The death of youth activism in Egypt?
Ironically touted as “the day of anger”, April 6 this year didn’t seem to trigger much beyond the usual oppressed frustration induced by a regular dose of Cairo traffic.
The April 6 Youth Movement was born from the events of April 6 last year when, using Facebook, blogs, text messaging, independent media and word-of-mouth, activists and workers called for a countrywide general strike.
Dubbed the “Egyptian intifada”, it encouraged Egyptians from all walks of life to participate in a coordinated day of civil disobedience, where they would stay home from work and refrain from buying any commodities in protest at the rising cost of living and low salaries.
With the Delta town of Mahalla as its epicenter — since the strike was timed to coincide with a planned demonstration by thousands of textile workers at the country’s largest public sector spinning and weaving factory — Mahalla was transformed overnight into a police barracks.
Even though the workers’ strike was nipped in the bud, the violent confrontation between spontaneous crowds of street protestors, riot police and plain-clothed state security agents who allegedly looted schools and shops to frame the protestors, shocked the nation.
Three were killed with stray bullets and 49 were arrested and taken to court. Twenty-two of them were sentenced to between three and five years in prison by the Tanta emergency state security court in December 2008 on charges that included illegal assembly and rioting.
The two-week detention of Esraa Abdel Fattah, the 27-year-old who had originally started the strike’s 80,000 strong Facebook group, also left a scar in the collective consciousness of Egyptians.
This was one of the reasons that led to the abject failure we all witnessed on Monday.
There were arguably just as many journalists as there were protestors at the few places here and there where there were protests. As expected, thousands of riot police filled the streets in a completely disproportionate show of strength that achieved its purpose of deterring any mass public participation.
About sixty people made an appearance at the Journalists’ Syndicate protest, two showed up at the Doctors’ Syndicate and all of four Nubian activists got together with their banners near the Radio and TV building on the corniche. They promptly disappeared within 30 minutes upon the “request” of state security officers.
At best, a couple of hundred students marched across campus at Cairo and Ain Shams universities. At Ain Shams, some of the students were roughed up, but others were obliviously engrossed in special “fun events” organized by the official student union, including an alleged live performance by an Egyptian pop singer.
In the ultimate farcical moment, the Cairo University protestors were locked in a photo frame as they marched and chanted their demands through a bullhorn, with a couple of students playing table tennis and their cheerleaders in the background.
The most casual observer will see that the failure of April 6 to achieve anything other than an ever more potent sense of apathy is only a reflection of the failure of all of Egypt’s so-called opposition currents, and the demise of the civil society awakening which we briefly witnessed from 2004 to 2006.
The disintegration and chaos that mark all areas of public life in Egypt cannot and will not breed organization and achievement.
Apart from the fact that there was profound confusion over what exactly it was that the youth movement was calling for — was it asking people to stay home and be angry, to go on strike or to join a street protest? — the lack of support (perhaps even discouragement) the group faced from other major opposition forces was enough to eradicate the very idea of youth activism.
For about three years, cyber activism was at the forefront of a social and political renaissance triggered by the idealism and energy of young, intelligent and informed Egyptians on all sides of the political spectrum.
Sadly, what we learnt this week was that it wasn’t only the regime’s heavy-handedness that has killed this youth spirit, with its kangaroo trials and intimidation tactics. It was also their own idols who betrayed them; those who are too weak to act, yet too arrogant to admit defeat and pass on the torch.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.