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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 August 2005, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
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.

Our governments are all corrupt and, though there is some change for the better, nothing is really improving
Rasha, Bahrain

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.

President Mubarak has ruled since former president Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981
Emergency Law imposed in 1981 restricts many political freedoms
Until this year, the president was nominated by parliament and confirmed by referendum
Mubarak has announced that other candidates will now be allowed to contest the presidency, but only if they have the backing of 65 MPs
The ruling NDP has dominated parliament since the late 1970s and holds 90% of the 444 seats
The Muslim Brotherhood - the most popular opposition force - is banned from operating as a political party but has 17 MPs sitting as independents
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.


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

Cairo University student, Salma Mahmoud, 19
I feel totally disappointed - in any other country students are the forces behind change in politics, but here we play no role
Politics student Salma Mahmoud
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.

Riot police and protesters at a Kifaya demonstration
Kifaya demonstrators are often surrounded by riot police
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."

I used to believe that revolution is the answer, but our people are not cut out for revolution - they are too lazy
Fatima, feminist activist, 27
"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.

Scuffles between pro and anti-Mubarak protesters on Egyptian referendum day
Clashes marred protests during the referendum on electoral reform
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.

Are you young in the Middle East? Are you working for political change? Do you feel you have a voice?

The following comments reflect the balance of views received:

What Kifaya and other parties are trying to achieve is complete nonsense. Democracy is a sword with two sharp edges. In Egypt we abuse it. Change is good but radical change is disaster. These groups have no political agenda and all their "goals" are just beyond dreams. I agree our presidency is changing into a kingdom, however, in this time and era Mubarak is our only winning horse we should bet on. In six years time this will be different. These parties need to regain more strength and power, they need to have a strategy and a plan.
Robert George, Alexandria, Egypt

I was a political science student at AUC almost 10 years ago and I'm more interested now in politics than when I was just studying it. Recently I have become more and more interested. I found myself wanting to be part of the change, so I joined Kifaya because it was the most daring and courageous movement in Egypt and the one that expresses the same views I have towards our country's system. I believe, though, that the demand for change is coming from a minority. The majority of the population is either uneducated, unaware, or part of the elite who has interest in keeping the current government to preserve its investments and businesses. I personally believe that people need more awareness on the political issues, they need to understand that the need for change does not necessarily mean a change to the worse.
Radwa Maghawry, Cairo, Egypt

As a Coptic Christian, we are denied many rights in the country because of our faith. However, believe it or not, as sad as this may seem, President Hosni Mubarak actually is better than the alternative candidates. The opponents will allow Islamic fundamentalist groups into parliament, bringing the sharia (Islamic law) a step closer in Egypt. At least under Hosni Mubarak, the 7th January (the Christian Orthodox Christmas) is now an official vacation in Egypt. America is so shortsighted by forcing presidential elections in Egypt. If Mubarak loses the elections, they'll have shot themselves in the foot with a political party that will not allow for any religious or cultural freedom within Egypt.
Vassilios Kirellous, Egypt/France

I think our country needs a major change. We have a lot of potential but for the past 23 years we have not reached any where. We are still a poor, Third World country.
Ola Moustafa Naguib, Cairo Egypt

In reply to the article, as well as to several of the posts, can I simply ask the following question: Who on earth to these demonstrators think they are? How are 19 and 20 year old children qualified to voice an opinion as regards the government's political orientation? If they seriously do want to contribute to Egyptian political discourse, may I suggest that they spend their time in the library rather than in the company of street riff raff. After several years hard work, armed with the requisite knowledge and degrees they will find that they don't need to take to the streets and raise the roof in order to be heard. In the meantime, I do wish they would do us all a favour and be quiet.
Madjdy Al-Qaramany, Cairo and Oxford

This situation is not only in Egypt but all Arab countries have the same regime, one way or another. Arab leaders in countries such as Syria and Egypt rule until they die then they give the power to another dictator or to their sons. We are suffering in our countries and here I would like to call all the modern world leaders to support us and not support those leaders because such regimes make a proper atmosphere for terrorism
Aboabdo, Damascus Syria

"Kifaya", a cry for democracy, but the sad truth is, if Egypt held democratic elections today, with 100% freedom of speech and campaigning, in which any political party could run, Mubarak would still win. We need a candidate who is capable of moving the masses. Since Nasser, charisma left Egypt, the man was a patriot, perhaps not a good leader, but when he spoke people listened and where he walked the country followed. Charisma doesn't put food on the table though, we also need an pro-active economist. In a population of 70 million, we should be able to locate a few.
Nader Henein, Egyptian living in the UAE

