Revolution. This word is often mentioned when we talk about all the big challenges we are facing on our planet. It has also been mentioned during the past couple of interviews of the FutureFuel quest. A green revolution, food revolution, technical revolution, economic revolution… Things need to change, so much is clear. But do we, the wanna-be revolutionaries, know what we’re talking about when we call for ‘revolution’?
Esraa Abdel Fattah is one of the most famous young revolutionaries of Egypt and the Arab Spring. Two thirds of the Egyptian population is younger than 32, so it’s no surprise that the change came from them. Young people were the torchbearers of the Arab Spring and they succeeded in mobilizing millions of people, online and offline, from all generations, to join one of the largest revolutions in the history of mankind. In my search for ‘the power of young people as fuel for the future’ I cannot miss out on an interview with a young revolutionary from the Arab Spring. Next week I will meet Esraa for an extensive interview.
Food expert Louise Fresco already told us how in 2008 speculations led to an increase of food prices, causing social unrest in particularly the Arab world. Reacting to the low wages and high food prices – which, according to some sources, were even pushed higher by the Egyptian government – the Egyptian textile laborers in Mahalla al-Kobra, a city north of Cairo, decided to strike, joining the many demonstrations and strikes to protest against the Mubarak regime. Esraa Abdel Fattah wanted to support the textile laborers and organized a national strike on the same day. Together with her partner Ahmed Maher she set up a Facebook group called April 6 Youth Movement. We do not know exactly how successful that general strike was, but the dictatorial Mubarak regime was quite unsettled by Esraa’s and Ahmed’s action. In a country where assemblies of more than three people were prohibited the Facebook page reached over 77,000 members in only a couple of days. Esraa was arrested and imprisoned for eighteen days.
Until then Esraa, 27 years old, had been working as a teacher and secretary, and she was part-time politically active as the treasurer of an opposition party. Creating that Facebook group changed her life for good. With her arrest Esraa Abdel Fattah became one of the most important faces of a new Egypt:
‘I no longer was a girl from a small city north of Cairo. I no longer was Esraa the teacher, the girl with only a few simple dreams about the future, without having any true hope that they would one day actually become real. In those eighteen days I found myself and I realized who I wanted to be. During those eighteen days the Egyptian people started calling me ‘the Facebook girl’. During those eighteen days I felt my personal life being connected with the greater Egyptian movement.’
In 2011 the April 6 Youth Movement was an important player in the organization of the Egyptian revolution on Tahrir Square and Esraa became a key spokesperson for national and international media. That same year her ongoing battle for a better Egypt led to a nomination for the Nobel Prize (although there were critics who said that her nomination was an exaggeration of the role of social media during the Arab Spring) and she received various international awards, like Glamour’s Woman of the Year. ArabianBusiness.com named her one of the most influential women in the Arab world.
We are running the risk that we will romanticize the Arab revolution – which is already happening in many Western media – and that we will portray Esraa subconsciously as the brave heroin from a Hollywood movie. The fact is that the Arab Spring was only the beginning and that the difficult process of building a new Egypt is starting now. At first everybody was on the same page, fighting for a better Egypt – ‘Bread! Freedom! Justice’! – but after the fall of the Mubarak regime the interpretations of what a better Egypt actually is turned out to differ greatly. The other fact is that thousands were killed, many were tortured or disappeared, and people like Esraa will keep risking their lives in fighting for a better future for their country.
We are also running the risk that we will interpret and judge the current developments with our Western eyes: the role of the army, the deposition of the ‘democratically’ elected president Morsi. The fact is that many of us are not capable of doing that because we often have too little knowledge of Egypt and the Arab world. I have been preparing myself for the interview for a couple of weeks and after a few days I already realized how many opposing opinions there are about simple facts. Even the most important media don’t agree. That is no surprise, since sources are often Arabic and the state propaganda still is in full swing.
Lastly, we are running the risk that we overestimate the role of social media in the Arab revolution, or as a reaction to that underestimate it. The fact is that only two percent of the Egyptians have a fairly good internet connection. The other fact is that when a regime controls the traditional media, people will look for other means. Esraa: ‘We just didn’t have any other option than the internet to say “no”.’
In short, I will enter this interview with great modesty and many questions. How can we learn from the Arab transition? How do you build ‘the future’? What can we learn from the young Arabic revolutionaries about the role of the young generation in the world? Or, as Petra Stienen wrote in her book Het Andere Arabische Geluid:
‘The questions of Dutch young people are similar to the topics that are central to the Arab transition, like chances on the job market, breaking up the establishment and choosing your own future in freedom. Maybe the solutions that the young people in the Arab world are finding can mean something for our future.’
Unfortunately it was too dangerous to travel to Egypt, being a young woman, sort-of-journalist, taking cameras with me and meeting with someone like Esraa. Even the most socially critical Egyptian film company refused to help me and film the interview with Esraa in Egypt: ‘Way too dangerous.’ That is why I’ll be interviewing Esraa next week at the Global Media Forum in Bonn, Germany.
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