Monday January 31, 2011
Youth alienation and protests in Egypt
By MARTIN KHOR
The speed with which the political order in Egypt is being threatened by street protests is most surprising, and it may be partly explained by the alienation of the young from the economic and political life of the country.
LAST week was marked by the incredible scenes of turbulence in Egypt, when thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the current political regime.
It was quite shocking to see the building of the ruling party’s headquarters burning in the midst of the protests in Cairo.
The demonstrations in Egypt were catalysed by the equally dramatic events in Tunisia, whose president was overthrown earlier this month after two weeks of street protests.
The unrest in several countries has led analysts to predict the dawn of a new democratic era in the Arab world.
It may be premature to hail it as such, but this month’s events have certainly shaken the foundations of the old order.
The political future of Egypt is still being worked out, and mainly in the streets. It seems unlikely that the moves by the president so far – the appointment of a new vice-president and a new prime minister – will be enough to satisfy the protestors.
Significantly, the protests were not led or organised by the opposition political parties or by the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most powerful opposition force.
According to most accounts, they have arisen, apparently spontaneously from young people who do not necessarily come from an organised group, but who use the Internet and mobile phones to contact one another.
Although the strength of the movement and the rapidity with which it has emerged may be so surprising, a look at the socio- economic situation in Egypt may throw light on why the young people were ready to revolt.
An interesting portrayal of the Egyptian youth is provided in the The Egypt Human Development Report 2010, published by the UN Development Programme and the Ministry of Economic Development.
Although Egypt is a middle-income developing country, it has a relatively high poverty rate which has agone up from 19.6% to 21.6% between 2008 and 2010. Unemployment is also high, being near to 10%, an increase from 8.4% in 2008.
What is worse, the unemployment among young males (aged 15 to 29 years) was 32% in 2009, meaning that one in three young men was out of a job. And many more were affected by underemployment.
“Many respondents said that growing unemployment has led to insecurity over the future,” according to the Egypt Human Development Report, giving details of a survey it carried out.
“It leaves them with time on their hands, little to do and frustrated.
“Unemployment also affects allegiance to the state, which is perceived as a root cause of the lack of work. This, potentially, could intensify the rebellion against what is perceived as a dysfunctional system of governance, expressed either through violence against that reality or by withdrawal into a ‘purer’ spiritual sphere.”
This analysis of the state of mind of young Egyptians had actually forecast the “rebellion” against the regime that has now taken place.
The report also pinpointed the perceived weakness of the state’s developmental role as a reason for disillusionment among the youth. They are further alienated by having no channel of communication to the ruling elite.
“The youth do not feel the state extends services to them,” said the report. “The quality of education is poor, employment opportunities modest to non-existent, and this reduces their attachment to the state and its regime.”
The report added that the youth fear that the only means for social mobility is bribery, favouritism or bypassing the law, which breeds a feeling of hopelessness.
As a result, there is low interest among the youth for formal politics, with only 6% strongly interested, while 84% strongly support further democracy in the country.
Last week, this combination of frustration with the system and the desire for “more democracy” must have contributed to the outpouring of feelings in the streets in many parts of Egypt.
How these dramatic events will lead may be determined this week. Veteran journalist and specialist in Middle East affairs, Robert Fisk, covering the Cairo events, wrote: “It might be the end. It is certainly the beginning of the end.”
An important lesson from this crisis is that political stability in any country can be threatened if the interests of the young are not taken care of, especially their having enough job opportunities, participation in decision making, and their yearning for democracy.