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What's next for Egypt's revolution?



Growing up in an affluent middle-class family in northern Egypt, Doria El Kerdany could pay for health care and education, but she couldn't trust it.

"To live in a society that is really going downhill in all aspects, you feel insecure, even if you can afford things," she says. "We could afford the hospitals if my mother was sick, but I wasn't sure if it was going to be good treatment. The same with education. The same with everything else."

"It was like a systematic killing of the soul of the country," she adds. The revolution was "cooking on low heat for awhile."

El Kerdany, now a professor of Arabic language at UNC-Chapel Hill, has had a home in Cairo for 30 years.

Her daughter, 29, and nephew, 28, were anchored in Tahrir Square and participated in the revolution that led to Hosni Mubarak's resignation.

They are part of a new youthful generation in the Middle East that, until now, has been largely ignored by its government, and in turn, the international community. In the Middle East and North Africa, half of the population is younger than 30.

Egyptian youth echo the American social movements of the 1960s, when young people also spearheaded change.

El Kerdany says the oppressive Egyptian regime made clear to her generation to "just take care of yourself and never mind about the other because there is no hope."

"I'm really very nicely surprised that our children didn't think the same," she said. "They thought not only to save themselves. They suffered from a collective pain."

Now the movement must transition from the exuberance of winning a revolution to the complicated reality of forming a government that can deliver their demands; rather than an oppressive police state, the government must reflect the will of the people.

The youth-led movement is far more nuanced than is usually portrayed in the press, says Akram Khater, director of the Middle East Studies Program at N.C. State University.

"One of the first lessons that we need to draw from this is the way we have come to understand the Middle East over the last 20 years is deeply flawed—we have either seen it as populated by Islamic fanatics or by Westernized elites who are pro-American," Khater said.

"Both groups are minimal in terms of number, although obviously they have a lot of power. The majority of the population exists in the middle."

The laws need to reflect that centrism, he said. Ideally, a constitution that guarantees democratic election with a representative parliament and a trusted leader would be crafted, and Egyptians would vote on it via referendum.

It's unclear, though, if the existing political parties or organizations can answer the calls—jobs, free expression and government transparency—of the movement.

"Many of the political parties that are in existence are not overly representative of the population at large, or they have been underground for so long that it will be a challenge for them to make the transition," Khater says.

Frances Hasso, a professor of international comparative studies at Duke University and author of the recently released Consuming Desires: Family Crisis and the State in the Middle East, says the important question for Egyptians and for observers abroad should focus less on political parties and more on economic decisions: how to divide the country's resources to reduce the growing gap between the rich and poor.

"The more complicated question is economics, poverty and basic issues that were also driving forces behind the revolution," she said. "What will this new state do? What will the new governance structure do? What about the balance between public and private governances? Egypt has experience with many forms. I think it's an opportunity to really think creatively about what form of economics is it that people will engage in that will do a better job satisfying some of the basic needs of Egyptians."

Western media reports misrepresented the uprising, calling it "the Facebook Revolution" and trying to tenuously connect the protesters to Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

In reality, the revolution was supported through social media, but the movement is far broader and includes citizens who don't have computers or who can't read. And the Muslim Brotherhood, which has not been a central player in the movement, is itself politically divided and not as radical as the media portrayed it.

But an American journalist did figure in a turning point in the revolution, when televised footage exposed the brutal tactics of Mubarak's regime.

"I think it's a very good thing that Anderson Cooper got beat up," Hasso said. "I think that maybe was one of the best things that happened."

That should lead America to examine its Middle East strategy, Khater says.

The region has to build a government on the foundation of its own democracy, not America's version of it.

"We have to respect that people have a right to their own destiny," Khater said.

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