A youth revolution: Some thoughts
By Naira Antoun
Images of rebirth surround descriptions of the uprisings we have seen this year in North Africa and other Arab states. ‘The Arab Spring.’ The ‘youth revolution.’ A ‘reawakening.’ The notion of youth, evoking as it does hope, new beginnings and promise is pivotal to this re-birth imaginary. But what does it conceal; what are the erasures we enact as we embrace this hopeful notion? This piece will consider the case of Egypt to explore what is at stake in describing contemporary events unfolding across the Arab world as ‘a youth revolution.’ While each country has its own history and particularities and what is the case for Egypt cannot simply be applied elsewhere, looking at one county can provide the beginnings of a critical engagement with the idea of a youth movement or youth revolution. Through considering the erasures that the youth narrative effects, I ask whether adopting the seemingly innocuous notion of a youth movement, implicates us in a deeply problematic – and even elitist – rewriting of history as it occurs.
On 25 January 2011, after the fall of Ben Ali, dictator in Tunisia, demonstrators spilled onto Egypt’s streets in several cities – surprising and panicking the regime’s allies, such as the United States, and surprising and inspiring millions across the world. The Egyptian regime responded in a number of ways, including the use of violence and state propaganda, cutting the internet and making promises of limited reforms. But it was too little, too late; each day the numbers participating escalated, as did the demands. Eighteen days later, on 11 February, Mubarak had stepped down. These events are often referred to as #Jan25, and as a revolution. I refer here to the events alternately as an uprising or a movement, as many of the revolutionary demands have not been met. For though Mubarak is gone, there remains a difficult fight to get rid of and really change the regime.
Both inside and outside of Egypt, many people uncritically describe the movement as a youth movement. They do not by that mean that others did not participate in the events that unfolded. The streets were filled with people from all ages and from across the social spectrum. Indeed what was so notable about the mobilisations that occurred was the wide demographic and social spectrum of participants. Were it not for the variety of peoples involved, the movement would not have achieved as much as it has so far. Several commentators have noted that it is not unusual for young people to be at the forefront of uprisings and revolutions, but what we are witnessing in Egypt has been described as quintessentially a youth movement. So, in terms of what the idea of a youth movement conceals, it is not simply that other people took part – that is obvious just from watching news footage. The erasures of the youth narrative are much more fundamental and far-reaching than that.
The erasure of history: making struggle and resistance invisible
The notion of rebirth implies the establishment of a new starting point, with origins in what has gone before but ultimately different in character. So does this concept position us in relation to history? Because the idea of rebirth does not direct us to an understanding of the contemporary moment as it has arisen from the past, it is essentially ahistorical. This erasure of history does not simply mean we have little understanding of how we got to the present moment, it is also an erasure of previous struggles and resistances.
The movement in Egypt did not spring out of nowhere. Key points of dissent in the past decade include a solidarity movement with the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, in 2000, the 2003 anti-war movement that was a response to the Egyptian’s government role in the war against Iraq and a pro-democracy movement started in 2004 called Egyptian Movement for Change but more commonly known by its unofficial moniker, Kefaya, meaning ‘enough’. All of these moments are noteworthy for the cooperation across ideological divides that they exhibited, with leftists and Islamists working together. This is important to note because press coverage suggests that youth movements are non-ideological: as if Egypt’s youth simply got very angry and exploded, or in their youthful idealism spilled out onto the streets. On the basis of these points of dissent, activism over the past decade can better be described as cross-ideological.
Activism that has taken place over the past ten years should be seen as part of the groundwork that led to the eruption of mass dissent in 2011. Protest relating to the second Palestinian Intifada and war on Iraq clearly had a regional focus. So too did the pro-democracy movement; in its literature the twin dangers Kefaya identified were a pervasive repressive despotism and the assault on Palestine and Iraq. The Egyptian regime’s close relationship with the United States and the role it has played with relation to Palestine – for instance in helping to enforce the illegal and brutal siege of Gaza – are therefore not incidental to the local resistance it has faced. And yet much of the international press – and its adoption of a youth narrative – glosses over this. We are told that ‘It was nothing to do with Israel or America, this was about young people wanting their rights.’ However, slogan after slogan, in varied and witty ways, described Mubarak as a traitor, and an agent of the US and Israel.
