Students and Youth in the Egyptian Revolution
The Middle East and North Africa are currently in the midst of a surge in youth population: a baby boom started in the late '70s through the 1980s means that a huge proportion of these countries' populations are under the age of 30. As we saw in Iran in 2005, in Egypt in 2008 (the April 6 general strike) and across the North African nations this past month, youth are a destabilizing influence on the sclerotic and brittle institutions of authoritarian political and economic rule. Almost two-thirds of the Egyptian population are under the age of 30.
Beyond their numerical presence, other factors in the region have been threatening to light this powder keg for years. Youth unemployment across Arab nations is much higher than in other regions; even in the relatively calm economic waters of 2005, average unemployment among youth was 26%. Unemployment among 18-29 year-olds in Egypt right now stands at 25%.
As the population grows, so do those attending higher education in Egypt. While there are expensive private institutions, public universities in Egypt are largely free, save for registration fees. Egypt's largest universities are truly staggering in size: Alexandria University boasts 175,000 undergrads; Cairo University has 200,000; and Mansoura University in Mansoura City has over 300,000 students.
This combination of a well-educated and economically disadvantaged population means trouble for autocrats everywhere.
Unfortunately, English-language sources of information of what's going on at the Egyptian universities are very hard to come across. One article that stands out is a report from a professor at the American University in Cairo, via Al Jazeera:
To them, they have known no other president, no other ruling party and no other political system. They have for years been groomed on the government’s realpolitik on the one hand, and the empty rhetoric of opposition groups on the other.
They have made it clear to me that these opposition parties, long defunct and impotent, have been replaced by grassroots social action. Their fears of detention and torture have been supplanted by the need for better living conditions and better wages.
They are not interested in a change of government – as Mubarak promised on January 28 - and they will not be dissuaded by repeated promises of economic reform and prosperity. They believe that Egypt’s current socio-economic malaise is rooted in the political system itself, a system which has not evolved since the first revolution overthrew the King of Egypt in 1952.
Part of the reason there's so little written specifically about the youth and students may be that there is so much demographic overlap between those at universities and the general population on the streets; this is often the case with such young countries.
Just as with Tunisia, Egypt's young revolutionaries aren't rallying around political parties or charismatic figures (even Mohamed Elbaradei) - by their words and deeds they are seeking a future untethered to the authoritarian politics of the past. Let's hope - and work - to see this contagion spread to all halls of political power.
Do you know other articles & essays dealing with Egyptian students, particularly what's happening on campuses - in English or Arabic? Post them in the comments!