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Islam and politics

Young revolutionaries

by Bijan Kafi
“75 % of Egyptian women may wear headscarves, but that does not tell us anything about their political orientation.” Girls in front of a fast food restaurant in Cairo

“75 % of Egyptian women may wear headscarves, but that does not tell us anything about their political orientation.” Girls in front of a fast food restaurant in Cairo

Many people fear that fundamentalists may take over after the revolution in Egypt. Egyptians themselves, however, hardly seem concerned. In particular, the young people who lead the revolution are convinced that a state coloured by Islam can be a democracy. By Bijan Kafi

Western observers were moved when they saw Muslims and Christians protecting each other’s prayers in the first days of February on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Many considered such cooperation as welcome sign of tolerance after an attack on a Coptic church on New Year’s Eve. Many, however, read the pictures of thousands of people praying as an indication that Islamic forces might yet gain influence in Egypt. Now that the protests have prevailed, one can sense in the streets that young, liberal Muslims do not want to be misunderstood.

Around 24 % of the Egyptians are between 18 and 29 years old. Their share of the population has been growing quickly since the early 1990s. For a long time, jobs in an artificially inflated public sector offered to many some kind of perspective. But as the internet and satellite TV became commonplace in Egyptian homes by 2003 or so, young people began to use the new tools to demand reforms.

“Masses of young people have spent their whole lives under a state of emergency,” says Heba Morayef, who is a resident researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Cairo. “The pressure is huge.” In her view, the shared experience of authoritarianism is the main cause of activism. The government responded with repression, arrests, and torture. In calls for solidarity with disadvantaged groups of the population and during the Kefaya movement, today’s youth-movement leaders found their sense of purpose.

There was, however, no call for religious renewal, not even after January 25. “People are now looking for someone who will offer them an economic future, not a religious one,” says 26-year-old Noha Atef, who runs the most popular Egyptian website against torture. Anyone who talked to young Egyptians who demonstrated in Tahrir Square will have noticed their suspicion about questions relating to their religious motives. “The problem is the image the West has of Egyptian culture,” explains Jacqueline Kameel, director of the youth organisation Nahdet El-Marousia, which was started by successful young Egyptians to promote entrepreneurial spirit among youth. ­“Seventy ­five per cent of Egyptian women may wear headscarves, but that does not tell us anything about their political orientation,” adds her colleague Nada El-Gammal.

Hisham El-Rouby, who studied youth organisations for the World Bank in 2008, similarly rejects the idea young activists may be driven by religion. He thinks that most appreciate the democratic institutions as are typical of western nations – provided they do not conflict with Islamic principles. Many look to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. “That nation has a liberal state with an independent judiciary, competing political parties and respect for Islamic values,” El-Rouby says. In his experience, young Egyptians want a free country with democratic constitutions. “They want to live by Islamic principles, but I don’t think they want an Islamic constitution.” A study published in 2008 by the Danish Institute of International ­Studies (DIIK) found no evidence of religious youth organisations striving for political change.

A private matter

On Saturdays, the coffee bars are full in Cairo’s Zamalek district, where many embassies are located. A cup of coffee may be five times more expensive here than in other places in Cairo, but middle-class youth flock to Zamalek. They soon began planning a new Egypt after Mubarak’s departure.

Today, Zena Sallam, 25, is meeting leaders of Eed Wahda (“One Hand”), a youth group that was newly founded in February. It mobilised hundreds of interested people for its first meeting. Zena hopes it will become a voice of young people and allow them to influence policymaking.

Groups like this are cropping up every day in the new Egypt. Eed Wahda has seven working committees, and most of their leaders are women from Cairo’s secular upper class. They openly display their prosperity. None of them wears a headscarf. Their ideas on social policy range from protecting human rights to promoting tourism, and they want democratic institutions – along with a strict separation of church and state. They radiate with confidence. “We want to be able to stand up for all young Egyptians,” Zena says.

Most young people want a secular state, though a lot of them continue to be Muslims. They believe they can live their faith in a state governed through institutions typical of western modernity and capitalism.

Nevertheless, there is space for conservative views too. Shaimaa, a 21-year-old student in Cairo, likes Hollywood movies, has almost 800 Facebook friends and wears a headscarf. She promotes the idea of an Islamic state. “Islam is good for you,” she says. “The state should have the authority to make this clear to the people.” Her fellow student Ahmed, 22, is convinced that the law and Islam are the same thing: “Islamic law can apply to everyone. It may sometimes be strict, but it is always just.” In January, Ahmed and Shaimaa joined the demonstrations in the streets, just like all of their classmates.

Ahmed El-Esseily, a young movie and TV produ­cer who deals with Egyptian youth issues in his popular shows, thinks that young people today may express more conservative views than in the past. The trend worries him. Published before the revolution, the Human Development Report 2010 also found that young people continued to support Islamic values on a broad scale, though it also stated they want societal change and get more say.

The politically active young people of Cairo know what they want. They do not believe that conservative forces like the Muslim Brotherhood wield much influence. The Brothers joined the revolution quite late in the game and did not demand a leading role. Their leaders however, seem to be quite aware of sensitivities. None of them was available for an interview. And the Al Azhar University, whose traditional Sunni scholars played a conservative role in the revolutionary days, declined the request for a discussion with their students.

Prevailing secularism

Unlike those who are now coming together everywhere to plan the new Egypt, many of those who paved the way for the revolution – bloggers and online activists – were individualists who commonly only met in secret. They too are mostly from middle class backgrounds and live in relative financial security. Many of them joined youth movements that started on Facebook.

Basem Fathy was once a leader in the 6 April Youth Movement, which helped launch the revolution. I meet him at the Journalists Syndicate, where he co-hosted a training course for citizens on elections. “I am here to show citizens how important elections are,” he says. He and his colleagues are in favour of participatory democracy in a secular state.

Basem reports that secular and conservative ­forces struggled for intellectual hegemony within the 6 April Movement. “A conservative wing attempted to dominate our work, but they didn’t succeed. The secu­lar forces prevailed,” he explains. He does not think fundamentalist forces have much support and recommends legalising them. He says, such a move would weaken, rather than strengthen them. In early talks with the military council, youth representatives called for new secular cabinet members. Basem is not sure, however, whether they should become political forces themselves.

Basem and his colleagues have great hopes for secular, civic forces. Noha Atef says that it is mainly thanks to them that no single group could claim the revolution for itself. “On Tahrir Square, there were no religious chants. No one could claim the revolution as their own because the citizens were watchful.” She excitedly adds that “everyone loved each other a lot more than I expected.”

Almost everyone in Cairo now has stories to tell about the surprising reconciliation and tolerance between the strictly religious and the liberal, pro-western youth – and not only in the days of the Tahrir demonstrations. After a recent attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria, Muslims and Christians to­gether surrounded churches all over Egypt to protect them. At one point, they flew a giant Egyptian flag from a line hanging between a mosque and a church. A lot of people in Cairo think that was a symbol of the true Egypt.

It remains to be seen whether such hopeful signs will endure. Mubarak’s regime spread and exploited fear. Egyptians have now earned a rare opportunity to show how a tolerant and open-minded Islam may look like.