Egyptians headed to the ballot boxes yet again in a fresh attempt at rectifying the country’s political mess. Even though this year’s presidential election was spared much fanfare, the startlingly low turnout of voters, which stood at a mere 48 percent, was concerning. Even more alarming was the conspicuous absence of young voters in the queues outside the polling stations, seeming to indicate that Egypt’s revolutionary euphoria is waning.
Since three years ago, the impassioned and resolute Egyptian youth mobilized to put an end to a decades-long oppressive regime. But the nation at present is clinging on to the vestiges of that rebellious spirit, and the participation of the youth represents part of a broader political struggle.
Sadly, politics in Egypt have turned farcical at best. After the deposed Hosni Mubarak, in 2012 came Egypt’s first elected president, Mohammed Morsi, a conservative Islamist leader who was eventually ousted unceremoniously the following year. The latest round of election held in May saw the return of military rulership in Egypt as ex-army chief, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is declared the new president. What’s intriguing, although not surprising, is that many people are relieved to have the military back in power.
A Pew Research Centre Global Attitudes survey concluded that 54 percent of Egyptians placed more value on having a stable government, in spite of the risk that it would not be fully democratic. In comparison, 44 percent of Egyptians said they would rather have a democratic government.
The difference of opinion reflects a severely divided nation. Evidently, the trial-and-error of democracy in Egypt has exhausted many citizens; crime rates have soared within the last four years and the economy is in a slump. People are anticipating some much needed security and stability, which they readily associate with the second coming of the military government. One wonders, however, if it’s safe to bet on the unfaltering assurance that only the military is capable of rescuing an ailing Egypt.
This has torn open a rift between the older and younger generations in the country. The majority of Egypt’s youth reckons the new leadership as a palpable threat to their nascent revolutionary ideals. On another hand, several members of the country’s older populace have lent el-Sisi their strong support.
A growing number of young Egyptians also say the government’s vicious crackdown on mass protests, especially youth-led demonstrations, is deepening the chiasm. Earlier in January, for instance, less than a quarter of voters under 30 abstained from voting in a referendum on a new military-supported constitution. The plummeting participation rates imply an unfortunate reality in which the youth are losing faith in the political process. This is detrimental to stability in the long run for a country with a bulging young population. Moreover, apathy has sunk in among Egypt’s youth, driven to despair by a mockery of their beliefs that surfaced largely from the remnants of a failed and incomplete revolution.
Youth activists are concerned they have been cast aside and curbed from participating in the leadership of post-revolution Egypt by a culture that favors older and experienced politicians. Many young politicians have even tried to launch their own parties and movements. Ultimately a lack of resources led to the dissolution of their respective organizations.
There is still much to learn from the tumultuous past few years in going forward. Egypt’s toughest challenge will be uniting a society polarized by diverse political ideologies and gaping income inequality, before any real talk on democracy can occur. What the country now needs is not another revolution, as some pundits have started predicting, but reconciliation between its disillusioned youth and the presidency through meaningful dialogue. Youth activists have regarded past dialogues as futile, arguing that the government has done little to address issues including mass incarceration, torture of demonstrators, deteriorating prison conditions and stifling press freedom.
Fundamental deficiencies in Egyptian society such as widespread poverty, high illiteracy and gender-based violence must also be addressed in order to sustain democracy, whenever it may come.
Nabil Salib, head of the High Election Commission, who is critical of the elections themselves, made a pragmatic statement that deserves some thought: “I argue for cancelling elections” until “illiteracy vanishes, citizens’ living standards are secured at least to a minimum standard, their will is liberated and their culture is sophisticated.” Then perhaps it’s instead time to prioritize economic development, education and security in the country. Considering opportunities for the youth to engage in governance and the political decision-making processes also rely on effectively eliminating these socio-economic barriers.
The disappointment of many young Egyptians with the country’s current state of affairs is justifiable. The legitimacy of the recent presidential election is dubious, in part due to the large absence of voters and ample spoilt votes. While we are yet to see how el-Sisi will govern, he must nevertheless address the precarious existence of Egypt’s youth in the public sphere. Likewise, the youth must make every effort to ascend from their despair in order to participate in creating a country where true democracy will flourish.
By Deea Ariana
Photo credit: muftah.org