Thirty years of research have identified a common structure to social movements (i.e. grievances, resources, ideology, and opportunity) that challenge and bring about change in government systems. An example was the 1989 demise of the Soviet socialist bloc in Eastern Europe, which is described in Oberschall’s 2000 article “Social movements and the transition to democracy” and in Opp & Gern’s 1993 study, “Dissident groups, personal networks, and spontaneous cooperation: The East German Revolution of 1989.” Once again we are witnessing a region wide upheaval, this time in the Middle East as the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia continue to ripple across national boundaries. It is too early to say with certainty how or why this cascade started, much less tell where it is headed. However, some basic facts make the situation worth inspecting carefully, especially since youth have been on the forefront of numerous movements throughout history. This has surely been the case in the contemporary Middle East.
As researchers interested in young people’s civic and political engagement, we took notice of the uprising which began in Egypt with a massive demonstration on January 25, 2011. This particular rally was prefaced by six months of peaceful vigils that had been mounted in honor of Khaled Said, a young Alexandrian man who was beaten to death by security police in June, 2010. His brutal death was transformative. For example, Kholoud, a 25-year-old librarian in Alexandria decided shyly to attend Said’s wake but reported being dramatically transformed internally there by the passion she felt – she changed “from reformer, to revolutionary.” Beyond this local impact, Khalid Said might have died in lonely anonymity except that the gruesome videotape was uploaded and viewed eventually by hundreds of thousands of horrified youths, thanks largely to Facebook pages created in Said’s honor. (Portions of the campaign are documented by Wael Ghonim in his 2012 book, “Revolution 2.0.”)
Despite these stirrings, no one expected a large turnout on January 25th. This was partly due to the failure of repeated efforts since 2005 to mobilize Egyptians against Mubarak, which El Mahdi documented in her 2009 article, “Enough! Egypt’s quest for democracy.” Kholoud didn’t expect a large turnout, and neither did her friend Aly, who, unlike Kholoud, had already been ideologically committed to revolution for years. Noting that “revolutions aren’t planned” he recalled that he therefore had no expectation that such a “huge mass” would turn out. Illustrating just how unpredictably revolutions begin, for these youth and thousands of other Egyptians, the astonishing turnout inspired a confidence that perhaps they “had it in them after all” to insist on change, as well as a sense that this unexpectedly powerful moment must be seized. Seize it they did, as emboldened youth and adults came out of their homes and entered the public arena. On the following days, the demonstrations fed on the previous turnouts.
In a pivotal fourth day of the growing movement on January 28th, the government unleashed the police, unarmed security agents, and hired thugs to wreak violence on the crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in cities across Egypt. Over 800 were killed. The brutality of this attack on the non-violent protesters cemented their resolve, providing as it did searing, real-time evidence of the very degrading viciousness against which they were protesting. No wonder, then, that when President Mubarak gave a speech promising that he would step down from his post in six months, they would be unmoved, seeing it only as a ploy to gain the time needed to instantiate the long-suspected succession of his already disrespected son Gamal. The demonstrators who had now attracted international attention remained resolute in their demands and after 18 days of flimsy proposals and another emotional but non-substantive speech by Mubarak the president stepped down to end his 30-year reign as the head of Egypt’s government.
Seven days later, on February 18, the first author of this article flew to Cairo and interviewed youth in daily visits to Tahrir Square and Alexandria, over the following month. Our aim with these interviews was to capture a revolution in the making with focus on young people. We were aware of the literature on the structure of social movements. Given how rarely youth are consulted for their experiences with revolution, however, our goal was to obtain an on-the-ground account from young Egyptians. What were their grievances? Which organizational resources were employed to bring out the huge crowds and sustain them? How did young people understand their actions within the context of Egyptian history? How did they assess the risks they took and what did they see as the gains they might achieve? Which opportunities arose and how did youth capitalize on them?
