THE BLOG
02/21/2011 06:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Egypt's Youth in Revolt: For Love, Not Anger

It's too easy to say that Egyptian youth took to the streets because they were angry. During the last three weeks, the media has discussed at great length the many indignities young Egyptians just out of college suffer on a daily basis -- the lack of jobs for those without connections, official corruption, overcrowded universities, to name just a few. Yet, when Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google employee and Facebook activist detained for 12 days by state security, gave his moving interview to a popular talk show, he made a striking statement. Over and over, in describing the protesters he helped inspire, Wael said, "We are all people who love Egypt."

On the surface, this statement seems perplexing. After all, it would appear that the Egyptian college students at the forefront of the protests have many reasons to be angry with their country. In terms of economic well-being, young Egyptians face a job market for which their university degrees often fail to prepare them. Until the 1990s, many Egyptians went to college to train for government jobs that were guaranteed upon graduation--an incentive system put in place by the socialist President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Today, not only is this government employment guarantee long-gone, but a university curriculum that focuses on rote memorization and fact repetition also leaves graduates unprepared for employment in growing private-sector firms. The provision of jobs to those with wasta, or connections, exacerbates youth frustrations further.

Meanwhile, average Egyptians face ever-present reminders that a narrow elite has grown even wealthier from the country's economic liberalization. Billboards along Cairo's highways advertise glittering new housing developments and shopping malls -- in English no less to emphasize exclusivity. Western-style coffee shops, restaurant chains, and supermarkets have sprung up in neighborhoods around Cairo, including a Pizza Hut and a KFC on the edge of Midan Tahrir. Nevertheless, these businesses are well out of reach for typical government or factory workers with salaries of $100 or $200 per month. Laura Hohnsbeen, a Princeton senior who studied in Cairo, remembers clearly the "increasing lifestyle gap between wealthy individuals with close ties to the regime and the remainder of the population."

By the time of the protests, Egyptian youth, both college-educated and not, were enduring these economic frustrations within a state that had lost political legitimacy. Under Hosni Mubarak, the ruling National Democratic Party stood for little else other than stability. In conversations with Egyptians, one common refrain is that former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat at least had visions for Egypt's development, albeit pan-Arab socialism for the former and capitalism for the latter. Mubarak, by contrast, defended the status quo with all the tools at his disposal -- most notoriously through a brutally effective internal security apparatus operating under an emergency law since Sadat's assassination in 1981.

On the eve of the protests, Egyptian youth faced a future of diminishing economic opportunity combined with political stagnation. Clare Herceg, a former study-abroad student in Cairo, recalls the frustrations her Egyptian friends experienced from the "overall corruption of the government including its use of torture" to silence dissent. The protesters channeled their frustrations into one central demand: Mubarak had to leave office immediately.

Yet, anger could not have been the only factor driving the protests. Why? Recall the fact that for the most part the protests were nonviolent, with the exception of limited looting. The protesters never turned against Cairo's wealthiest neighborhoods, including the island of Zamalek, which was just a bridge away from Midan Tahrir. Moreover, the protesters never fractured along economic lines -- the internet-savvy leaders, such as Wael Ghonim, came from comfortable backgrounds but still rallied a broad segment of the population. The youth at the forefront of the protests exercised far more restraint and tolerance than might have been expected.

The protests were also unique for their non-ideological nature. The largest organized opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, played a mostly minor role. The Brotherhood took four days to join the protest, and political Islam was not a significant theme in the demands protesters made to the regime. Meanwhile, Egypt's small secular parties also by and large played a small role in the leadership of the protests. In many ways, the low visibility of these already-organized opposition groups is not surprising. The Muslim Brotherhood and secular parties promised reform for decades. But, with youth needs persistently unmet, the leaders of the protest created a new movement outside existing political organizations.

Instead of picking an ideology, the protest leaders opted for simple demands that transcended political affiliation -- namely, Mubarak's exit. This strategy paid off, in that the protests attracted not just internet activists from privileged classes, but also Egyptians from every socioeconomic class and demographic.

But now, the young leaders -- many just out of college -- face three challenges in translating their desire for reform into actual political outcomes. First, real and lasting change will only come as a result of a convergence of interests among secular liberal students, laborers, and Muslim Brotherhood members -- the main elements of opposition in the country. Though these three groups seem to be working together for now, they each have different agendas and long-term visions for the country. For example, labor has generally been more concerned with salaries and working conditions than democracy per se. Egyptian protest movements in the past, such as Kifaya in 2005, ultimately broke down when labor, secular liberals, and Islamists stopped working with one another. These latent fissures leave the protesters vulnerable, and no one knows how long their unity will last now that Mubarak has stepped down.

Second, it is impossible to tell the extent to which Egypt's new military council will follow through on promised reforms, such as free elections and amendments to the constitution. One main reason is that military officers have amassed extensive privileges during the course of Egypt's economic liberalization; the military is involved with the production of everything from bread to bottled water. The military leaders have a powerful financial interest in maintaining the status quo, and they will need reassurances that any future democratic reforms do not threaten their core economic interests.

Third, though the protests succeeded in expelling Mubarak, the cultures of corruption and patronage that triggered the protests will linger. It will take years, if not decades, for the Egyptian government to rebuild investor confidence and enact necessary educational reforms to make its workforce globally competitive. More fundamentally, without changes in the practices of Egyptian business and government, the prospects for Egypt's swelling ranks of college graduates will not change substantially.

And yet, for all these challenges, Egyptian youth have been far more successful than any observer could have imagined three weeks ago. In the past, street protests have been tempered by pressure from security forces and economic handouts, such as subsidies and pay increases. These tactics failed to reduce the numbers of people in Midan Tahrir and in central squares around Egypt. As Wael Ghonim said in his television interview, the protests were not just about making feelings heard; the protests were about reshaping the country young Egyptians love.