Seif El Khawanky was a youth activist in Tahrir Square during the revolution.
Watch a video of Seif discussing the motivations of the youth revolution and Egypt’s future.
Nearly 14 months after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has reached a point of reckoning. Over the next few months, Egyptians are scheduled to write and adopt a constitution and elect their first post-revolutionary president. These Herculean undertakings will only be as successful as the consensus that backs them, and yet Egyptian society shows a troubling degree of polarization.
Among those who express frustration with their country’s post-revolutionary transition are the youth activists who sparked it. Egypt’s youth unquestionably played a leading role in organizing their countrymen and outmaneuvering the leaders who had long failed to provide opportunities to participate politically and economically. Yet, youth have complained that they have been sidelined from the post-revolutionary transition.
Speaking at a recent CIPE brownbag lunch about the role of youth in Egypt’s transition and their difficulty securing a role in it, CIPE Junior Program Officer and Egyptian youth activist Seif El Khawanky used an analogy that for me brought back some painful memories.
According to Khawanky, the Egyptian political scene currently comprises a series of informal checks and balances between the Egyptian Parliament; the interim government and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF); and the Egyptian Street, a group that includes the youth activists who drove Egypt’s revolution. According to Khawanky, the hierarchical nature of organizations like the SCAF, Muslim Brotherhood, and political parties has simultaneously made it easier for them to negotiate with each other and harder to conduct dialogue with youth who have eschewed hierarchical organization.
“We are playing soccer. They are playing basketball. So, we cannot go to the same playground,” Khawanky said. Unfortunately, the time I spent living in Cairo taught me just how painful it can be when these two games intersect.
In a soccer-crazed city that offers approximately a footprint of green space per person, basketball courts can be hard to find. Among the few refuges to play basketball was a strip of dusty tiles under the 6th of October Bridge. With two ends of the strip featuring basketball hoops and the other two featuring soccer goals, however, the space was contested. It became commonplace to find myself in an argument about which game should take precedence.
The most common resolution to that argument was that while far from ideal, the two could take place simultaneously. Unfortunately for the soccer players, my Derrick Rose-like drives to the basket would sometimes serve as an obstruction to the path of their ball. And unfortunately for my face, soccer balls don’t avoid obstructions; they smash into them.
Egypt’s transition has often resembled this confused situation, and the results have at times been far more painful than a soccer ball to the face. In playing basketball, as Khawanky put it, Egypt’s generals and political leaders have largely organized themselves into hierarchical organizations with clear leaders. They have scored baskets by securing widespread compliance or support for their political roles. In playing soccer, Egypt’s youth activists have organized themselves in a more amorphous fashion. They have scored goals largely by exposing injustices or building pressure for change.
The two games have often intersected and impacted each other. As Egyptian activists have realized that both the military and some political parties enjoy some level of popular support, they have broadened their tactics from mass gatherings in Tahrir Square. Likewise, as the generals and politicians have realized the potential of youth to mobilize around a goal, they have often had to change the composition of the government or the timeline of their transition plan. Khawanky pointed out that in the past month protests successfully pressured the government to try police officers who bore some responsibility for the deadly clashes earlier this year in Port Said.
Many youth have tried to carve out a role in the game played by the generals and politicians, volunteering their time and energy to the many campaigns for the politicians who might be able to change the system from within. Street activism, however, continues to be perceived by many as the most effective means of forcing change, at least in accomplishing limited goals. Yet, it comes with a cost. To Egyptians tired of the destabilizing effect of their revolution on their daily lives, continued protests, despite their effectiveness, have reinforced the misperception, according to Khawanky, that youth are “irresponsible, intolerant, inexperienced, and radical,” furthering their marginalization.
This state of affairs, in which Egyptian policymakers exclude youth from the policymaking process but expect them to swallow their frustration like they did before the revolution, is a recipe for continued crisis. In a country that badly needs a modicum of stability, Egyptian policymakers need to find a way to capitalize on the energy and ideas of this generation of revolutionary youth.
Egyptian youth can help themselves, however, as well. According to Khawanky, part of the reason for the marginalization of youth has been their failure to present a clear vision and the fact that their idealism has made it hard to compromise. A movement that so ingeniously organized itself into a leaderless movement united in purpose during the uprising has struggled to organize itself to maximize its impact following Mubarak’s fall.
By building organizations such as NGOs, think tanks, newspapers, and magazines capable of not only highlighting problems but also positing solutions that adhere both to the principles of their revolution and to the challenges Egyptians face, youth activists might find that not only can they play the generals’ and politicians’ game, but they can win it. And they can do so while building the trust of their countrymen. This will not be easy in the difficult political environment in which Egypt is mired. Yet, Egyptian youth have proven that it is a mistake to underestimate their potential.
In the meantime, while it’s possible to play basketball and soccer simultaneously on the same court, it can make for a painful game.