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The youth and revolution

The key role of young activists in organizing the protests that lead to a revolution does not prevent the participation of other groups in the formation of a state that should reflect the ideals of its revolution

Hassan Abou Taleb , Wednesday 9 Mar 2011
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Despite the appearance that the demonstrations and strikes of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution were spontaneous or the result of accumulative workers’ strikes and a buildup of anger and frustration among many sectors in society over the past ten years, the statements by many Facebook activists – as well as the groups and political parties who took part in the event – indicate that action was a result of clear and prudent awareness and preplanning.

In many of the interviews with young activists, it’s apparent that a two-track plan was being discussed ahead of the protests. First, choosing a main banner for the demonstration and drafting an execution plan, part of which was publicised to deceive security forces while the true plan of action was only known to the activists. Second, assigning roles and responsibilities for each group to carry out before or during the protests. For example, before the demonstration on the Friday of Wrath, several locations were announced as meeting points and protest sites in order to evade security forces. A group of activists scouted these locations on Friday morning to find out the scale of security forces present. When they ascertained a heavy security presence near these sites, demonstrations erupted at other predetermined locations and sites. This confused the security and made them lose focus on how to confront protesters.

According to key activists, demonstrations began in working class districts such as Boulaq and Imbaba and were led by adept activists, who knew what they were doing because of their intellect and high political awareness and knowledge of famous popular revolutions. They traveled along pre-planned routes which they chose beforehand.

These claims comply with what I saw on Tuesday 25 January and Friday 28 January. Marchers started in working class areas then moved onto side streets calling families and young people to “come down, come down” to attract the largest number of demonstrators.  Sure enough, those words had a magic effect on many who first watched from their balconies then decided to go down and actively participate.

These throngs, which at times seemed distant from each other, then all converged onto squares or areas which can hold a large number of protesters because demonstration planners wanted to wait as long as they could before heading to another location, where they would meet up with other groups of protesters. The majority of slogans at the beginning of the marches were direct and hit a chord with the public, such as chanting “We want freedom and social justice” in working class districts, or someone calls out a name and the people respond “illegitimate” such as “Gamal… illegitimate”, “Parliament… illegitimate”, “Ahmed Ezz… illegitimate”, “Mubarak… illegitimate”. Alternatively, there were other chants such as “Gamal, tell Mubarak Saudi Arabia is waiting for you” or “Gamal, tell your father all the people hate you”.

And hence, the marches began in Boulaq, went through Mohandiseen and Dokki to meet up with those coming up from Faisal Street, Giza Square and also Tahrir Street, and ended up in Galaa Square in front of Dokki police station. Groups from Mustafa Mahmoud Square passed through Al-Batal Ahmed Abdel-Aziz Street onto Dokki Square and Galaa Square, where they readied to march onto to Tahrir Square past the Opera House. Savvy and informed planning and routes were familiar to protest organisers, although not known to many participants who joined in later with enthusiasm and a desire to end their marginalisation and economic deprivation.

When resistance by police forces collapsed at about 4pm and it became known that the police had withdrawn, confusion set in as protesters spontaneously debated what the next move should be. Between 4pm and 7pm, protesters in Galaa Square became divided amongst themselves; some decided to stay and occupy the square until the morning, while others chose to continue on to Tahrir Square, especially when it became apparent that Central Security forces, which had barricaded themselves since noon in front of Galaa Bridge, had vanished. Only a handful remained outside Dokki police station, including a captain who carried a broken walkie talkie.

This amount of planning by demonstration organisers refutes any suggestion of spontaneity, but until all the facts are known it appears that the collapse of security forces and the withdrawal of the police were unexpected developments. Hence, the decision to congregate in Tahrir and remain in the square as a liberated territory was a spontaneous reaction to developments.

But indicators also show that remaining in Tahrir was nothing more than a momentary challenge inspired by famed strikes and modern popular revolts, such as the recent ones in Ukraine and Georgia and before when the Soviet regime collapsed in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s. How these revolutions organised and managed the lives of the people who agreed on one goal but did not know each other was most beneficial. In Tahrir Square, people formed committees for dwelling, security, health, media and others. Each group set up a tent for its activities and a public address system to broadcast their ideas and slogans.

This level of organisation and planning of the demonstrations is admirable, but it now faces an enormous challenge in the post-revolution period after it succeeded in overthrowing the regime and launching a political process under the auspices of the Armed Forces, aiming to pave the way for building a new republic based on a new Constitution. Other goals include choosing a president who is voted into office in free, honest elections, and a parliament which reflects the choices of the nation without forgery or vote rigging.

A pertinent question here is can the youth organise themselves, either through political parties or civic groups, within one year to continue the march of revival and building a genuine democratic system which is sustainable and reflects the political and ideological diversity of Egypt without erasing, opposing or denying it.

It is clear that more than one party is speaking on behalf of the revolution. There are the Protectors of the Revolution and the 25 January Alliance, and endless political parties who benefited from the new positive atmosphere. This all makes for a good mix which represents diversity in society. Any party claiming to speak exclusively in the name of the revolution as the only ones qualified of following up on its goals and drafting its agenda, or represent the ambitions of the entire nation, contradicts the revolution itself. It is also contrary to the revolution’s exalted principles, especially given that we have yet to hold honest elections.

Accordingly, any group calling for demonstrations to topple the government or the immediate implementation of specific demands is the concern of that group alone. It does not necessarily represent all sectors of society, who might prefer to postpone judgment of the performance of the incumbent government and give it a chance to carry out its duties.

There is also disagreement about the priorities. Freedom cannot be restricted for security reasons, and security alone cannot compensate for lack of freedom. What is needed is both security and freedom under a just and balanced law, strong institutions which enforce the law – including the police – and respect human rights. This poses the biggest challenge now for all of Egypt.

What is remarkable here is that some youth groups believe they are the only ones capable of change, and that the revolution is exclusively theirs, denying the role played by labour protests over the past five years. They also believe that older generations should either stay quiet or leave the scene entirely. During discussions with some of the youth who actively participated in the revolution and made big sacrifices, one of them said that he did not grow up exposed to state-owned media whether broadcast or printed, and that his cultural education and consciousness was formed via the internet and overseas training programmes. Another one said that they will not stop until the army surrenders power to the revolutionaries and returns to its barracks.

In such conversations with the revolutionary youth, I advised them to quickly form a political party which would be able to compete in the coming elections, but the majority of them believe that the priority is to continue strikes and continue revolting. In one meeting, some of them were angered and others critical when I suggested that before judging potential candidates for the presidency and parliament, the youth should educate themselves about the basics such as the Constitution, political parties, civic institutions and differences between branches of government such as the presidency and parliament and the definition of a civic or religious state. One response was very provocative and cut down an entire generation: “Where were you? You know about all these things but did nothing; we don’t know about these matters but we launched a revolution and changed Egypt entirely.”

And here, I believe, lies the danger where post-revolutionary Egypt is run with overconfidence without the fundamentals of knowledge or awareness. In that way, someone is certain to come along, reap the gains and deny others for one of arrogance, rushing into the unknown, ignorance, lack of experience or a refusal to learn from the experience of others. And for this reason, I am sounding the alarm bells.

The writer is an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies

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