The interviews reported on here were conducted in February and March 2011 as the revolution was unfolding. (We are analyzing subsequent interviews with a common set of youth and will report on their individual trajectories in future reports.) It is common knowledge that political events in Egypt have taken a zigzagged path during the past year. Mubarak and other officials are being tried in court procedures; a new Parliament has been elected; and the promise of a new constitution and a presidential election are in the offing. But the country is still being managed by the custodial Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and it has proved disillusioning to many. The SCAF has tried to limit civil society institutions, arrested scores of activists, and still hasn’t brought to justice to those killed during the protests. One can only speculate on Egypt’s governmental future. How commanding or democratic will the Islamist parties, who have won a clear majority of parliament seats, be in influencing the constitution and selection of president? To what extent will SCAF collude with the Islamists or give up its power? Or will it, as it has hinted, insist on immunity and freedom from financial oversight? Some speculate, for example, that one reason for that financial freedom would be to secure the more than $1 billion aid that the United States has given the Egyptian military since the Egypt-Israel peace accord of 1979.
Despite the ongoing flux and uncertainty, the data collected during the first phase of the revolution are important. They reveal firsthand what the youth were thinking, feeling, and doing as they moved from behind their keyboards into the street where their ideas were turned into action and their words were transformed into collective experience of remaking Egyptian history. Below, we organize some of that insight in four areas common to understanding revolutions.
Youth had no difficulty specifying reasons for taking to the streets. We already noted the signal event of the torture and death of Khaled Said in Alexandria and the hundreds killed in January and February. Beyond this, youths articulated other dissatisfactions that accompanied that brutality. Omar, for example, a 28-year-old human rights worker in Cairo, recounted how the population was intimidated by an insidious threat of being detained or arrested. One couldn’t even have a harmless conversation at a café, he described, without fearing that the innocent-appearing man at a neighboring table would later haul you into his office for interrogation. Beyond the paralyzing fear of authority, youths reported feeling denigrated in a variety of ways. Kholoud, for example, said that the first question asked by the police when one calls in to report a traffic accident always was “Is the other person Egyptian or foreign?” If the answer was “foreign,” help came immediately; if it was “Egyptian,” there was no telling when help would come. She also described the insulting demands that outside governments made on Egyptians. “Why should I have to fill out a form guaranteeing that I’m not a terrorist each and every time I travel?” she complained. She further described the requirement to purchase airfare, travel insurance, and lodging before applying for a travel visa, which in the end might not be granted.
Then there was the dismal economic situation. Sayed, a 28-year-old male tour guide from the Giza suburb of Cairo noted that a chain of corruption links ordinary citizens like taxi drivers all the way to government officials who must be bribed for obtaining licenses and permits. More broadly, he explained that “[Our economy] should be number one in the world. We have a lot of money; every minute the Suez Canal brings in two million dollars . . . Egypt has ports on two major seas and has rich deposits of natural gas. Where does the gas go? To Israel. Where does the money go? To Switzerland.” When the amount of money (billions) that Mubarak had stashed away in Switzerland was made public shortly after his leaving office, even Sayed, who shared his family’s emotional attachment to Mubarak, turned on him with disgust.
Walid, a 22-year neighbor of Sayed pointed out that one-half the Egyptian population lives in a state of poverty. He noted that this was exacerbated by raging inflation that raised the price for staples, even for bread, as the world market for wheat has been distorted by increasing demand from China and Russia. But the poor are not the only ones suffering. Well-educated young people often cannot find employment commensurate with their degrees. Their unemployment and under-employment add to a sense of worthlessness which Kholoud characterized succinctly: “We have no value [in the eyes of the state].”
These problems provide a context for grasping why youth were unmoved by Mubarak’s offer to resign and would not accept his son’s succession. They were done with the dynasty and its oligarchic beneficiaries. Theirs was not a rash voice of anti-paternal venom. Several, in fact, acknowledged that Mubarak had done many positive things for Egypt. In Kholoud’s words: “During the 1980s and 1990s [Mubarak] wasn’t very bad. But then during the last decade when Gamal Mubarak came with World Bank policies and strategies, this shattered things, this really shattered things.”
As evidenced by the crucial role of the Khaled Said Facebook pages in galvanizing awareness and commitment mentioned above, social media played a central mobilizing role in the early revolution. Sayed offered the pithy phrase: “They poisoned Nasser, they assassinated Sadat, and Facebook killed Mubarak.” Mohsen, a 26-year-old human rights worker from Cairo, provided several insights into the nuanced role of the internet. He described how younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood helped bring throngs to the square from Cairo’s various neighborhoods. He noted also that the local youth athletic clubs had well-established social networks and, given their experience with confrontation (typically among each other), they took up critical front line positions in Tahrir in the early days of the revolution. Aly explained that Facebook was used “for coordination and mobilization among several small entities or networks,” not the top-down workings of the “big, big political parties.”
