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In Egypt, young revolutionaries feeling despair

Some of those who acted as the shock troops of 2011's revolution in Egypt see themselves as lost under the ruling Islamists.

January 01, 2013|By Reem Abdellatif, Los Angeles Times
  • An Egyptian couple sit under a bridge in Cairo. Some young Egyptians say they are considering leaving the country because they are dismayed by postrevolutionary events.
An Egyptian couple sit under a bridge in Cairo. Some young Egyptians say… (Nasser Nasser, Associated…)

CAIRO — Many of Egypt's twentysomething generation, hungry for a just society and economic opportunities, say they see themselves as lost after last month's clashes over the nation's constitution.

Young Egyptians like artist Mahmoud Aly and student Mohamed Abdelhamid were shock troops of the revolution. They gathered in the streets in February 2011 and shouted for then-President Hosni Mubarak to go. They cheered in amazement when he did.

But they look around now and wonder who, if anyone, is guarding their interests following the battle between ruling Islamists and the liberal opposition.

Aly, whose ripped-up jeans are often marked with the paint he uses to draw political images across the sidewalks and public buildings in the coastal city of Alexandria, said the current government does not represent him or his friends and family. He lost faith after President Mohamed Morsi and his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood pushed through an Islamist-drafted constitution in December, ignoring the objections of many Egyptians.

Abdelhamid, a university student in Cairo who marched for the opposition last month, believes that the new rulers will do little for people like him.

Despair like theirs could be dangerous for the Islamists, who risk alienating the larger population with heavy-handed measures, and also the opposition, which may be adept at protests but is unable to offer a compelling vision for governing or mobilizing grass-roots followers at the polls.

"This way of politics cannot lead to stability," said Ammar Ali Hassan, a prominent political sociologist and writer who estimates that 60% of Egypt's 82 million people are under 40. "Nobody will be able to create another authoritarian regime, and nobody will be able to remain in power for long without reaching out to the youth."

Aly has produced vibrant graffiti to convey his message of freedom. His work depicts young protesters confronting the country's leadership, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafist movements. Through his work, Aly hopes to help promote political awareness and youth empowerment.

"When people see my work, I do not want them to accept my point of view, I just want them to think," he said. "Maybe I am wrong and so is my message, but I let people think and make their own decision."

Aly, 19, still believes that it is the youth who must apply the pressure.

"Graffiti and art in general reaches everyone, and when the authorities remove our work in the streets we go back," he said. "One of us always goes back and draws, again and again."

Aly said he feels the divide now between Morsi's Islamist supporters and those like him. A month ago, he said, he would have engaged with Islamists at his university or in his community, but now he won't. Watching them take political control has soured him.

"They are stubborn and not willing to listen to us. If there was hope with them, I would have spoken to them; the hope now is to convince the people in the street," Aly said. "As the Brotherhood continue to break their promises, the people themselves will [begin to] understand."

Abdelhamid, the 20-year-old marketing student at Cairo University, is similarly disenchanted. He despises the Islamist leadership's use of religion to mobilize supporters and steamroll critics, but he also said he feels even more frustrated by the opposition's "incompetence."

"We need to start doing what we did during Mubarak's era. We focused on changing the country and the people, and this was the trigger for the revolution," he said. "The opposition needs to address the people because they have absolutely no weight on the ground right now."

Abdelhamid said he expects opposition parties to do poorly again when elections for parliament are held in the coming weeks because they are poorly prepared and not united. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood's party has already started unofficially campaigning.

He remains optimistic that eventually Egyptians will again bring about change, as they did when they brought down Mubarak. But he doesn't know if he can wait.

"This country is demolished, economically we are collapsed. We started this revolution for a better future, now we just don't know this future," he said. "I will graduate in July and I'm actually considering leaving the country and living abroad."

Although he is her only son, Abdelhamid's mother strongly encourages the idea and pushes him to look for opportunities elsewhere.

"I would rather work in Egypt," he said, "but I won't lie to you. This is an easy way out, a better way out."

Abdellatif is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Ned Parker in Beirut contributed to this report.

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