics comes naturally.

Maha blogs in Arabic and English and writes poetry too.  She has recently started a Facebook group (Hanetkallem or “We Will Speak Up”) dedicated solely to the defense of freedom of expression.

Is she worried about the new parliament that was sworn in this week and is dominated by Islamists?  No. She thinks the revolution is far from over. If the Islamists were to try to curtail personal or public freedoms, she says, they will turn the people against them.

The revolution is not over: watch out generals and clerics!

The view that the revolution is far from over, is prevalent among the young people I spoke with for Latitude News. They are determined to make the first anniversary an opportunity to send a powerful message of defiance to the ruling military council.

Al-Ameer (Magdi Abdelhadi)

 

Al-Ameer, 25, is a young political science graduate turned TV anchor during the revolution.

“I am prepared to die this time, either this or immigration”, says Al-Ameer referring to his determination to demonstrate on Tahrir Square on the 25th.

The network he works for – TV25 – gets its name from the date of the uprising and the average age of its audience.It provides live coverage of protests and talk shows hosted by budding talents like Al-Ameer.

January 25 last year was the first time he had ever been on a demonstration.   “When I shouted for the first time ‘Down with Mubarak’ I felt like a weight has been taken off my chest, and I was liberated.  There were tears in my eyes”, he adds, tears which he had to hide from his friends.

By all accounts it is the 20-something generation who ignited the spark of the revolution and sustain it to this day. But it is also this generation that was the biggest loser in the parliamentary elections.

The real winners of the revolution – so far

The big winners –as confirmed by the final results January 21 – are the Islamists who, ironically, were initially opposed to the Tahrir Square protests last year.

The younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood defied their leadership joined ranks with other young people in Tahrir Square. It was only later, however, when the protests gathered momentum and Mubarak’s regime looked weak and vulnerable, did  the Muslim Brotherhood put its entire weight behind them, thus speeding up the downfall of Mubarak.

Today’s young revolutionaries, also known as the Facebook generation, face an uphill struggle. Last year they were up against Mubarak, this time they have to contend with two formidable foes: the military and the Islamists who are, so far, the true beneficiaries of the revolution.

The former have raw power and guns, the latter the legitimacy of the ballot box after their historic landslide victory in parliamentary election. Separated by the uniform, they otherwise have much in common. Both are conservative, hierarchical and authoritarian. Both are deeply suspicious of democratic values and, apparently, resentful of the young’s fearless challenging of authority.

But at the same time these old men – whether in uniforms or in beards – are also up against an effective and nimble opponent that knows how to use the media to channel discontent and organize protest.

Determined


The video collective Mosireen or “Determined” has become the most viewed non-profit YouTube channel in Egypt. Many of the films tell the stories of friends and family killed by army or police fire during the protests. These are stories that are never shown on state television that peddles the official narrative that “the army has protected the revolution.”

Lubna (Magdi Abdelhadi)

Lubna Darwish, 26, is one of the Mosireen group. A polyglot who speaks English, French and Spanish, she interrupted her post graduate literature studies at the University of California Davis to take part in the revolution on the streets of Cairo.

Mosireen operates like a cooperative. People donate money, equipment and time to make short films to be posted online or to train others to do the same in order to be able to spread the word about their version of events, as versus the army version.

Lubna is under no illusions. The road ahead is difficult but, she says confidently, “definitely we will win.”.

Faced with such enthusiasm and idealism, it is hard not to be carried away.

Back on earth, the hard facts speak for themselves. Islamist politicians control 70 per cent of parliamentary seats and no one doubts that they are broadly representative of the Egyptian society, even though between 40-50 per cent of eligible voters didn’t vote.  This, after all, is a conservative country where religion has always played a central role in shaping culture and society.  But, at the same time, these new members of parliament – almost all of them between the ages of 40 and 70 – often  have little in common with the 50 per cent of the population that is under 30.

Young people demonstrate on the barricades especially erected for the first day of the new parliamentary session (Magdi Abdelhadi)

At the height of the protests last year in Tahrir Square a veteran Egyptian journalist told me something which I think sums up pithily the unfolding drama today. “This was made possible by two things coming together – demographics and technology,” he said. One year on, the internet and the rebellious young  are still here. The years ahead in Egypt will be shaped by an epic struggle – and at times not so epic – between old and new.