8.05.2005

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.

Bearded and veiled Islamists listen intently as a cigarette-waving young woman holds forth to 50 or so activists crammed into a small Cairo office.

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.

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.

'No future'

Some at the meeting are hardened activists, but others are taking their first steps in politics as frustration outflanks fears of arrest.

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 remember.

"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.

Arguments

The group are technologically savvy, spreading their message through e-mail, SMS messages and an online chatroom.

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 generation.

'Not interested'

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.

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 people better."

'Very difficult'

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."

"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 move faster.

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.

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 step."

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.

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