Egypt’s young call for change
By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Cairo
As part of a series about young people in the Middle East, the BBC News
website examines the role of the youth members of Kifaya, Egypt’s
fledgling pro-democracy movement.
Photo journal: Kifaya activist
Bearded and veiled Islamists listen intently as a cigarette-waving
young woman holds forth to 50 or so activists crammed into a small
It’s Saturday night, the room is hot, and some of Egypt’s most
politically active young people are debating the way forward for their
pro-democracy movement, Youth for Change.
Our governments are all corrupt and, though there is some change for
the better, nothing is really improving
Middle East youth: Your views
The group is a recently-formed offshoot of the pro-reform movement
Kifaya (Enough), and has been heavily involved in a wave of ongoing
anti-government street protests in the run-up to the country’s
presidential election in September.
Although small, these protests are still unprecedented in their
turnout, frequency and tone.
Some have been marred by clashes with police and supporters of
President Hosni Mubarak.
Some at the meeting are hardened activists, but others are taking their
first steps in politics as frustration outflanks fears of arrest.
POLITICS IN EGYPT
President Mubarak has ruled since former president Anwar Sadat was
assassinated in 1981
Emergency Law imposed in 1981 restricts many political freedoms
Until this year, the president was nominated by parliament and
confirmed by referendum
Mubarak has announced that other candidates will now be allowed to
contest the presidency, but only if they have the backing of 65 MPs
The ruling NDP has dominated parliament since the late 1970s and holds
90% of the 444 seats
The Muslim Brotherhood - the most popular opposition force - is banned
from operating as a political party but has 17 MPs sitting as
Mohammed Iraqi, 21, joined the movement a few months ago. "Of course
I’m afraid, but I have nothing else to do. I don’t have a life, a job,
a future," he says.
Youth For Change brings together leftists to Islamists and liberals,
all united in their opposition to the ruling National Democratic Party.
Its members long for an end to the 23-year state of emergency that has
helped keep Mr Mubarak in power for longer than many of them can
"Youth For Change are very excited. They want to do everything, but
Kifaya tells us: ’Be patient - do it with a little restraint,’ because
they don’t want us all to get arrested," says Mohammed.
The group are technologically savvy, spreading their message through
e-mail, SMS messages and an online chatroom.
Cairo University student, Salma Mahmoud, 19
I feel totally disappointed - in any other country students are the
forces behind change in politics, but here we play no role
Politics student Salma Mahmoud
But one of their biggest challenges is putting their belief in
democracy into practice.
"We have a lot of arguments during our meetings - we almost got into a
fight at the last one," says Mohammed.
The dispute was over whether a committee elected for a month should
have its mandate extended because it had taken so long to elect them in
the first place.
The young people in this room are unusual in Egypt. Mohammed says his
friends and family "look at him like an alien".
Disillusionment and pragmatism are more common themes among his
In an air-conditioned cafe in downtown Cairo, middle-class young people
sip cappuccinos over laptops and hubble-bubble pipes. Three politics
students discuss the state of the nation.
Riot police and protesters at a Kifaya demonstration
Kifaya demonstrators are often surrounded by riot police
Salma Mahmoud is 19. "I feel totally disappointed," she says. "In any
other country students are the forces behind change in politics, but
here we play no role.
"Kifaya? I don’t know how they formed this movement. If I want to
participate, I can’t because I don’t know anybody in it. If I was able
to get involved, I would."
Ahmed Esmat, 17, would like to become a diplomat. "At the moment I’m
not interested in politics here in Egypt because once a leader holds
power for a long time, he doesn’t have new plans. I think Mubarak
should leave his post for someone younger who knows the needs of the
In contrast, Reem Raafat Mohamed Fahmy, 17, says she loves politics and
is, in general, happy with the government.
"There’s a lot of democracy - though we ought to have more. But we are
satisfied, we live good lives."
I used to believe that revolution is the answer, but our people are not
cut out for revolution - they are too lazy
Fatima, feminist activist, 27
"In my dreams I hope to be the president of Egypt," she says. But she
adds that it is "very difficult" even to join a political party: "You
need someone who is in politics to help you get into it."
The government has proposed constitutional reforms which would allow
opposition candidates to stand in September’s presidential election.
These have come with so many caveats and conditions that Kifaya
dismisses them outright, but most of these students doubt things could
Ahmed thinks it could be six years or so before a suitable alternative
presidential contender emerges. "Those years might be the sacrifice we
have to make to enter a new era," he says.
’Not cut out for revolution’
However, even among those deeply committed to working for change, there
is disillusionment about demonstrations.
Scuffles between pro and anti-Mubarak protesters on Egyptian referendum
Clashes marred protests during the referendum on electoral reform
Layla Ahmed, 27, was active with two different opposition parties
throughout her teens and early 20s and is now a feminist activist, but
has little hope for the reform movement.
"Young people go to demonstrations and go back home satisfied with
themselves, feeling they accomplished something. But they don’t
understand that demonstrations, while important, are merely the first
She points out the magnitude of changing mindsets, especially when the
state controls the media and TV "says nothing!".
"I used to believe long ago that revolution is the answer. But our
people are not cut out for revolution. They are too lazy for the kind
of revolution that transforms society, government, and state."
And when it comes to tangible political results, even Mohammed Iraqi of
Youth For Change is uncertain: "I’m here because I believe in
democracy, I believe in freedom, I believe in a modern world. But what
will we achieve? I can’t guarantee anything, I just hope."
Some names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.