Monday, August 8,  2022


Tahrir Square Generation

BY Barbara Lethem Ibrahim

Universities helped shape the Tahrir Youth Generation. Now they can do more.


Virtually no one predicted the timing or composition of Egypt’s January 25th uprising that toppled an entrenched regime. And while it is popular to label it the Youth Revolution, the analysis has been thin so far as to why young Egyptians took a pivotal mobilizing role on the streets of Cairo and other major cities. We tend to valorize ‘the youth of the revolution’ but have not yet fully understood what contributed to their unique blend of courage, patriotism, absence of ideology and commitment to non-violence. I personally find the Facebook/Twitter explanation for youthful mobilizing unsatisfying, given that only around 35 percent of young Egyptians currently use the internet and of those, a smaller fraction engage with political or public interest websites.   Prior to January 2011, in fact, most popular images of contemporary youth portrayed them as apathetic, focused on personal aspirations, or overly influenced by religion. 

Had one been observing university campuses, however, a number of indications were present that foreshadowed events of the past ten months. From a Cairo vantage point, I noted how national university campuses – despite overcrowding and tight government control – were serving as spaces of incubation for youthful activism. Community service organizations, rights groups, and development activists sprouted on Egyptian campuses. Our center for civic engagement at the American University in Cairo had been following these trends since 2006. We sensed what we began to call a ‘second wave’ of youth activists who were not waiting for adults to invite them into organizations or decision-making structures. They knew the old systems were corrupt and ineffective, but instead of complaining or withdrawing, students found many clever and creative ways to enter public life on their own terms.  

The risks for that participation could be high. Active university students were routinely labeled ‘objectionable’ by state security forces and denied the right to run for student office. Demonstrations were monitored, leaders were followed and blogging or organizing on social media were grounds for arrest and harassment. Rather than inhibit activism, these measures seemed to increase the numbers of engaged students, albeit causing many to seek out ‘safe’ modes of public participation outside of politics. 

What was shaping the worldview of this generation of students and recent grads and how is it distinct from that of their parents and grandparents? 


Shaping a generation

The Arab region has suffered from a democracy deficit since modern states emerged in theUniversities remained for many years relatively unmonitored spaces where young people could gather, engage with diverse opinions and forge political consciousness mid-twentieth century. However in the early decades, nationalist movements encouraged youth to help ‘build the nation’ and in fact created channels for meaningful participation in national service, the military or local causes such as literacy campaigns. When that discourse and its promises largely collapsed, it was replaced in Egypt by a ‘privatizing’ discourse in which families and business networks competed for advantage in newly-opened capital markets. By the turn of the 21st century a burgeoning youth generation saw clearly that most opportunities were restricted to a small circle of the elite. The aging political leadership offered slogans but no real progress towards inclusive governance, and security forces compromised every sector, from education to civil society to local business. Thus the largest ever cohort of young Egyptians were coming of age in a culture that excluded them at a time when neither jobs, marriage prospects nor significant roles in public life were within their reach. 

One of the few vestiges of Nasser’s modernization program open to those with adequate academic grades was university education. The size and number of Egyptian universities mushroomed to accommodate growth of the student population. With few other outlets available to meet and interact, universities became spaces for informal civic education above and beyond the formal curriculum. This point is often overlooked because of the well-known problems with the content of higher education in Egypt. However, in myriad informal ways university students were getting a very different sort of education than the one planned by the Ministry.  

As part of wider society, university campuses faced all of the problems of other state institutions – inadequate funding, overcrowding and lack of merit-based leadership. However, in some significant ways, universities remained for many years relatively unmonitored spaces where young people could gather, engage with diverse opinions and forge political consciousness. 

Degrees of freedom differed greatly. Private universities like the American University in Cairo (AUC) operated with a significantly higher degree of autonomy. Critical thinking, student initiative, and civic participation were steeped in the mission of AUC, and many of the January 25th movement’s stalwarts were its students or graduates. Egyptian faculty who found teaching in national universities too restrictive joined AUC and formed the core of teaching staff in programs not offered elsewhere - on human rights law, political development, professional media, and so forth.  Even AUC imposed limits on activism, however; outspoken religious figures and political dissidents were not permitted to speak and student announcements had to be approved by administrators before posting on campus. Nonetheless, AUC and some of the newer private universities played an important role in producing graduates with the skills and inclination to lead for change. 

The vast majority of Egyptian students, however, attend national universities. AUC’s full-time enrolment is around 5,000 while Cairo University alone has over 300,000 full-time students. National universities operate with state-appointed presidents, deans, promotion criteria for faculty, as well as state budgets. Control extends to the curriculum and course content as well - only one Egyptian national university awards degrees in political science. Nonetheless, campuses were sanctioned spaces where youth from all geographic and social class backgrounds gathered and formed their opinions on public issues. Professors were able to expose students to social and economic problems, teach critical thinking and encourage civic engagement – even voice some political critique - as long as it was not combined with political activism.

