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Talking Policy: Rachel Aspden on Youth in Egypt

Since the Arab Spring, Egypt has gone from democratic elections to the return of military rule. With a median age under 24 years, the country has left its youth feeling betrayed about the past and disillusioned about the present and future. World Policy Journal spoke with Rachel Aspden, author of Generation Revolution: On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East. Aspden discusses following a diverse group of young Egyptians as they grapple with their lives in a time of revolution and repression, as well as her experiences as a Western woman living in Egypt. 

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: In your book, you write about a diverse group of youth—before, during, and after the revolution in Egypt—and it seems no matter their background, the youth you spoke to were disillusioned with the status quo in the country. What do the think the major reason, or reasons, that galvanized this heterogeneous group of young people to act?

RACHEL ASPDEN: One of the things I talk about in the book is the generational shift that took place before the revolution. These young people's parents—whatever their circumstances really—had managed to reach an accommodation with the state, so the status quo kind of worked for them. There was this implicit deal with the state, whereby they would not get involved in politics and in return the state would make sure there was enough work, they could maintain a decent standard of living, and life could go on more or less as normal, as long they didn't cross those red lines or meddle in political matters. What started to happen in the 2000s was that deal started to break down in a very obvious way for young people. The population was growing and the state was no longer able to keep up, so unemployment became a massive issue. There were a lot of university graduates and there just weren't enough jobs to go around. Corruption was rampant and then there were day-to-day issues, like the failing infrastructure, which would mean that if you tried to go to a hospital you were going to have a horrible experience, if you wanted to get anywhere you were going to be sitting in traffic for hours and hours at a time, and you were going to be living in a very polluted environment. 

These things started to mount up and at the same time people started to become more politically literate. I would trace that back to the protests over the second intifada in Palestine. That's really when this generation started to get politicized, and the universities were really the breeding ground for that dissent. So people stated to protest. Those protests carried on over the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and were brutally repressed by the government, and as the 2000s continued, people began to be much more aware of the impact of the tools of repression that the state was using. Police brutality was a really big issue and it started to spread, so that while some people could rationalize it before by saying this is only going to affect people who are political dissidents and religious extremists, it started to come closer and closer to these previously comfortable middle classes. 

Another factor that was discussed in terms of the revolution was the spread of the internet through Egypt. This was actually a government policy that was driven by the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, who wanted to reinvent Egypt as a go-getting, hot new destination for foreign investment. He looked at the state of the infrastructure and thought, we've got to get the internet up and running here. A lot of money was pumped into that effort, but what he didn't foresee was that all these young people who suddenly got online were able to communicate with one another, inform themselves much more about the political situation, and start to gather in online spaces that were much more difficult to police than offline spaces. All of these factors came together and it was really the murder of a young man, Khaled Mohamed Saeed, in Alexandria in the summer of 2012 that concentrated people's minds. They thought if this can happen, if the police can just go into an internet cafe and kill a young guy, it could happen to any of us. All of the ground work that had been put in placethe increasing political literacy and the spread of the internet—came together and helped direct those feelings into protests in January 2011.

WPJ: Do you think many of the youth felt that this democratic experiment had failed or that this was simply a bump in the road? How did people view the coup?

RA: I think it was a time of bitter division, and it's impossible to generalize because people's reactions were so polarized. I personally was very shocked that a portion of the people I knew who had participated in the revolution, who I thought of staunch supporters of democracy and liberal values, were initially thrilled when Morsi was removed. They weren't too concerned at that point about the mechanism by which that had happened. Morsi made many mistakes and he alienated a significant proportion of the population to such an extent that they really didn't care what it took to get rid of him, which subsequently turned out to be a mistake. The number of liberals opposed the coup when it first happened was much lower than I would have expected. Of course, the more Islamist-minded people who politically supported Morsi were absolutely devastated, but they didn't find as many fellow travelers as they hoped. 

WPJ: Do you think the more liberally minded Egyptians who were in support of the coup regret it, now that they have lived under Sissi?

RA: I think many people do. I think the events of that summer, such as the massacre of Rabaa, were a huge shock for many people. The scale of the violence was horrific. A thousand people murdered in central Cairo was absolutely shocking to everyone, even after everything else that happened. The mishandling of the country by Sissi has been so dramatic that people now are faced with similar day-to-day practical problems to those under Mubarak, particularly with the devaluation of the currency that happened late last year. Just meeting day-to-day needs has become harder and harder, and that is absorbing more and more of people’s energy, and no one is happy about it. Sissi came to power on a tide of almost universal optimism and hope, and everyone wanted to put all the turmoil behind them. But he hasn't fulfilled any of those promises and people are really starting to worry.

WPJ: I was struck by a moment in your book when you were talking to two young Muslim men and they were describing their religion as liberating, not restricting. What do you think they meant by that and do you think that is a common sentiment in Egypt?

RA: Yes, very much so. I don't come from a religious background or from a society that is structurally religious, so this was something that was very difficult for me to empathize with, but it was a common thread in most of my conversations with young Muslims when I was speaking to them about their faith. Partly I would say that people are thinking in terms of a reaction against the perceived moral vacuum of the West. That was something that was often described to me. They were saying, you [in the West] think you have freedom to buy stuff, wear bikinis, and sleep around, but we don't want those freedoms. You are just enslaved to different things. It's only through religion that you can experience true freedom. Partly as well it was a reaction to the corruption and despair of the Mubarak era, when there were no avenues of participation open to young people at all. You couldn't do anything in terms of your career unless you had a corrupt connection. You couldn't participate in politics. Religion was really the only avenue open to young people that said to them, you're wanted and needed, and your energy is essential for building this country in an Islamic context. That's why movements like Amr Khaled’s youth organization Life Makers were so popular and successful during that time in particular, and why so many young people started turning to religion, even to an extent that horrified their parents, who were from a much more nominally Islamic generation.

