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Age Against The Machine

Will Egypt’s youth be a force for good—or will their chance be wasted?

The old order has crumbled in the Middle East, and it will never be the same again. But what made it crumble? The experts who had been arguing that the youth in the region constituted a listless generation that did not care about freedom and democracy, that, if it was politically active at all, tended to follow the lead of the Islamists, have been proved wrong. It is the victory of youth, the generation that was believed to be lost, which, free of fear, overthrew corrupt dictators and brought about the revolution.

Youth, said the philosopher Martin Buber in a speech in 1913, is the eternal chance (Glueckschance) mankind possesses. And it is of course true that older generations are usually much less willing to dare; they lack passion, idealism, enthusiasm. They see above all difficulties and dangers and the risks of change, in politics even more than in other human endeavors. They think of a hundred reasons why change for the better is dangerous if not impossible. Consequently, young people have always been in the forefront of the struggle for freedom and against tyranny. They have always been the pioneers of revolutions. When the French revolution broke out, Robespierre was 33, Saint Just, the fiercest of them, was 22, and Danton, considered an old man, was just 30. At the time of the Russian revolution of 1917, all the main actors were under 40—with the exception of Lenin who was in his forties and who was called therefore “starik, ”the old man.

However, the second part of Buber’s statement when he talked about youth as the wonderful agent of change and progress is usually forgotten. He said, “What a pity that this chance is usually wasted.” Indeed, young generations have not only been the fighters for freedom and progress, they have been among the avant garde of all radical movements—some admirable, others much less so.

If youth is the season of hope, it is also the age of credulity. Mussolini was not yet 40 at the time of the March on Rome, and those close to him were much younger—Achille Starace, the secretary of the Fascist Party, was 33, Dino Grandi, who was to become foreign minister, was 27, and Ciano was just 19. The hymn of fascism and later of fascist Italy was, “Giovinezza, Giovinezza, primavera di bellezza” (Youth, Youth, spring of beauty…). Hitler was in his forties when he came to power, while his number two, Rudolf Hess, was 39. And Hitler’s closest followers were much younger—Goebbels was 36, Himmler, head of the SS and the whole internal terror machine was 33, his deputy Heydrich was 29, and Eichmann, the Jewish expert, was a mere 27.

The essential facts about the youth bulge in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East have been known for a long time: 65 percent of the population in the region are under the age of 35, and many of them are poor and frustrated, with part-time work or no work at all. It is also known that, in recent decades, 80 percent or more of all conflicts, internal and external, occurred in countries in which 60 percent of the population was under the age of 30. So will Egypt’s youth be a force for good—or, as Buber would say, will their chance be wasted?

In the Arab and Muslim world, young generations have hardly ever gotten their chance in politics, which was the preserve of elderly men, wise (or believed to be wise), people of substance and standing in society. The exceptions were young officers occasionally swept to the fore by military coups d’etat. This seems to have been so since the beginning—even the prophet Mohammed was in his fifties when he moved from Mecca to Medina, the event considered the beginning of the history of Islam. The intellectual history of Egyptian politics, on the other hand, has been essentially the story of young elites, certainly during the last century.

There were, broadly speaking four stages in Egyptian political thinking in recent history—fascism before the outbreak of the second World War, Marxism during the decade thereafter, Arab nationalism (Nasserism) during the following two or three decades, and, eventually, Islamism. It goes without saying that not all, probably not the majority of Egyptians, subscribed to these tenets, but these were considered the most advanced ideological groups at the time, and it was believed the future belonged to them.

The protagonists of Egyptian fascism—Misr al Fatat, or Young Egypt, the Green Shirts—were indeed very young people. Ahmad Hussein, the leader, was a lawyer in his twenties. He was certainly a radical but had no sympathy whatsoever for the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been founded during the decade before; he used to call them the brotherhood of bandits or robbers. Ahmad Hussein was more interested in the Pharaonic than the Islamic tradition of his country. (Later in life, he seemed to have discovered Islam and embraced it.) Misr al Fatat was a secular party with fairly close ties with Nazi Germany more than with fascist Italy. Their influence was limited at the time but should not be underrated; many of the young officers such as Nasser and Sadat who carried out the coup of 1952, which led to the deposition of King Farouk, started their political career in these circles.