Some examples are illustrative. In 1999 a young computer science professor, Sherif Abdel Azeem, took his students on a field trip to a poor urban neighborhood, and that galvanized students to form a community service club. Resala has grown to include over 92,000 young volunteers in tens of chapters today. Cairo University spawned another student initiative, Namaa for Development, to orient young Egyptians to a critical perspective on social and economic development in the country. Similar groups were forming at other Egyptian universities where students found volunteering and development to be a safer form of public participation than politics. All shared a dimension of patriotic love of country, sense of social responsibility, and determined youth leaders who showed very little reliance on adults or outside support.  Through these activities, students were learning to organize, practice discipline and work together for a cause greater than themselves. 

Other outlets for civic learning were available through student unions and academic clubs. National universities permitted students to campaign and hold elections under watchful eyes of the administration. In recent years, however, the complaints about interference from state security authorities grew and only student groups that stayed away from religion, human rights or politics could operate. Even Resala’s campus chapters were closed by the police when membership began to grow rapidly – offering a telling lesson to students about the potential power of citizen organizing. The struggle among faculty and students to rid their campuses of police interference led to formation of the March 9th movement and other campus protest groups. I would argue that the setbacks and obstacles imposed on university campuses were laying the grounds for political awareness and readiness to be more actively engaged.  

So while far from open and free institutions, national universities were operating as ‘incubators’ for participation and social learning in ways that were suppressed in other parts of society. Campuses were ideal places to meet like-minded fellow students, become internet savvy, observe the stifling effects of repression and debate national concerns. One can argue that what was happening over the past decade in Egyptian universities was the creation of a generation of youth who were not simply educated for the market, but also ready to be mobilized for change. 


From aware to engaged to mobilized

It was a relatively small number of university students and graduates who planned and led the January 25th movement at the outset. These individuals were part of underground or virtual groups that were well-organized and focused on political change. But in order to achieve critical mass, those leaders had to recruit hundreds of thousands of others. For that task, Facebook and other social media were ideal because of their immediacy and the viral spread of information. Whereas previous demonstrations had garnered a few thousand participants at most, the call to come to Tahrir Square, when taken up and spread on Facebook reached tens of thousands more.  

Eventually hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians participated in street protests across the country and millions more avidly followed on television. Well after the fall of the regime, they are showing readiness to remobilize on the streets to express displeasure over the pace or direction of reform. Having lived the empowering experience of a successful uprising, this generation will expect to be given a significant role in rebuilding the country.  They also have heightened expectations for improvement in their everyday lives. Within weeks of Mubarak stepping down, demonstrations had moved to campuses of the national universities. Students are refusing to attend classes until allegedly-corrupt deans and faculty members are removed. Student Union elections on other campuses were rapidly re-organized in an environment free of police interference. 

At a time when every aspect of public life is under new scrutiny, national universities are facing pressure to change fundamentally. They will also be expected to assist in the country-wide project of preparing Egyptians to exercise citizenship and elect responsive leaders. 


Universities roles in transition

In the coming period, universities can play at least two important national roles. One is toUniversities have a unique window of opportunity to institutionalize new policies on expression, conflict of interest, fairness and equity, as well as academic integrity. model the sort of democratic and merit-based institutions that Egyptians aspire to in other spheres. Administrators can become more transparent about decision-making and include students and staff more fully in deliberations that affect the entire community. There are models for this in the Arab region. Birzeit University in the West Bank of Palestine has a single union representing all employees, whether faculty, staff or administrators. The union is fully engaged in key decision-making across the institution. Elections within the union are free, fair, and hotly contested. Students will expect to have their views and interests more fully represented as well in campus decision-making.  

A second way that universities can contribute is by elevating the principle and practice of service. In the spirit of building new societies, faculty who engage in community or national service need to receive recognition from the university and appropriate credit toward promotion and tenure. Faculty who are called upon for research, policy or other advisory service to government can include their students and thus expose them to the importance of public engagement. Service learning (community-based learning) as an effective way of teaching across the curriculum will also take on new significance. Students have long been drivers of change toward learning that is experiential and moves beyond the campus walls. With every aspect of society now subject to reform and improvement, the opportunities for students and their teachers to be engaged in service are virtually limitless. 

Universities across Egypt can learn from each other and combine forces to build effective campus civic engagement programs. Some of this is already happening on an informal basis and can be encouraged with relatively little expense. I note a keen interest among faculty eager to reshape their course content to respond to the new realities in Egypt. The newly-formed Ma’an Alliance of Arab Universities for Civic Engagement can facilitate this process and introduce best practices from countries that have undergone similar political transitions. 

Finally, it will be necessary for all members of the academic community to engage in an open debate about the place of politics in the academy. Under the edict of ‘no politics’ universities gave up one of their crucial roles in an open society, that of providing critical analysis of public life. Corruption reached inside the academy, so that plagiarism, cronyism and turning a blind eye to misuse of power too often became routine. A healthy debate is beginning about the need to preserve universities as learning environments while protecting free expression. Universities have a unique window of opportunity to institutionalize new policies on expression, conflict of interest, fairness and equity, as well as academic integrity. That will be an essential part of securing for future generations the fragile democratic opening that has been recently achieved.


Barbara Ibrahim is the Founding Director of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and Member of the Board of Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies

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