Mohsen recalled the ironic turn of events when Mubarak cut off internet access in an effort to impede communication and organization. But instead of slowing the flow of people to Tahrir Square, this impelled youth to come in even greater numbers. In the same vein, Sayed chuckled at the irony that one of Mubarak’s modernization policies, providing every home with a computer, backfired by bringing him down. Mohsen explained that with no internet access, youth had to meet face-to-face; hence, they flooded to the central city where they could make plans and exchange experiences. Omar and Kholoud described how the square became a city, itself organized by established groups. These groups, like sports clubs, took on self-assigned municipal functions such as managing sanitation and mediating disputes. In the process, bonds were strengthened as public discourse was constructed. As Omar stated the point: “I am an activist, but in my office and my writings. But when I went to the street, I found myself . . . like waking up.”
Youth were sensitive to overplaying the role of Facebook, however. Aly and Mohsen were quick to point out that Facebook did not start this revolution. Young people did by taking their passion into the streets. Facebook was an important tool because it allowed communication across anonymous and diverse groups in a context where the security police could have cut off key nodes if they could identify leaders. Mohsen said, “The media labeled us the `Facebook youth.’ We are not aliens… 15 days in Tahrir Square taught us much – things we did not learn in school in political science classes.” Kholoud added her viewpoint as well: “Instead of just thinking or writing about it, [we] said it out loud in the streets with thousands and millions of people. It’s different than saying it on your keyboard or inside your mind.” She further summarized that “The leaders of the parties dress in suits and talk. The youth are out on the street acting. The young members of the parties are crucial. They knew how to team build. The leaders are still in the meeting rooms.”
Youth identified several ideological facets that gave the demonstrators a sense of collective action and shared meaning. One was the diversity of participants, which fostered a belief that all sectors of Egyptian society were in agreement at that moment. “We are One Hand” was the chorus chanted constantly and written everywhere on posters and walls. They mentioned seeing and talking with fellow citizens, rich and poor, young and old, male and female, religious and secular. In this regard, three of the interviewees cited the cross generational accord within the crowd. Dina, age 22, said: “All ages, rich and poor, not a single offending word, everyone wanting the same thing: that Mubarak leave.” Mohsen also provided two examples of interaction between youth and their elders. In the first, he described a moment when an elderly woman approached and asked, `Are you the Tahrir youth?’ I said yes and she said, `God bless you.’” In the other example, Mohsen recalled when an old man crawled on a tank to kiss the young soldier whose head was above the turret.
There was another dimension to the inter-generational theme which reinforced a collective ideology among the young participants. Kholoud said simply: “We made history. I can’t believe I witnessed that day, the 25th. I can’t believe I lived a day like that. That was totally unthinkable, unimaginable. It’s fairy tale.” Mohsen added: “[Our generation] had not given anything to the country. One generation had the war of 1973 against Israel. Others were the generation of the Suez Canal or the Aswan Dam. But now I have participated and helped create an event in the history of this country.”
Two youths conveyed a shared ideology using the Egyptian folk saying, “walking beside the wall.” This term has a dual meaning. On the one hand it refers to not stepping into the open where you can be attacked from all sides. On the other it was an admonition to keep to the side and let the government handle economic and political matters. By walking into the center and expressing themselves in public, youth had thrown off a cautious posture, opened themselves to challenge and struggle, and deliberately shed the blanket of constraint against their meaningful participation in Egyptian society.
Notably, the youth saw this emancipation not as a newly acquired identity, but rather a reclaiming of what they knew to be the rightful dignity of all Egyptians. “Finally, we can be Egyptian again” was one of the most powerful choruses heard in the early days of the revolution’s success. Noting its role in cultivating world civilization, Sayed and Walid spoke of activism as an act of loyalty to Egyptian history, and against autocrats whose greed and callousness had defiled it.