The Green Shirts were banned on the eve of World War II, and, with the defeat of the Axis, fascism lost its appeal and Marxism became the fashion. The movement was split into half a dozen communist and Trotskyite sects; Jews of foreign origin played a leading role in the beginning in some of them, but there was also a growing number of Muslims and Christians, especially from among artist circles. The common language was French rather than Arabic, hardly the best way to gain influence among the working class of Egypt.

There was a fascist wave among European intellectuals in the 1930s and Marxism was very popular, not only in France and Italy, after the war; seen in this light, intellectual developments in Egypt were by no means extraordinary. What is of more than ordinary interest is the ease and the relative speed with which these young intellectuals moved from one camp to the other. They all were in their youth severe critics of Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood—but then partook in the exodus from the Marxist camp to Islamism that occurred across the region. The mass escape from Marxism might have had to do with the pervasive anti-Westernism in the Muslim world; Marxism, however radical, was after all a Western creation. It could well be that national pride also played a certain role; they wanted authenticity (a magic word in these circles), an ideology that was homegrown and that could be a point of pride. But perhaps the most important motive was the realization that Marxism would never appeal to broad masses of people and would leave the public intellectuals in isolation. Islam on the other hand, stood for social justice, was opposed to capitalism, and had the ability to mobilize the people.

Over the last few decades, however, a new, sizeable young generation grew up. Its members are called the children of liberal capitalism (the term most frequently used), and they live in a different world. But do they constitute a new intellectual wave? Recent events have shown that they can rally hundred of thousands on short notice. Egyptian youth (it has been claimed) are both more tolerant than their elders and far more techno savvy, hence the ease with which masses had been mobilized. The Internet and Twitter, it has been said, are reshaping Egyptian politics.

But, as time has passed, these certainties have faded. Twitter was indeed helpful for mobilizing people in Tahrir and elsewhere, but it changed neither the facts on the ground nor the mentality of people; it was usually preaching to the converted. However often Twitter was used, Egypt still remains a poor country, and this narrowly restricts the prospects of young Egyptians to find jobs commensurate with their expectations. Seen in this light, social media in a poor, overpopulated, and corrupt country like Egypt may lead eventually not to freedom and democracy but to chaos and despair. For, given the poverty of this country—and others nearby—and the lack or resources, what policy or new government could possibly give the young people what they want?

It may be possible to find work for the cohort of the youth in the oil-rich countries undergoing a transformation—Libya, for one, if Qaddafi falls. But what solution is there in others, like Egypt? When, in 2006, the U.S. government announced the distribution of green cards by way of a lottery, eight million young Egyptians applied. Hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians now live illegally in countries of the E.U. Those who remain in North Africa found a niche in the system, or had no hope to succeed in the first place. Making matter worse, the Egyptian educational system has deteriorated over the years.

Granted, the Egyptian economy has shown progress during the last decade. The GNP grew between 4 percent and 7 percent, figures that compare favorably with most other Middle Eastern countries of similar size and population. By the middle of this century, the youth bulge in Egypt will probably have shrunk, and the problems looming after this uprising may gradually become manageable. But no one has a realistic plan how to solve or, at the very least, minimize them over the next few decades. It isn’t clear what sort of staying power or political undergirding the Twitter crowd has—and, in the meantime, the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups continue to hold intellectual power. Just as the youthful hope of January was so high, the youthful despair coming could be equally great. The road to freedom and democracy will be long.

Walter Laqueur is Distinguished Scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. Harvest of a Decade, a collection of his essays, will be published this coming June.

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