On the eve of a pivotal constitutional referendum, Egypt's young activists are struggling for direction.
- By Ellen KnickmeyerEllen Knickmeyer is a former West Africa bureau chief for the Associated Press and a former Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post.
CAIRO — On a late evening in early March, down a side street off downtown Cairo, Egypt’s revolution is kept alight by a single bare incandescent bulb dangling from an extension cord. Despite being one of the main forces behind the popular overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement has yet to line up an office to call its own. So on this night, the eve of another protest in Tahrir Square, the young revolutionaries are meeting on the top floor of a gutted, condemned Cairene villa, shrouded in plastic builders tarp.
After having helped draw hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to the streets in January and February to rout the leadership of the Arab world’s most populous country, Egypt’s youth activists are coming under tremendous pressure to leave the streets. Older activists tell them it is time to grow up and join political parties, while the Egyptian public warns them that they are harming the country’s economic recovery. And the Army, which was previously regarded by many Egyptians as the savior of their revolution, now is accused of employing brutal beatings to force Egypt’s youth to abandon their protests in Tahrir Square.
On Saturday, March 19, Egyptians will head to the polls to vote in a national referendum on a set of constitutional amendments meant to lay the groundwork for Egypt’s post-revolution political order. The referendum, which is backed by the military junta that has temporarily replaced Mubarak, will be a critical moment in showing whether Egypt supports the generals’ road map for the future — or whether the country supports the young activists’ desire to keep pushing for broad reforms.
But even the young activists themselves are still finding their way ahead. At the meeting, held before the worst of the Army attacks on the remaining Tahrir protesters started last week, Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old leader of the April 6 movement, threw the floor of the meeting open to suggestions. Egyptian men and women in their 20s and 30s, a couple of them still limping from attacks during the height of the protests in January and February, tossed out opinions, the sole light bulb casting stark shadows along the walls as they spoke.
Demand two cabinet seats for youth ministers, one activist said. We should become a political party, a second said. I think we need to stay a movement; it’s stronger than having a political party, a third offered.
Maher closed the meeting soon after — Cairo remains under nighttime military curfew. He urged everyone to turn out early for the next day’s protest in Tahrir. "We need to keep moving forward," he reminded them. "The revolution is still going on."
Shortly after the meeting concluded, however, the revolution entered an entirely new phase. The Egyptian Army, which at times protected activists during the country’s 18 days of history-making protests, is seemingly losing patience with Maher’s group and others that continue to protest. On March 9, soldiers and thugs destroyed the tent city in the city center, and then took dozens of activists and passers-by across the square to the Egyptian Museum and beat them, according to Human Rights Watch and other advocates. More army attacks have helped quell what had been daily rallies in Tahrir, though the army still seems to tolerate the weekly mass gatherings in Tahrir after Friday prayers.
"Same shit, different uniform," Cairo-based journalist and activist Sarah Carr wrote tartly in response to the March 9 attack. The Egyptian people turned a blind eye to the beatings, she wrote, due to "a popular reluctance to accept that the revered army is capable of impropriety of any kind against citizens."
And in fact, as Egypt struggles to lure back tourists and investors, there is no shortage of older Egyptians telling the young people to pack up their signs and go home.
Hisham Kassem, a newspaper publisher and longtime democracy advocate, acknowledges admiringly that he followed the lead of "the kids" in the 18 days of protests that toppled Mubarak’s regime. But now even he’s skeptical of their plan to continue taking to the street. "What are they going to do? They’ll get 5,000 people out in the street to rally every time they want to change Article A, Article B of the Constitution?" he scoffs.
As it turns out, they won’t have to: March 19’s referendum will be a straight up or down vote on the constitutional amendments, which were proposed by a military-appointed panel. Just over half the country’s 80 million people are eligible to vote, according to the election overseers. For the 60 percent of Egypt’s population who are under 30, Saturday will be the first free election of their lifetime.
There are some important steps in the proposed amendments, such as limiting the president to two terms in office and restricting use of the emergency laws by which Mubarak suspended many civil liberties. Supporters, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s former ruling party, argue that it is important to accept the changes and move on to restoring Egypt’s post-revolution stability. Opponents say the amendments were written without public consultation and, like the Constitution itself, remain deeply flawed. Egypt’s youth movements and many other liberal voices are urging Egyptians to reject Saturday’s referendum and push for a transparent, consultative rewriting of the entire Constitution. Their election emblem is a sprightly red and white script reading "la" — Arabic for no.
For Egypt’s young revolutionaries, the fear is that Egyptians are so anxious to return to normal that they will give up the revolution before realizing the freedoms it could bring. "We have achieved so much, that it would be a sin to stop now," wrote Mahmoud Salem, an activist who blogs under the name Sandmonkey, in an impassioned appeal for continuing the rallies.
Egyptians have many freedoms still to win, Salem wrote. For starters: a constitution that limits the power of the executive branch and guarantees equal rights; enforcement of a $200 monthly minimum wage; and freeing of political prisoners.
A poll on the "We are all Khaled Said" Facebook group, one of the most important sites for organizing online opposition to Mubarak, while admittedly unscientific, found that 49 percent of respondents opposed the referendum, 36 percent supported it, and 13 percent were undecided.
But at late-night sessions held in some of Cairo’s seedier shisha cafes, Maher and others in the April 6 movement worry that Egypt’s military is strengthening its grip on power. They worry that Army officials are blowing off meetings with the young activists and that the more-polished generals are trouncing the less-experienced young activists in the battle for public opinion on Egypt’s late-night talk shows.
Meanwhile, the young activists themselves have their own internal concerns to worry about, primarily the question of whether to continue working outside the system or enter it. Maher’s instincts tell him to keep April 6 outside the political system, "like a pressure movement," he said. Among his cohort of activists, "the majority are saying they don’t want a political party," he said.
Many young people across the Arab world — having grown up under dictators who made the political system look weak, corrupt, or both — have little innate confidence in political parties. Maher and his generation already have a younger generation of activists watching them closely, alert for any signs that the older activists are about to sell out the movement and transform it into a compromised political party like any other.
Roaa Ebrahim, a 23-year-old protester who wears a headscarf, illustrated this broad concern about younger Egyptians when she recounted an early post-revolution meeting of Egypt’s youth groups. When discussion among the leaders became heated, the activists abruptly kicked out news cameras and closed the doors. Not good, Ebrahim says.
"They’re being dragged into dialogue with bigger political parties and forgetting about what they have to do in the streets right now," she worries. "It’s a big danger."