Egyptian Youth Make History: Forging a Revolutionary Identity amid Brutality

By Barber, Brian K.; Youniss, James | Harvard International Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview
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Egyptian Youth Make History: Forging a Revolutionary Identity amid Brutality


Barber, Brian K., Youniss, James, Harvard International Review


Thirty years of research have identified common facets of social movements (i.e., grievances, resources, ideology, and opportunity) that challenge and change 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 & Gem'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 had a transformative effect. 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 25. This was partly due to the failure of repeated efforts since 2005 to mobilize Egyptians against Mubarak, which El Mandi 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 28, 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 people were killed. The brutality of this attack on the non-violent protesters cemented their resolve, providing 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 Garnal. 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, the president stepped down to end his 30-year reign as the head of Egypt's government.

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