Despite being incredibly important, the past decade’s dissent involved fairly limited numbers of people. However, since 2004, millions have participated in what was the biggest and most sustained strike wave in over half a century. The participation of millions of people in these collective actions is notable given the context: The trade union structure is but an arm of a repressive state. Workers in the private sector, for example, often have to sign undated resignation letters before they start their job, while strikes, sit-ins and other collective actions were met with state brutality, violence and unfair trials.
Demands for a minimum wage are dismissed by many as simply economic demands. But they are also demands for an adequate standard of living, a cry against exploitation, a call for dignity. When 40% of the population live on less than two dollars a day, when inequality is increasing and when neo-liberal ‘reform’ is accelerating, these demands are better understood as nothing less than radical. Some of the strikes were also often self-consciously political, with moves towards establishing independent trade unions that actually represent workers, strikers in Mahalla stripping down posters of Mubarak and stamping on them, and solidarity actions with the Gaza flotilla in 2010. To describe the workers’ movement as ‘simply’ economic, therefore, fundamentally misunderstands the nature and importance of their demands – for not only were they often explicitly political, but issues relating to the distribution of wealth are among the most political in any polity.
The unrest has not just been urban; it has been rural as well. The past decade has seen an increasing number of land disputes and violent clashes between peasants and landowners, who often have close links to the police. Episodic protests in villages and towns across the country have targeted the inadequacy or absence of public services and the routine abuse meted out in police stations.
While Egypt’s progress in its neo-liberal reforms has been praised by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the effects on the majority of Egyptians have been less than salutary. The dissolution of the social contract, whereby the state provided subsidies and services, has fueled mounting alienation and resentment, and over the past decade we have seen resistance and dissent from an increasing range of actors. The rise of the politics of the street – eclipsed by the youth narrative – is not incidental. In 2008 The Economist noted the ‘alarming’ frequency of protests in Egypt, asking if the dam would burst.
Privileging youth: making the revolutionary invisible
In the international and Egyptian press, it is the urban upper middle-class youth who are being interviewed and portrayed as the representatives of the uprising. Several publications have featured portraits of the protesters, who are presented as young, modern, middle class and tech-savvy. While some of these regularly profiled activists have spoken out against the notion that it is only young people at the forefront of the Egyptian movement, they have limited control over how their images and words are framed and packaged.
While youth may appear to be an inclusive category, including people of a particular age but cross-cutting class and background, this depends on an understanding of youth as an objective category defined by the criterion of age. To fully get to grips with how the notion of youth is being used, it must be recognised as something that is constructed and not simply defined by age. This is always the case; anthropologists, sociologists and others have done much to establish that youth is a cultural and social construct, which is, as such, variable across time and space. In the discussion that has centred around the uprising in Egypt, youth has been constructed in such a way that a 25 year-old worker, or a 17 year-old young woman from a shanty town are excluded, while a 20 or 40 year-old tech-savvy, urban, middle-class person is considered young. In other words, the ‘youth’ of the youth movement in Egypt has been constructed according to class and economic lines. However, because the notion of youth evokes age, these lines of exclusion are made invisible. Interestingly, several of the activists I spoke with in Cairo – who fit the youth profile – do not consider themselves as young. How do these exclusions of the seemingly inclusive notion of youth impact our understanding of the Egyptian youth movement?
