Youth Activism, the January 25 Revolution, and Egypt’s Transition

Wednesday, April 6, 2011
3:00pm-4:30pm
Woodrow Wilson Center

(A video of the event is available here.)

On January 25, Egypt’s youth activists, using new media technology, succeeded in launching a protest movement that eventually forced Hosni Mubarak to resign the presidency. Since that time, these activists have retained an important role during the transition period and continue to pressure the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to undertake reforms. Many key questions remain, however, surrounding Egypt’s ongoing transition to a civilian government. How are Egypt’s youth movements adapting themselves to the evolving political dynamics during this transition period? How do they view the actions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces? What new political forces are emerging in Egypt? What are the most important steps that must be taken in the months ahead? And what role can the United States play during this period to support Egypt’s transition to democracy?

Featuring:

Esraa Abdel Fattah
Leading Egyptian democracy and human rights activist

Commentator:
Jason Brownlee
Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center and Associate Professor, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin

Moderator:
Stephen McInerney
Executive Director, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

For full notes, continue below.  For pdf version, click here.

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Stephen McInerney began by stating that this was a historic and exciting time for observers and democracy activists and stated that the policy community had underestimated the chance for change in the region and underestimated the abilities of the youth movement spurred by online activism.  Egypt’s revolution has proven that Washington’s previous dismissal of the potential of youth movements was mistaken, he said.  McInerney also stated that he saw a generational divide in Egypt as a response to the Tunisian revolution.  Whereas elder established human rights activists were unsure of how to handle a possible response, youth activists immediately set forth trying to replicate Tunisian success in Egypt.  The youth movements were fully ready to seize the opportunity.  He also said that what happened in Egypt would not have happened without the years of groundwork of activism in Egypt including Fattah’s work.  McInerney called her, “one of the best possible spokespeople for the youth movement,” in Egypt and mentioned that her April 6th protests were a direct precursor to the January 25th revolution.

Esraa Abdel Fattah mentioned she was speaking at the panel on the third anniversary of the April 6th protests and her subsequent arrest and imprisonment by Egyptian authorities.  She described the protests as a general strike entirely organizes through Facebook and social media; which she said was the only way to campaign and get the message out to others.  Fattah called the campaign a success and said that it taught other activists and people who to successfully organize protests using social media.  She also outlined the buildup of the Egyptian protest movement starting in 2004 with the Kefaya movement that continued to the 2008 protests and ultimately the 2011 revolution.  The 2011 campaign drew inspiration directly from the Tunisian revolution.  Fattah said that she did not originally expect for the movement to crystallize so quickly nor did she expect Hosni Mubarak to step down 18 days after the protests began.  She continued by stating that organizers and activists have been adamant about holding continuous Friday rallies at Tahrir Square to ensure that protester demands are being met by the transitional military council.  She also outlined the main priorities of the youth movement which are to ensure free and fair elections with equal opportunity for all candidates.  Fattah also expressed some concern about the very short five month run-up to new parliamentary elections.

Jason Brownlee mentioned that the recent constitutional referendum vote, which many of the youth activists campaigning against the proposed reforms, was passed with an overwhelming 77% majority vote.  Brownless stated that had there been more polling stations, the voter turnout would have been much higher than 41% and still would have turned out overwhelmingly in favor.  He said this was due to the desire of many Egyptians for a return to normalcy and stability.  Given this setback, Brownlee posed the question of how the youth protest movement would reach out to new groups and do a better job in getting their message across in the upcoming parliamentary elections.  Fattah responded that she and other organizers and activists were trying to quickly set up a new political party and establish a social-liberal coalition to run an effective list for the upcoming elections.  She stated that it would be difficult to unify disparate groups together in such a coalition but said it was necessary for the groups to succeed in parliament.  She also reiterated the need to encompass old parties, like al-Ghad, as well.  Fattah stated that the announcement about the new party would be released in about two weeks and that there would be a meeting on May 1st to select a unified list.  She also discussed the importance of reaching more people through civil society education and training.

In response to a question posed by McInerney on what steps the U.S. and international community could take, Fattah stated the need for a new balancing of the relationship between the U.S., the Egyptian government, and Egyptian civil society.  She reiterated the need for more support for civil society NGOs and criticized the U.S. for its “late statements” during the protests.  Fattah said that the U.S. and international community should not wait to see “who will win” before deciding to support democratic principles.  She also said that the U.S. could help with its technical expertise in election organizing in addition to monetary aid programs.  Help retraining the police force to protect instead of harm people, was also welcome.  The international community must also ensure that frozen assets of the Mubarak family are returned to the Egyptian people as it was an issue of dignity for Egyptians.

In response to audience questions, Fattah stated that she was not asking the U.S. or the international community to get involved but merely providing them guidance if they wished to help.  She said she believed that the Egyptian could move forward on their “own power.”  Brownlee stated that Egypt needed help from international partners because the protests and revolution in Egypt had cut GDP in half.  He stated that for this reason the U.S. should forgive Egypt’s debt that was incurred under Mubarak.

Fattah also spoke about the Muslim Brotherhood stating that she did not see the group as a threat or a problem.  She speculated that organizational infighting and fault lines that have been emerging within the group would hamper its performance at election time.  She also stated that she is worried about whether the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) will live up to its promises but does not actively distrust the military council.  She reiterated her belief that Egypt needs a civil authority to ensure democracy.  She also said that the country needed a new communications law to secure privacy, particularly with internet/e-mail accounts, and prevent a future internet shutdown.  Fattah also said that Egyptians and activists were not focused on foreign policy issues like the peace treaty with Israel, but solely focused on internal issues.

McInerney, speaking about U.S. foreign policy post-revolution, said that American policy toward the Middle East would not instantly change overnight.  However, the events in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere would have lasting impacts for the long term.  One immediate effect, he said, would be a re-evaluation of the type of “casual relationships” the U.S. maintains with authoritarian regimes.  Brownlee commented that despite the events on the ground, the U.S. still maintains the same interests for much of the region and that it will take time to truly assess any substantive changes in U.S. foreign policy.

Fattah closed by commenting that the protest movement was working more strenuously on political issues but that economic issues were still very important for activists and organizers.  She also declared her optimism on the role of the judiciary in the transition citing the former regime officials who are already on trial for corruption and other regime related offenses.

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