In at least one way, the revolution of generational change has already begun and the region’s parents are proud, astonished, and understandably a bit regretful at how quickly they are being surpassed
Perhaps one of the least widely reported features of what has become known in Egypt as the 25th of January Revolution was the extent to which it was, in fact, a family affair. Of course, as was widely remarked, the country's youth was disproportionately represented in the organization and leadership of the protests that ultimately culminated in the removal of Hosni Mubarak. But as soon as internet and mobile phone service was restored in the early days of the protests, parents across Egypt—indeed, judging from my conversations in New York and Washington a month later, across the world--were in touch with friends, marveling at the courage and inventiveness of their children in mounting and sustaining the protests. Nearly every parent I know in Cairo talked about visiting Tahrir Square, bringing blankets and food, astonished by the fortitude and commitment of a generation that had seemed alienated from public life and estranged from politics only a few weeks before.
The pride of Egyptian parents in their revolutionary children is an enormous intangible asset in the political transition, one which will sustain and support the revolution’s aims long after the mundane, contentious haggling that is day-to-day democracy begins to test family harmony on policy issues and along party lines. Yet there is wistfulness in the joy of the parents and a measure of discomfiture that they themselves did not achieve what their children accomplished.
Unlike the parents, who grew up believing—correctly—that their own parents knew more than they did until they were well into their twenties, these young people grew up with parents who were not all-knowing and who, in fact, relied on their children for guidance
The generation caught between the octogenarian rulers and the twenty-something protestors in the Arab world may well be a lost generation. Certainly they have much to be proud of—their investment in the education of these young people has clearly paid off. And this is not a trivial observation—these investments were quite tangible and easy to calculate. Throughout Egypt and in many other places in the Arab world, even mediocre public education is not actually free, as every family finds it necessary to pay for supplementary private lessons for children poorly served by the dreadful classroom teaching of the formal system. But pay they did, convinced against all evidence that education would be the ticket to a better life for their children.
And, of course, in ways these parents could not have anticipated, it may well be. Their children may not have found the job they thought they were being trained to do, but they found something equally important: the courage to challenge authority.
This is because these young people, like everyone their age around the world, have had an additional, supplementary education, and it has shaped their relationship not only with each other, but with their families, and with authority. This is the generation that, as the wry cliche has it in the United States, taught their parents how to program the VCR. These young people taught themselves and each other things their parents did not even dream of, much less understand. And so every parent today has had the experience of being taught by his or her children, the youngsters who showed them how to get an email address, surf the web, log on to Facebook. Unlike the parents, who grew up believing—correctly—that their own parents knew more than they did until they were well into their twenties, these young people grew up with parents who were not all-knowing and who, in fact, relied on their children for guidance and support.
In subtle ways, this experience of self-reliance, peer-learning and reversed roles empowered this younger generation and permitted them to challenge authority in a way that was insistent, disciplined and, in important ways, grateful. This generation knows the investment they represent to their family and they intend to redeem it.
As they do so, however, they may overtake their parents, and the middle-aged in the Arab world today may find themselves bypassed in subtle and sometimes painful ways. They awaited their turn in power patiently—perhaps too patiently—and now they find that the rules have changed, and they may not have the skills, the connections or the authority to exercise the influence for which they prepared themselves. The next generation—their children—may prove more adept, better networked, and more powerful. The success of their children is, of course, a source of great pride, optimism and joy. But this generation can also be forgiven a tinge of regret, for they are neither the heroic ideologues of their own parents’ generation, when the mid-twentieth century giants of national liberation and collective justice seemed to wander the earth, nor are they the pragmatic, probably more individualist, exponents of personal freedom and dignity that they see in their children.
There is much to be done to secure the achievements of the 25th of January Revolution and its counterparts elsewhere in the region in institutional terms—constitutions to be written, parties to be established, elections to be contested, legislatures to be formed, rights to be guaranteed. For that reason, many of us are chary of calling these upheavals revolutions just yet. But in at least one way, the revolution of generational change has already begun and the region's parents are proud, astonished, and understandably a bit regretful at how quickly they are being surpassed.
Lisa Anderson has been President of the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt, since January 2011