Revolutions are opportunistic. We’ve already mentioned the galvanizing power of the unexpected turnout on January 25th, the insult of Mubarak’s impotent offers to change, the unexpected benefit of his shutting down the electronic systems, and the brutal crackdown of January 28th. All of these circumstances contributed to the initial success of the revolution.
At least two further political opportunities presented themselves prior to the start of the revolution that paved the way for its momentum: one local, and one regional. Many of our youth identified the November 2010 election in Egypt as a watershed moment in their anger at the government. They had long known of the sham that was the Egyptian electoral process, but the stunning level of fraud in that particular election gave impetus to finally resist the farce.
The impetus for the Egyptian revolution was also significantly enhanced by the success of the Tunisians in ousting their own dictator Ben Ali just 11 days before Egypt’s 2011 protests began. Asked to identify the most critical element of the revolution’s success, Omar immediately said “Tunisia.” He quipped about the competition Egyptian youth have with Tunisian youth, and their need to “one up” their Tunisian neighbors. More soberly he commented, “Thank God, Tunisia happened first and not Libya.” The non-violent and swiftly effective revolution in Tunisia emboldened the Egyptians. Libya’s unrest began after Egypt, but turned rapidly into protracted armed conflict.
Finally, the military presented a pivotal opportunity. Revolutions rise and fall due in large part to the behavior of key elites in the society, as Goldstone indicated in his 2001 article “Toward a fourth generation of revolutionary theory.” There is no more powerful elite in Egypt than the military, both given its significant economic resources and apparent independence from the governing regime. Youths were insistent on distinguishing clearly between the military and the police and security forces. It was the police and the security forces, not the military, which historically did the regime’s often brutal bidding. It was these forces who killed Khaled Said in 2010 and the over 800 protesters in the early days of the revolution. In contrast, the Egyptian military did not intervene in the demonstrations (as they did in Libya and Syria, for example.) Indeed, eventually it endorsed the protesters’ demands.
Pundits attributed this stance of the military to indifference and self-preservation. While this might have been true at the upper echelons, evident on the streets of Egypt in the days and weeks following Mubarak’s demise was, rather, a moving harmony and unity between soldier and civilian. We asked our youth contacts to confirm this for us. They were quick to disagree that the military was disinterested and provided explanation. Mohsen recounted stories of servicemen helping civilians and Aly explained the personal bond between civilian and soldier. They were not “foreigners” brought in from distant provinces as happened in Beijing’s infamous Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Rather, they were the relatives, neighbors, and classmates of the protestors. Further, Aly from Alexandria explained that soldiers are taught from day one of their training by their leaders to love and defend the people. According to Aly, one cementing force behind the success of the revolution was the certainty that solider and civilian would not attack each other.
One year after its revolution began, the political fate of Egypt remains uncertain. The citations we presented from young activists may be viewed as expressions of euphoria at what the people were able to accomplish. We know from our subsequent interviews in July and November that the playing out of events has had a sobering effect. Some of the youth long for a return to “normal,” others have remained committed to demonstrating for change, and still others have become radicalized in favor of more aggressive tactics (e.g., stones, Molotov cocktails) due to the increasing brutality of the SCAF.
Nevertheless, what remains apparent even in follow-up interviews is that Egyptian youth have consolidated an identity not apt to disappear easily or fade into lost hopes. We base our judgment on their own understanding of their efforts in 2011 as not attacks on Egypt, but intended to recover a rich and dignified Egypt. Albeit idealistic, this perspective indicates that in the process of making a revolution these youth were forming historically grounded identities. This was the case, for example, in the 1950-60 civil rights movement in the United States, as reported in McAdam’s 1988 book “Freedom Summer” and Fendrich’s 1993 book “Ideal citizens. Such identities are not easily given up and may remain life-long sources of self-definition.
BRIAN K. BARBER directs the Center for the Study of Youth and Political Conflict, University of Tennessee. His recent edited book is Adolescents and War: How Youth Deal with Political Conflict (2009) Oxford University Press.
JAMES YOUNISS has studied young people's civic engagement and political involvement for the past two decades. His latest book was co-edited with Peter Levine: Engaging Young People in Civic Life (2009) Vanderbilt University Press.
This article will be printed in Spotlight Section of the Spring 2013 Edition of the Harvard International Review.