One of the outcomes of the construction of youth as middle class is that it privileges certain people as spokespeople of the movement. As such, some of the people without whom the movement might not have been possible are rendered voiceless – or inaudible. More than being rendered absent, this rewriting of the contemporary moment renders them as marginal and even as damaging to the movement. This process resonates elsewhere in the framing of the movement. Take for example Tahrir Square in central Cairo – tahrir meaning ‘freedom’ – which has become a kind of simulacrum for the Egyptian uprising. The uprising actually occurred nationwide. Indeed some of the most fraught battles with the much-hated police have occurred in places far from Cairo such as Suez, a historical hotbed of resistance and dissent. Had the dissent been concentrated in only one or two towns and cities, Mubarak would most likely not have been ousted.
What about the workers? Because the image of youth that is evoked is of a tech-savvy, quintessentially middle-class youth, they are seen to be torchbearers of the movement. By contrast, those workers who were among the first to stamp on posters of Mubarak are somehow positioned as outside of it, as late entrants. Throughout the 18 days that led to the ousting of Mubarak, factories were mostly closed, and as such workers took part in mass demonstrations as opposed to sit-ins or strikes. When the factories did re-open a couple of days before the fall of Mubarak, the workers did strike. The towns that saw massive demonstrations throughout the uprising – such as Mahallah and Mahalla and Kafr al-Dawwar – are working-class towns, and the sites of workers’ struggle.
While the workers’ movement over the past decade has played a key role in undermining the regime, since the fall of Mubarak in February, worker strikes have been presented by critics as being at best nothing to do with the revolution, and at worst, counter-revolutionary. The term making the rounds in public discourse to describe the strikes is fi’a. Though fi’a technically means ‘group’, it is being employed to render calls for rights or for a more equitable distribution of wealth as special interest. Thus, fi’a has become framed as expressing selfish, as opposed to national concerns. Workers stand accused of taking advantage of the revolution to promote their narrow interests. The workers’ actions are described as a threat to the country’s economy, security and stability, and some critics even claim that they are instigated by remnants of the former ruling party. Not only does the fi’a narrative render the workers and their struggles invisible and irrelevant, but it also conceals the economic issues that arguably had a large part to play in how the regime came to be seen as illegitimate by increasing sectors of the Egyptian populace.
Amongst the myriad of questions that this elite re-writing of history conveniently conceals is that one of the key demands in the 25 January movement was for social justice. Given that the escalation of workers’ strikes over the past decade played a key role in leading to mass dissent, what ideological groundwork has been done so that it makes sense to position workers as against the revolution? The notion of a revolution of youth must be seen as part of this groundwork.
Formally employed workers comprise a relatively small proportion of the working population in Egypt, and many work in what is commonly called the informal economy. (Or, more accurately, many work in the informal economy exclusively, and many others employed in the public sector earn secondary and tertiary incomes through the informal economy because their salaries are too low to support a decent standard of living.) The emphasis given in this paper to the role of workers should not be taken as arising from the belief that Egyptian society is best understood as rulers vs. workers, or that the workers are the vanguard in any revolutionary situation. Rather, it arises from a recognition of the role that organised workers have played in Egypt since 2004.
So what about those who are not workers in the sense of being formally employed? In Arabic, the word ‘sha’bi’ comes from the word meaning ‘people’, and the people described as sha’bi are usually rendered in English as ‘the popular classes.’ During the 18 days of mass demonstrations the world became acquainted with a word that is pervasive in Egyptian political discourse – baltagiyya. The term is often translated as ‘thugs’ but this does not quite capture how it is used. The men who infiltrated the protests and committed violence, and who were shown to be members of the ruling party, or paid by them, were baltagiyya. But the term is broader – or looser – than that. The Law of Baltaga (baltaga is the singular), passed in 1998, has been used primarily to criminalise the behaviour of young men from popular and working-class areas. As the threat of Islamist activism was (brutally) brought under control in the late 90s, it was the figure of the social terrorist who became central to discourses around national security. And who were the social terrorists? The regime’s cronies, the police who routinely use torture and violence, those who build dangerous housing for the poor? Of course not. The social terrorists, the thugs, were poor young men living in slum and shanty neighbourhoods, the popular classes.
