The popular uprising that has sparked the streets and hearts of Egyptians this week comes with the weight of unanswered questions: What is to come of the leaderless youth generation in this time of unrest? Who will take on the responsibility of transitioning Egypt? What will really happen to the rigid structure of the America-backed government that has been able to downplay previous calls for change?
Watching images of evacuated Americans waiting around the international airport in Cairo is chilling. Just two years ago this time, studying abroad in Cairo was a different image. Around three hundred American students lived peacefully in a country where we were well aware of the Mubarak governance and corruption. Studying Middle Eastern politics at the American University in Cairo seems like an irony now when the very thing that professors alarmed happening is taking place at an unprecedented level. Few events really sparked attention in those five months in 2009; the sudden disappearance of a half-German student who had produced a controversial film about Palestine, the bombing at Khan Al Khaali marketplace, and the occasional censorship in classrooms. We used to chuckle at the too-evident security surrounding the American Embassy in Cairo, which has just closed. Street crowds was an everyday encounter, teasing foreign tourists was a fun past time, and walking around Tahrir Square with ice cream was a springtime favorite at night without the binding of curfews. Eating ful– a bean paste served in pita bread- was a common innocent affair that is now the staple for families struggling to hold onto their cash. We heard about the frustrations, but we never saw or even expected action.
The violent protests have gathered the attention of every international headline and its ecstasy has furthered engrossed the masses gathered in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. But there are new rising fears that have been shadowed- how this uprising will explain the rapidity to which Egyptian economy has faltered. Can the uprising keep up stamina when families are cutting back on meals, running short on cash, and are beginning to be left stranded?
Unemployment and inflation has been the root of economic and social roadblocks in Egypt and similar North African countries for over a decade, especially for the youth which comprise well over half the population. Unemployed and educated college graduates are regularly spotted lounging in the streets or flocking hookah stands for hours, aimless. Less than a year ago these very youth males were blamed for increased street harassment against Egyptian women, much of it being attested to boredom from being unemployed. Corruption in governance is an obvious drive for protests, but this youth generation wants more. They want their education to matter. They want to exert their independence. They want the freedom to share their thoughts and experiences beyond the confines of their classroom and homes. But now, the protests’ effects are more than violence; they have crashed the market, driven foreign investors and companies out of the country, and have led families to the edge of desperation.
The protests have unified people from all levels of the traditional hierarchies that rarely takes place in Egypt. It brought men and women, the rich and poor, secular and conservative, and the young and old outside, into an environment of unified uncertainty. Indeed a fearful and a proud moment have ripened in the country’s recent history. However, as an outsider who has lived among the concerned generation in Cairo, I have to wonder what all of this really means for the new order that must govern, especially concerning the ejected youth? Are the fears and demands of the masses truly being articulated in the cloud of violence? Are the frustrations being met with solid promises for a leadership that speaks for them? And finally, have these fears truly been made into reality?