US speaks too much about democracy. Egypt, apparently is the second largest beneficiary of US assistance in the world, after Israel. Why can't it put pressure on Egypt to turn to democracy?
Rafeek, Dubai, UAE

I'm a young Tunisian. In my country, there is no hope to see things changing for more freedom and civil rights in the short term. All is indicating that things are getting worse. The quality of newspapers and local TV channels is very poor. There is no room to debate on important issues. The situation in a country like Egypt is clearly better. Things are also improving a lot in Morocco. I think that every step forward towards freedom in any Arab country will help us in Tunisia. But, in all cases, I think that it will be thanks to Arab peoples that this can improve. I don't believe that the Americans have sincere intentions to help us.
Sofien, Paris, France

I am 18-years-old, I live in the Middle East and I can say what I like and write what I like without fear of arrest. I can join any political party and vote in elections. I can kiss my girlfriend in public and I can demonstrate against the government. I can wear what I like and I can practice whatever religion I like. Where do I live? I live in Israel.
Alex, Tel Aviv, Israel

Democracy in the Mideast is an oxymoron. People have been brainwashed by state controlled media for so long that they have accepted the status quo, for fear of the unknown. Change comes when the people believe in their right to be free, and they are willing to sacrifice for liberty with their lives. Lack of political parties and democratic institutions in all the Mideast is the underling cause of this malaise.
Abdallah, Chicago, US

Though I like Mubarak's views and believe he has revolutionised Egypt, he once said he would not sit on the throne so long. It is not his fault that he is obsessed with the throne of the kingdom of upper and lower Egypt, the land of the pharaohs. The people make our leaders what they are. It was the very same with Nasser long before Sadat and it will be the same with these after Mubarak. The Egyptians make their leaders kings. There will be no democracy and free elections until the Egyptians stop glorifying their leaders
M Hassan, Berlin, Germany (formerly Cairo)

I think it is obvious that Egypt is not yet a full democracy, but the system can't change overnight or it will be misunderstood and could even cause a negative response. The growing population and their numerous expectations is one factor causing a delay in reaching a full democracy, but I find the government working very hard, fast and effectively, without causing the population an interior shock.
Hazem El Saadani, Cairo, Egypt

There should be a public voice, a public identity and public power over government. Egyptians have no choice, if there is change needed, people should decide what they really need and how to get rid of corrupted leaders instead of just standing there in silence watching in fear. The situation is so corrupted in Egypt and there are no human rights at all!
Jim Morrison, Cairo, Egypt

I think what is happening in the Arab world is that the people are now more willing to speak up. It was always the case that only one person speaks for a group (a tribal chief, a village chief or a "leader"). The people are now realising that they have been betrayed by these "leaders" and decided that if they want to move forward, they have to speak up for themselves. Unfortunately for the Arabs it will have to be a generational change. Change will not come within a few years, it'll be decades.
George, Sydney, Australia

I am not living in middle east, but my country is the same as them, just no demonstration. People are too afraid the government will arrest without trial or sue you to bankruptcy. Students are also monitored and expelled if deemed to participate in any sort of politics. The media is controlled and internet websites against the government are sued. Opposition party member are sued to bankruptcy, denied access to address the public and some even have to run away from the country. The head of the country is not the president but a family that is strong enough to put his son in prime minister position and put a puppet as president.
Anonymous, Singapore

I believe that politics in the Middle East is very much affected by power balances in the whole world, but one other problem I think is the Egyptian mentality as we are not ready for change. I also don't believe we can live in a democratic environment as the political nature of the Middle East prevents more than one voice ruling the community.
Nehal Haleem, Cairo, Egypt

I'll be 39 in three months. In my country, the young people are disillusioned to be enervated or struggling to conform to the conventional social scheme in which patrimonial lawmakers have power to decide the nation's important policies. I've seldom witnessed demonstrations by the young or students. I sometimes worry about the fall of national power because the country has lost the dynamics for changes, so it's a pleasure for me to see young Egyptians have something to say and get it into action.
Akemi Kikuchi, Tokyo, Japan

I'm a senior at the American University in Cairo who has to refrain from studying political science because it is not a real career in Egypt. Politics is for those who have money, connections, and manipulation power, while those who have a true willingness to change things can do nothing. Kifaya and Youth for Change have a lot of enthusiasm and they mobilise a lot of people. However, there are always doubts and questions about what forces could be moving/using them from behind to benefit from the current situation in Egypt. Therefore, I'd always be sceptical about joining such groups though I'm longing for true democracy and freedom in Egypt. I try to work a way out through being in student organizations such as the Model United Nations that tries to send a message to the world as a whole and at the same time provide young people with experience and knowledge to see the world better.
MennatAllah Gaafar, Cairo, Egypt

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