We have seen how those who infiltrate demonstrations, who intimidate people, are labelled baltagiyya, in other words, how the term baltagiyya is used in ways beyond those sanctioned by power. In popular neighbourhoods, as well, the police – one face of the state – are called baltagiyya. But despite the subversion of the term, it is primarily embedded in discourses associated with the poor. So when state media – not all that different from ‘pre-revolution’ days – says that Tahrir Square is filled with baltagiyya, the image that is invoked is that of unruly mobs. And when protesters themselves – those ‘youth’ – say that there are baltagiyya around, who are they referring to? Sometimes they are indeed referring to infiltrators, but what is disturbing is when the only evidence they have for suspecting that someone is an infiltrator or baltaga is (and let’s make no bones about this) evidence of poverty; that an individual clearly comes from a shanty neighbourhood. Some have articulated their discomfort with this trend. One ‘young’ protester tweets, ‘Those who MANY of you say they are thugs! because they don’t look as clean as you are, THOSE are the ones who made #Jan25 Happen with bravery.’ When he says that they are the ones who made #Jan25 happen, perhaps part of what he is referring to is that although most of the pictures of those martyrs killed in street battles with the police are of young middle-class people, the majority of those martyred were sha’bi. The point is not simply that in labelling the movement as a youth one that the marginality of the sha’bi people is reproduced, but also that it dovetails with a pre-existing imaginary that constructs them as thugs.
Taking sha’bi people out of the equation makes their concerns invisible, whether that be living in substandard accommodation, the rising prices of basic commodities or police brutality. Let’s take the last one as an example. The Egyptian ‘security’ apparatus is very good at torture; not only does it torture Egyptians, but as a reliable ally of the US, tortures people on behalf of the American administration. Police torture is widely acknowledged to be a key source of the anger behind the uprising. But when we interpret the Egyptian movement as a youth – and thus middle-class – movement, we limit our understanding of police torture. In general, young and middle-class people have not had the misfortune of humiliating encounters with the police – unless they are activists. So by understanding the uprising as a youth movement, we are led to understand police torture as a weapon against dissent. However, if we bring the sha’bi people and their concerns back into the framework of the movement, we can see how pervasive and systemic torture was, and is, for the regime. For sha’bi people, humiliating encounters with the police are commonplace. Every Egyptian police station is equipped with torture equipment, which is used routinely against ordinary people. Reading through reports on torture, the use of torture emerges not simply as a brutal means by which to deal with dissent, but also as the standard and brutal means of dealing with society’s least powerful citizens. Take for example the farmer who refused to confess to stealing a cow and was set on fire, who then died from his burns a few days later or the poor child of 11 burned on an electric stove for stealing tea; or the man who quit his job at the house of a former minister, who was left with half his body paralysed. If we want to eliminate torture in Egypt, not just for activists, but for everyone, then it is essential to recognise how pervasive torture was, and this means taking account of the sha’bi people – not just the ‘youth’.
The youth narrative being deployed to describe the movement makes a rich history of resistance in Egypt invisible. More than that, the discursive construction of youth that includes only the tech-savvy, urban and middle-class renders people from certain backgrounds as apart from the revolution. In so doing, the demands of these people are made invisible – demands that usually go beyond demands for democratic rights to include social and economic rights as well. This is not to say that some of the young people placed at the centre are not concerned with these issues, but by making absent certain demographics we take away their claims as well. Considering the different erasures enacted by the youth narrative we might thus ask the following question: is the rebirth and youth narrative, paradoxically, an intrinsic part of the process by which revolutionary or radical change is limited, continuity ensured and reform minimised? If the answer is yes, and if this process is not challenged, it will lead to a situation that few would describe as any sort of rebirth.
Naira Antoun is a youth worker and occasional writer.