WPJ: Do you think that many Egyptian women would view religion as liberating as well?

RA: People say—to the extent that women experience discrimination and injustice in Egypt or in any society that is not Islamic—Islam provides perfect justice. I describe in the book going to a seminar with one of these very, in some ways, forward-thinking preachers who is putting forward Islamic arguments about the equality of women and I was totally horrified by the examples he cited about the justification for men being able to take four wives. He said every woman has her period for a week every month so you always want someone available for the husband. For someone educated in a liberal feminist tradition this is just appalling to hear, but these arguments have a lot of traction among the young people I was writing about. I met next to no women who said that they felt oppressed by religious constraints. Some people had complaints to make about the way Egyptian tradition constrains women but no one who identified as Muslim said that they felt Islam is oppressive to women. 

WPJ: What was your experience like as a Western female living in Egypt and how did it differ from the average Egyptian woman?

RA: I think [my background] had a massive impact on my experiences there. First, it had an impact in terms of the work I was doing and the access that I was able to have to women and women-only areas, which a male writer simply wouldn't have had, and, conversely, in the ways that I was limited in moving in more male environments. But more importantly, I think it shaped my personal experience of being in Egypt because gender becomes your defining characteristic in a way you just don't experience in the West. Every time I left my front door, I knew that I was going to be subjected to some kind of sexual harassment, whether it was verbal or physical. It was every single time I left the house. Something like 90 percent of Egyptian women report experiencing sexual harassment on a regular basis, and one has to wonder where the other 10 percent are spending their days. From that point of view, I was participating in an experience that is common to every single woman in the country and it gave me first-hand insight into the impact of that and how it begins to shape your behavior and mentality. 

In terms of how my experience differed from that of Egyptian women, to some extent I was protected by my relative wealth, and the fact that I was obviously Western and carried a Western passport. So I had a level of privilege that insulated my from a lot of consequences faced by Egyptian women. I also didn't have to answer to an Egyptian family, and though I describe in the book a bit of my experience of what it was like being spied on by neighbors and my door man, as well as being judged by people as I walk down the street, in the end, the impact on me was limited because I didn't have to try to fit into Egyptian society in the way that an Egyptian women of the same age would have. That was a real challenge for a lot of the women I met, because in the end they had to make a very, very difficult choice—do they try to conform, get married, be respectable, and be a credit to their families and not cause trouble, or do they take the difficult, lonely, and challenging route of not conforming, of speaking out, and of frustrating all of the expectations that society places on them. I describe at the beginning of the book the story of Amal, who walks that path, and in my eyes she's very heroic for doing so, but a lot of other Egyptian women who knew of her experiences were horrified and said, why would you want to do something like that, this is not something to emulate or hold up as an example, it's terrible. And I understand where they are coming from because the price you have to pay is very high, and also because if large numbers of women start to do stuff like that, then the fabric of society would change a lot.

WPJ: Do you think after all the recent upheaval in Egypt, the life of the average woman in Egypt has gotten better in terms opportunity and treatment?

RA: I think that is quite difficult to answer. One thing I would have to mention would be the way that the state used sexual violence in an attempt to shut women out of political participation. We started to see even from the early days of the big protest in 2011, that groups of paid thugs were attacking women who attended large public protests and the intention was very clearly to create a climate of fear that would discourage women from making their voices heard in public. That is even before you consider sexual torture and rape by the police in detention facilities, particularly toward political dissidents.

I don't want to be falsely optimistic, but I do feel like this generation of women have at least had the experience of voting in free elections and have either gone out and participated in protests or have seen other women do that. It’s something their parents didn't have, and I think seeing those things are possible has to make a difference to them. Even if those gains seem to have been rolled back to some extent, I think it makes it more likely that people will be able to do that in the future and have an idea of themselves as people who are able to achieve those things. There are amazing women doing fantastic work as advocates of women's rights in Egypt and I really hope that they can change things.

WPJ: Because they've gained this experience of at least partially living through and voting in a democratic election, do you think women can improve their status now that another Mubarak-like figure from the military is in power?

RA: I think it's really difficult, and you're pointing out a really critical factor in all of this: The state as it's currently set up is based on this very macho idea of power, and it depends on valorizing this image of male aggression and male dominance. The flip side of that is you have to scapegoat women, gay people, foreigners, and any one who doesn't display this particular image of masculinity that you're promoting. I think this makes it really difficult for women. Still, I would be cautious about issuing prescriptions as an outsider because, as I learned through the course of writing this book, my idea of progress or what we in the West would commonly consider to be progress may not overlap completely with ideas in Egypt about what people want. So I'm watching and waiting, and hoping Egyptian women will continue the great work that they are doing in terms of politics, reproductive rights, greater participation in society, and education opportunities for girls. All of this will be fantastic to see develop and flourish even under very challenging circumstances.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Nicholas Cappetta]

[Photo courtesy of Mahmoud Allam]

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