The Two ‘Youths’ of the Revolution

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The Arabic word shabab, meaning ‘youth’, has been used quite a lot since January 25th. It’s an important lens for understanding many of the events that have taken place thus far in the revolution just as it seems to be an integrated part of the rhetoric of the counterrevolution.

When protesters took to the streets on January 25th, it is no doubt true that many of them were youths, particularly on that first day. Not exclusively, but to a large degree these people were younger, many of them unemployed – even those with advanced degrees – and alienated from the political destiny of their country. Egypt had produced a ‘lost generation,’ with those in their teens, twenties and early thirties coming into a world still controlled by the violent clutches of an older generation whose few opportunities for work (not to think of advancement even) were held on to by those already connected, older or entrenched in the politics of the past. However, thinking about the course taken and plotted by these power elites, there seems little doubt that this was less a lost generation than the first generation of a future lost or pre-emptively destroyed in toto by the ruthless desire of those in power to maintain their status unto death.

In either case or for any other of myriad possible reasons, it seemed at least fitting that youth would come out to protest in numbers. Among the chants by protesters throughout the first weeks of occupations, you were likely to hear “Neither Brotherhood, Nor [Political] Parties, Our revolution is a revolution of youth” or similar calls asserting the presence of shabab atthawra, “the youth of the revolution.” Indeed, people both inside and outside the square would talk excitedly about these youth, thanking them for their role in organizing and demonstrating, a role which they did have a significant hand in through hard work and commitment – not just social networking sites and other tech-booster-fodder.

As we know or at least should know by now, however, this revolution captured literally every aspect of Egyptian society across age, class, gender, religious, labor and other lines. It is thus all the more striking how the emphasis has remained so squarely on shabab atthawra (or worse, even, shabab facebook). Particularly out of the state media, even in its newly “reformed” trappings, one might be under the impression that this revolution took place only at the hands of a few middle class kids with grievances and not the whole of Egyptian society. This seeming exuberance and thanks must absolutely be seen as a tactic to infantilize, diminish and patronize the revolution and the many goals of the varied, diverse revolutionaries involved in it.

By relegating this revolution to a youth movement in the abstract, the state media and other counterrevolutionary organs have sought to silence claims not arising directly out of those youth movements, particularly the demands of labor, the poor and the marginalized. They have thus attempted to regain control over political decision making power, arguing that the reform process is better placed in the hands of those with experience. The most recent message of the High Council of Armed Forces, no. 24, begins its first sentence with the phrase “The HCAF assures its children, the youth of the January 25th revolution…” Now, if ever one needed proof of a paternalistic and belittling rhetoric here one has it, both possessive and diminutive. By naming this as a revolution simply of youth, there rests the implication that they lack the experience, the organization or the competencies ostensibly required to change the system, that such reforms are beyond young people. Even if this were simply a youth revolution, the young protesters and revolutionaries in Tahrir have proven themselves better able to understand, manage and transform the political than a thousand “wise men’s councils.”

On the other hand, however, there is something essential to this revolution that has to do with youth, with a generation that up until January 25th had no economic future, was feared and harassed by its government and fellow citizens, and increasingly found itself in the clutches of a culture and society it had no control over, left only to dream of emulating the saccharine consumerist lifestyles of Hollywood characters and the idle rich. The conditions of everyday life for so many Egyptian youth, rich and poor, had become oppressive if not intolerable, as things as simple as love and laughter were either unavailable or had to be undertaken in hushed tones and in secret.

In the spatial occupations of Tahrir, Egyptian youth found a moment and a space where they could congregate, shout, make jokes, play games and interact in ways that were neither those of the surveilled and policed spaces of the older generations nor shallow imitations of “Western” behaviors. January 25th may then be called a youth revolution insofar as it created these spaces, radically free but still notably Egyptian, and which it seeks to perpetuate in order to form a political destiny that is completely serious though not altogether removed from having fun, experimenting with the material of everyday life and defining an identity not governed by the past.

source: The Two ‘Youths’ of the Revolution |

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