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Shafeeq Ghabra
In Egypt … a new generation of revolutionaries

THE Egyptian activists who have tasted change and have lost some of their best friends to the 2011 revolution and subsequent violent clashes are destined to become even more involved in shaping Egypt’s future. For many, opposing corruption, the usurpation of rights, and the authoritarianism of the establishment have become a way of life. In the absence of a more lenient, democratic, and accountable modern Egyptian state willing to reconcile with various segments of society, the crises that have engulfed Egypt will continue to recur.

Since 2011, the January 25 generation has produced a revolutionary cultural legacy of nonviolent resistance, replete with songs, poetry, literature, theater, and a new awareness of the use and benefits of soft power versus state control, jails, police brutality, corruption, and despotism. This group of activists, lawyers, and peaceful demonstrators is courageous in its outlook, clever in its practices, and honest in its search for veracity, but it remains cynical about everything related to power. Following the machinations of Egyptian social networks over the course of a few days reveals the depth of the sarcasm toward existing power structures. This generation remains defiant in using a mixture of ridicule and gentleness. They gather suddenly to protest and then disappear from the street as fast as they appeared.

Some members of this generation have become symbols of the struggle for change. Many now live behind bars in jails known for their tough conditions and bad management. Hundreds of activists, young men as well as women, and thousands of others have been imprisoned on various charges, many of them fabricated. Some confessions were produced through torture and bear no relation to the truth. Some sit in prison as a means of propagating fear and repression. The prisoners’ ranks include some of the drivers of the January 25 revolution as well as those who joined in later.

Among the more prominent young leaders, currently imprisoned are Mohammad Adel, Ahmad Douma, Alaa Abdel Fattah, Samar Ibrahim, Ahmad Maher, Mohammad Abdel Rahman, Mahinor al-Masri, Wael Mitowalli, Salwa Mohriz, Sanaa Saif, Mohammad Sultan, Shoukan, Yara Sallam, and among others.

While sitting in jail, Egypt’s young men and women are likely learning more about the government that is imprisoning them than they knew before. Their experiences will confirm that there is no future for Egypt without economic, political, judicial, and security reforms that transform the prevailing power structure. This generation is learning how to organize hunger strikes and protests while in jail. Nobody knows the exact number of prisoners-estimated at 17.000-nor all the facilities being used as detention centers.

Alaa Abdel Fattah, one of the icons of the Egyptian revolution, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for taking part in a protest, which he did not organize, challenging the demonstration law instituted after the coup of July 3, 2013. Abdel Fattah’s imprisonment led to a series of rallies demanding the release of political prisoners, but this resulted in the arrest of even more activists, including his younger sister, Sanaa Saif. Imprisoning such people stands to create a larger movement, bestowing on the Egyptian revolution and its human rights struggle a reputation generating greater momentum.

Everything is opaque, incomprehensible, in Egypt today. The government has made numerous decisions defying public opinion, such as when it canceled in June the television series written by a leading independent writer, Bilal Fadel, and when it prohibits well-known prodemocracy writers from traveling abroad, as in the case of Amr Hamzawi. Another example is the threatening atmosphere that led the satirist Bassem Youssef to end his weekly TV show in May for fear of harm to his family and himself.

Struggle

Hundreds of activists currently free to work for change wonder when they will find themselves in detention with their rights violated. A new genre of literature is emerging based on life in prison, and like Egyptians’ understanding of the value of the struggle for human rights, it is spreading.

Looking closely, one finds hundreds of young men and women bringing meals every day to detainees across Egypt in coordination with the prisoners’ families. The imprisoned activists are also supported by groups of lawyers committed to the defense of prisoners’ dignity and human rights. Prison officials do not, of course, cooperate with all legal demands and requests, yet those behind bars persevere while trying to overcome their fears and anxieties about their own futures. A common narrative is growing among this generation and also deepening relations among people the regime does not sense or see. This collection of like-minded people will become crucial to the impending waves of change.

The Egyptian activists in jails and in the streets represent a third way along the path of an ongoing democratic journey. One group among them is dedicated to preventing trials of civilians before military courts. By focusing on one issue, such as the law against demonstrations and mobilization, they hope to shake the powers above and generate public debate and challenge the established political parties. This generation is making its own history through its actions and intellectual endeavors.

Its members were not taught how to rebel in schools that focused on memorization. Instead, it learned it experientially, first-hand, when they decided to protest injustice. Their sources of learning reflected their desire to read and educate themselves. Indeed, through a few keys on a computer, this generation can learn something every day about its condition (and its influence) and similar situations in other societies around the world. The storm they are churning will not stop despite the state’s heavy-handed use of force in its efforts to repress it. The ongoing attempt by the Egyptian state to reintroduce an authoritarianism similar to that of previous governments will ultimately fail.

This generation of activists believes in peaceful means of expression and instruments of peace. It is committed to tolerance and cohabitation that protects the rights and freedoms of all peoples. It expects and demands accountability and oversight of government and its actions and seeks to bury once and for all the exclusivist policies of past Egyptian elites, Islamists, and armed oppositions.

The qualitative difference is obvious between the new generation of revolutionaries and government members whose behavior and rhetoric remain stuck in the 1960s. While the ruling regime’s generation is older, corrupt, hierarchically discriminatory, and preserves social imbalances and economic inequities, the new forces within the Egyptian youth movement are clever in science and technology and savvy in public expression and social media. By creating a narrative of resilience, heroism, and solidarity, they are capable of absorbing the violence meted out by the system.

Mentality

The new Egyptian and Arab generations have a global mentality, but they do not blindly trust the American, Western European, and other political systems, which first and foremost work to protect their own economic interests and influences. The essence of these youths is to question power and hold it accountable everywhere. They expect deliberation of political disputes and economic matters and negotiation over power and its uses. They demand real independence for the judiciary and civil control of the military and security services. Above all, the new generation believes in the values of social justice and freedom. Its understanding of democracy is not a straightforward imitation of Western systems, but a homegrown pursuit to advance the concept of political participation and social sharing to tame entrenched prerogatives.

This generation of activists differs from the Islamists, but it defends their civil rights. It is also different from those who advocate and pursue armed violence, but it defends their right to just civil trials instead of appearances before military courts. It is for these reasons and others that many of this generation’s human rights activists are behind bars, essentially accused of defending people’s rights after the 2013 coup.

The attempt by the government to reinstitute authoritarianism after the Arab Spring will only lead to more profound and widespread revolutionary movements. History did not stop with the coup. This story continues to be written.

By Shafeeq Ghabra

Professor of Political Science at Kuwait University

Twitter: @shafeeqghabra


By: Shafeeq Ghabra

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