Getting rid of the head of state is one thing, standing up to the head of your family quite anotherby / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
On 1st February, the day of the first “million-man protest” in Tahrir Square, I caught up with two of my student friends. Yasmine was fired up from her turn at the barricades: “I cannot imagine how an 82-year-old man can say he is still president. We need fresh blood.” Abdel Rahman, on the other hand, had stayed at home in solidarity with the regime. “If he [Mubarak] leaves, it will be a disaster. He is [like] my grandfather, we cannot say ‘go’ to him.” In his final address, Mubarak played on this filial chord: “I am addressing you all from the heart, a father’s dialogue with his sons and daughters.” Most of the kids, however, had long since tuned out.
To those familiar with Egypt, the youth-led rebellion was inevitable but also inconceivable. In 2009, I helped craft a survey that asked 15,000 ten-to-29 year olds across the country about their lives. The results were sobering: youth unemployment was around 20 per cent, more than 40 per cent thought their education left them ill-prepared for the workplace, and more than a quarter of young men were looking to migrate. The desire for change was there, but the prevailing mood was one of apathy. Fewer than 15 per cent of eligible youth were registered to vote, less than half talked about politics and scarcely 5 per cent participated in any sort of organised activity. Most young people, it seemed, had unplugged from their country—which is why what came next is so astonishing.
Now that Mubarak is gone, though, other authority figures are in the firing line. But will the youth who shook the system show the same initiative at home? The family is, after all, the bedrock of the Egyptian state, and the authoritarianism of government is mirrored in the paternalism of the family.
Such a challenge could well prove more difficult. Egyptian youth are highly dependent on their parents, often for material reasons. With unemployment so high and affordable housing rare, most young people need family handouts to get by. The vast majority of unmarried under-30s, and more than a third of young married couples, still live with parents; young women on a shorter rein than their male counterparts.
These generational ties are also intangible. With corruption rife in almost all of Egyptian society, getting a job—indeed getting anything done—has largely depended on your family’s pull, their wasta. When the state cannot be relied upon to defend your rights, the only protection you have is your family, further strengthening the patriarchy.
Most young people I know in Egypt prefer concealment to confrontation with their parents. While the youth surveyed spent most of their social time with family, only a third at best discussed personal matters with them. For all the newfound possibilities of freedom, I doubt most young Egyptians will be telling their parents where to get off. Cairo 2011 is not Paris ‘68. Religion is important to today’s youth—and the Koran exhorts believers to honour their parents. This is a respect so entrenched in Egyptian society that even “18 days that changed the world” is unlikely to dislodge it any time soon.
Yet there is a shift. Yasmine’s father spoke for many parents when he told me: “I always used to say before, this generation has nothing to do but stay on their computers and play. But I was very wrong. This generation has proved to me that they have plans for the future, and they know how to work for it.” If this newfound respect can move from the frontlines of the revolt to family living rooms across the country, then Arab democracy really will take root.
Also in Prospect’s middle east special:
Is Arab democracy a fantasy?: The revolutions of 2011 have proven that Arab culture is not incompatible with democracy. But the quest for freedom is far from complete, writes Eugene Rogan
Time for quiet idealism: The Arab upheaval shows that we should promote our values—up to a point, writes David Davis
Building Arab peace one checkpoint at a time: Tony Blair speaks to Donald Macintyre about his role as middle east envoy