During the last few months I followed the arrests of several young people who protested the border agreement with Saudi Arabia according to which Egypt would give up the Tiran and Sanafir islands. These protests, it should be noted, were all peaceful: no weapons were brandished, roads cut, or citizens or security personnel attacked. Protestors simply held posters against the ratification of the agreement, urging parliament to postpone its debate pending the opinion of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Since that time, the detention of many of these youths has been renewed, and some were referred to criminal trial on charges of inciting to demonstrations and joining illegal organizations, even though they are members of legitimate, legal political parties operating under state oversight.
And as I followed these events, I recalled all the conferences organized by the state to encourage youth political participation and statements from officials stressing the need to mobilize youth efforts and energies and build new political cadres for the future.
As it happens, I personally know one of the young men being prosecuted. Islam Marei is an officer of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the party I belonged to until I left it last year. Like most of the party youth, Islam wasn’t much of a political activist before the January revolution. When he joined the revolution in Sharqiya, it was with the belief that here was an opportunity to contribute actively to changing and bettering the country. His enthusiasm led him to join one of the newly established parties, participate in the 2011 parliamentary elections, take his subsequent loss in stride, and continue to work in the party with the conviction that the goal was to serve the country, not win a parliamentary seat or immunity. And when the Muslim Brothers abandoned the constitutional path, Islam took to the streets again on June 30th 2013, clinging to the hope for change. He supported the 2014 constitution unreservedly and campaigned for it in his governorate. He didn’t lose hope in formal party politics even as many others turned away, believing it important to continue striving, instead of yielding to despair or seeking refuge outside Egypt.
So when I read that he was arrested for protesting the transfer of the islands, I was troubled and worried for him and his comrades, but I thought the matter would be resolved once parliament approved the agreement and the president ratified it. I told myself that as long as the state got what it wanted, it would seek to placate the enthusiastic young people, and mend the deep rift caused by its mismanagement of the controversial issue.
Unfortunately, Islam’s detention was renewed and he was referred to trial, demonstrating that we still have a way to go before tensions are defused and young people are encouraged to freely participate in partisan politics, a crucial safety valve for the country.
The truth is that these youths aren’t guilty of inciting against the state, joining underground organizations, or subverting public institutions. On the contrary, their crime is to have believed that young people should contribute to determining the future of the country and that political work in the framework of legitimate parties is a national duty.
Now it’s up to the judiciary, which I believe will bring them justice. But more important, however, is for the state to reconsider its attitude to youth political participation. It’s a mistake to believe that such participation can be wholly managed and controlled by state agencies. When young people are encouraged to enter the public sphere, this must come with a broad margin of freedom, an acceptance of criticism and peaceful protest, and room to make mistakes. The risks are worth it, for it allows the harnessing of heartfelt energy, genuine enthusiasm, and an inexhaustible willingness to sacrifice for the nation.