Egyptian youths are growing more disillusioned following the government’s crackdown on opposition demonstrations and the jailing of secularist and Islamist opponents.
Worryingly, some youths have begun to adopt violent measures in reaction to police repression, including using weapons. Ironically, even though the current regime was brought to power through mass protests, which spurred the army to oust President Mohammad Morsi, it has turned around and issued a law strictly limiting demonstrations. Although official figures are unavailable, unofficial estimates put the number of detainees since Morsi was forced out last July at around 20,000 compared to a total of roughly 3,500 arrested during his year in power.
A number of NGOs (such as the New World Foundation for Development and Human Rights, Observers Without Borders, the Arab House Foundation for Human Rights and the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development) noted that despite the overall turnout of 38 percent – exceptionally high for Egypt – the constitutional referendum on Jan. 14-15 relied heavily on elderly voters. Among young voters, turnout was significantly lower, sparking concerns within the government that it was losing youth support to the Muslim Brotherhood. For its part, the Brotherhood was heartened by the low youth turnout and sought to reach out with statements acknowledging and apologizing for its prior mistakes.
The referendum was preceded by a massive campaign by state media and other institutions for a “Yes” vote. Police arrested a number of opposition activists who were distributing fliers calling for a “No” vote, which scared away other youths from expressing their opposition. Concerned by the implications of low youth turnout, the government discussed the issue in the first post-referendum Cabinet meeting. On Jan. 21, the interim president, Adly Mansour, met in the presidential palace with a group of 44 young activists from across the political spectrum, following a similar meeting hosted earlier by Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim.
In his Jan. 19 speech to the Egyptian people upon enacting the new constitution, Mansour said, addressing youth, “You were the fuel of the Jan. 25 and June 30 revolutions and are embarking on the stage of building and empowerment. Build your future, be engaged in politics and parties and be confident that you will reap the benefits of what you sow.”
However, this contradicts the policies Mansour himself enacted, particularly the November 2013 protest law, which sharply restricted political protests. Hundreds of young demonstrators have been arrested under this law, three of the most prominent being the liberal activists Ahmad Maher, Mohammad Adel and Ahmad Douma, who were each sentenced to three years in jail and fined 50,000 Egyptian pounds.
The presidency alone has now hosted three dialogue sessions with youth activists, the first of which was on Dec. 19 and the most recent on Jan. 21 to discuss the factors influencing youth dissatisfaction with the military-backed regime, and to try to persuade activists not to join marches commemorating the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution. However, a significant number of youth have come to see no point in dialogue, arguing that the government has done nothing to address mass arrests, worsening prison conditions and torture. Consequently, the most influential youth movements boycotted the latest national dialogue (held on Feb. 10 with presidential spokesman Ahmad al-Muslimani), describing the dialogues as being solely “for media consumption.”
In these meetings, officials have tried to mollify youth activists upset over the protest law, the use of violence against demonstrators, the arrest of hundreds of activists, the state media’s negative portrayals of the Jan. 25 revolution, the leaking of activists’ wiretapped phone calls on a satellite channel and the return of prominent Mubarak-era leaders to government office. Ibrahim at the time acknowledged that the police had made some mistakes but stressed that they would not repeat them, while promising to review detainees’ files and release those not convicted or charged. However, in subsequent comments to the media, responding to a statement signed by 16 Egyptian human rights organizations detailing witness testimonies of torture, Ibrahim angered activists by flatly denying that either arbitrary arrests or torture in Egyptian prisons was taking place.
The military-backed regime in Egypt was committing the same mistake of previous regimes in not making more than a superficial effort to listen to youth activists. Youths are losing their faith in the political process, and their participation rates are plunging. If future governments do not learn from the mistakes of Hosni Mubarak and Morsi, they will likewise be vulnerable should youth movements decide to put aside their internal political divisions and reunite in street protests.
The current despair among most youth could also find violent outlets if all peaceful avenues for dissent, such as demonstrations and dialogue, are closed. Some warning signs of such a transformation can be seen in the targeting of police cars in several provinces by Wallaa (the Fire Movement). Likewise, the clashes that broke out between security forces and the Ultras (hardcore Al-Ahly football fans) on Feb. 20, after Al-Ahly defeated Tunisia’s Sfaxien to claim the Africa Super Cup, showed the resentment toward police brutality.
Meanwhile, excessive force and the use of live ammunition have ended pro-Brotherhood demonstrations but have also fueled the spread of jihadism. At a recent pro-Brotherhood demonstration, a young man could be seen holding a sign that said, “Peacefulness has killed us,” going on to criticize the Brotherhood-backed group that had organized the demonstrations for insisting on nonviolence even in the face of police gunfire.
Others have changed the slogan “Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets” to “Our peacefulness would be stronger with bullets” on their Web pages, while celebrating bombings or assassinations targeting the police and army – attacks that the Brotherhood is quick to condemn. Some Islamist youth have in fact formed violent protest groups, such as “Molotov Against the Coup” and “Ajnad Misr.” Even though some young Brotherhood supporters have been pushing for revising the organization’s ideas, which “led to losing its power, being hunted down by security, and most of its leaders being arrested,” nonetheless it remains unclear which path the bulk of the group’s members will take.
Presidential polls, slated for April, are approaching, but the government has done nothing to improve its policies or fulfill its repeated promises to Egypt’s youths. As Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the former defense minister and de facto ruler of Egypt, is likely to formally assume the presidency, youth protesters will likely remain disgruntled and outside the political process, while the threat grows that demonstrations will explode again and escalate the conflict between youth and the state.
Mustafa Hashem is an Egyptian journalist specializing in coverage of protest movements and political Islam. This commentary, translated from Arabic, first appeared in Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).