Egypt's young political activists: The way forward

Maha Ghalwash , Sunday 19 Jan 2014

Young political activists must think beyond protests and establish political parties, competing for the electorate's favour based on programmes

Caught in the grips of revolutionary fervor in 2011, the Egyptian public viewed the young political activists credited with sparking the revolutionary uprising that brought about Mubarak’s downfall as national heroes. Fast forward to today, and we find that this view has distinctly changed.

I am certain that Ahmed Maher, one of the founders of the April 6 Movement, is — quite painfully — aware of this changed sentiment. On 26 November 2013, he and other members of his group joined the "No Military Trials for Civilians" campaign in their demonstration against the new protest law approved by Adly Mansour on 24 November. The police dispersed the demonstration and arrested a number of activists; Maher not among them. The next day, Egyptian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of sedition.

Maher duly turned himself in and was detained 30 November. I remember hearing about this incident from friends; very few showed sympathy for the activists, while most identified them as irresponsible or worse, as troublemakers. Again, when an Egyptian court sentenced Maher and two other prominent activists (Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma) to three years in prison and a fine of LE50,000 each, there was barely a murmur from Egyptian society.

Asmaa Mahfouz is another young political activist who can no longer count on a sympathetic reception from the Egyptian public. A guest last week on the popular talk show Masr El-Jedida anchored by Mutaz El-Demerdash (Al-Hayat channel), Mahfouz found herself fielding questions from angry and suspicious callers. One called her a "traitor to our country"; another wondered about the level and source of the funds at her disposal. Yet another individual asked her to identify herself and the nature of her political activities, to which she replied, defensively: "I am a political activist, and I stand with human rights; whenever these are violated, I will protest."

At this point Ahmed Douma called in and explained to viewers that political activists concern themselves with the affairs of their country, and have its best interests at heart. He further pointed out, rather angrily, that their opposition to certain state actions did not justify branding them as traitors.

These comments, though, did little to clear the air between the political activists and a disapproving society. "What do these people really want?" queried the only friend I knew ready to give Asmaa and Ahmed the benefit of the doubt.

These are not the only young political activists to be subjected to scathing societal criticism for their political views and protest activities; there are many others — like Esraa Abdel Fattah and Alaa Abdel Fattah.

Fellow activist Samira Ibrahim, one of the prominent figures of the "virginity tests" scandal of 2011, noted this situation in her article of 11 January 2014 (in Al-Tahrir newspaper). In this article, entitled "The Other's Battle," she tries to explain why society has become so disenchanted with the young political activists. Briefly, she believes that they have unwittingly allowed themselves to be manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood. They joined forces with them, fighting alongside them without any real understanding of the reasons for these battles, and moreover, their victories only served to strengthen the Islamist position.

As if this were not enough, reports Ibrahim, some political activists took the opportunity of appearing on popular talk shows and expressed their opinion of the Egyptian people, describing the ordinary citizen as ignorant and lowly, while others made disparaging comments on the widely revered late Shaykh Al-Sharawi.

"It is no wonder," she comments, "that they have come to be hated by ordinary citizens." She follows this up with some words of advice to her comrades: "The only way out of this predicament," she states, "is to go out into the streets immediately" and win back the confidence of the people. This necessarily involves focusing on immediate and pressing societal problems and joining and fighting for the causes that "concern the people, not a terrorist group."

While it is easy to see that Ibrahim and her comrades are passionate, patriotic and well-intentioned young people who want to build a vibrant society and prosperous country, her advice will only work to lock the young activists into the category of rabble-rousers. Actually, she seems to encourage endless, unorganised activism.

Yet she and her fellow activists do not seem to understand that ordinary Egyptians are tired of revolutionary uprisings and noisy demonstrations and bickering political activists. "I never thought that the 2011 revolution would bring three years of instability — I'm so tired of it all," is a comment I've come to hear rather frequently now.

So the time has come for these very patriotic and well-intentioned young people to take their activism to another level. Rather than merely "going out into the streets," they should establish political parties. Thus a group of like-minded activists must think about the ideology or vision to be espoused by their party, and then express this in a comprehensible party programme, and finally turn this into a viable policy platform. They will have to organise outreach activities that will inform the public and mobilise citizens in support of their party's vision and goals.

Parliamentary elections (probably this summer) are coming up, and while many candidates will run as independents, others will be nominated by parties. A new youth-based political party should take this opportunity and try to win seats on the basis of its policy agenda.

In this way, the young activists will complete their transformation from "irresponsible troublemakers" to politicians with clear goals. In this way, these young people will make a difference in their country, and even might be appreciated by their compatriots once again.

The writer is a lecturer at the British University in Egypt.

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