Frustrated but proud. Uprising of Arab youth

March 2012

Julia Gerlach, a freelance correspondent in Cairo, read from her new book Wir wollen Freiheit. Der Aufstand der arabischen Jugend (We want freedom. The uprising of Arab youth) at the Free Waldorf School in Kiel. Thomas Müller-Tiburtius, upper school teacher of history and English, asked her about the Arab Spring and its consequences. The interview was conducted before the most recent unrest in Egypt and relates to the transformation in the Arab world in 2011, which has now continued in 2012.

Julia Gerlach, correspondent

Thomas Müller-Tiburtius: What is it like living in Cairo at the moment? 

Julia Gerlach: Life in Cairo is very exciting, it’s like being on a roller-coaster. The mood can change very quickly. Many of those who made the revolution are frustrated because they feel that nothing has changed politically. The military government is no different from the previous regime. The old structures have been retained, the same people are sitting at the levers of power. So they say to themselves: we have to continue with the revolu­tion. But many people are tired after so many months and cannot be brought on to the streets so easily any more. But if we look at society, there is a lot that has changed. The issues are being debated in families. Many girls argued with their mothers until they were allowed to demonstrate in Tahrir Square and sleep there. A new music scene has arisen. What was previously underground music has emerged on to the street. There are concerts, festivals, graffiti, the city has become colourful. Many people are concerned that this new start, that culture will be suffocated because the Muslim Brotherhood has become so strong.

TMT: What distinguishes Egyptians from other Arabs?

JG: Egyptians are very friendly, fun, laugh a lot. It is a country in which many jokes a told. And the worse the situation, the more jokes there are. At the same time it is a nation in which a sense of home is accompanied by a sense of security. The violent gangs on the streets upset people’s equilibrium. The people are religious. It is a country with very strict rules which the people try to comply with. There is great social pressure. That makes it all the more surprising that so many people took to the streets.

TMT: What is the cause of this awakening?

JG: There is a range of factors. There are many young people who went to university and have no chance at all of finding a job. You only get a job if you know someone and often it will have nothing to do with what you can do. Many see no future for themselves. Then there is the huge corruption. In recent years a culture of protest and an oppositional scene developed which is defined by uniting young people across ideological barriers. This was combined with targeted mobilisation via Facebook and Twitter, and events which caused great outrage – such as for example the shooting in front of a church in which six Copts were killed. Then the rigged elections. The people say: we have had enough.

TMT: It started in Tunisia. Can we talk about an Arab domino effect?

JG: I think so. Egypt would not have gone so far without Tunisia. That it was possible to get rid of Mubarak played an important role for all the other countries.

TMT: And Gaddafi?

JG: Gaddafi fought back. Other rulers tried to imitate that. Observers wondered for a long time why it took so long in Libya. But perhaps that was the wrong question. The right question would have been: why did it go so fast in Tunisia and Egypt?

TMT: Community plays a dominant role in Muslim culture. The Moroccan author Ben Jelloun says that the individual had awoken in this Spring. Do you agree with that idea?

JG: I think that is true. Young people have emancipated themselves from their family and political grouping. Then there is a strong nationalism in Egypt. People are proud of having achieved something. On the one hand there is individualisation, but on the other hand there is also a new sense of community.

TMT: Were there events which made you particularly excited?

JG: At the large demonstrations men and women always stay separate, your bag is searched. The first time I attended one of them a woman came towards me. She had a sticker attached to her with sticky tape which said “Security”. She asked me to show her my bag, patted me down and then told me in a very friendly manner: “Remember we are peaceful. Please do not provoke the military. Have a nice day. Welcome to the new Egypt.”

Such good organisation, the clear idea of what people want, and also the hope for something new made me excited. In the first days of the revolution it was also noticeable how quickly things can go wrong, how quickly xenophobia can set in.

TMT: Did you see any heroes of the revolution?

JG: One image made a particular impression on me. A demonstrator kept standing in the street when a water cannon was driving towards him. I find his courage in simply continuing to stand there indescribable. The situation when the camels with the violent gangs on them came to Tahrir Square and people did not just run away was also impressive.

TMT: Does a revolution need martyrs?

JG:  That was an important motor for mobilisation. If there had not been the images of the dead, people would not have been mobilised in the same way. The same is true of other countries. The martyrs are, to put it negatively, marketed in order to bring the people on to the street.

TMT: Who controls the whole thing? The media play a major role but they too have to be fed material.

JG: There are several groups and personalities who are not always in agreement. At one point there was a revolutionary committee but many groups left it again. New coalitions keep arising all the time. It is difficult to determine what Tahrir Square is “thinking”. It’s not as if proposals are taken to the square and you then see how much people boo or cheer. Many different groups can be involved without having to fight about the leadership. It becomes more difficult when more complex questions are at issue, such as the formation of a government. The mass is too amorphous for that.

TMT: To what extent were the social networks involved in the revolution?

JG: I do not think we can talk of a Facebook revolution. I believe that the new media played a major role but the actual reason was a different one. People have a concern about which they are protesting. Facebook was then used to mobilise everyone. Facebook and Twitter have great advantages in that respect because they are democratic, they are tolerant, everyone can be involved. I have many Egyptian friends who are constantly online, who post everything. They were always sneered at in Egypt until the revolution arrived and it became clear that Facebook can be a very political medium. That probably distinguishes the Arab way of using it from the German one, where it tends to be used for love, friendship, music.

TMT: How many people in Egypt can use the new media? Is the revolution not carried by certain groups?

JG: It is perfectly true that many people don’t have a computer and no access to the new media. It is correct that the revolution was made and carried by a minority. In the countryside people only know the revolution from the television. The government did not play any role there in the past and would not play any role there now either, they organised everything among themselves anyway. Young people have not experienced a great deal of new freedom there.

TMT: We can talk about a global protest movement at various levels today. Are there reciprocal influences? Are the people in Cairo aware of what is happening in Greece?

JG: I recently interviewed an activist from the youth movement. He was frustrated about the current situation. “Did you see what is happening in New York? And do you know who went there and trained them? We did!” That is a nice anecdote because the Egyptian young people are accused of being financed and trained by the USA. In that respect you can say that their example has influenced the other movements.

The young activists were invited by numerous political foundations to other countries which have undergone a process of political transformation. They have been in Serbia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Spain. They were asked how you make a revolution. The young revolutionaries thought that was cool, of course.

TMT: What is your vision for the Arab world in the next five to ten years?

JG: There will be an Arab League in which democratically elected governments are represented whose members maintain contact across borders. Projects will be developed there to see how power cables can be laid under the Mediterranean so that the rich source of solar energy can be exported from the Arab world to Europe at fair prices. There will be agreement about school exchanges between countries. The education system will be completely reorganised. There will no longer be any problems between Muslims and Christians because the dictators will no longer be meddling. Children will be educated to practice tolerance and not hate. That will smooth the path to a secular state in many countries, whereby, however, religion will continue to occupy an important position in many states.

Those are visions of the future. Because the revolution has yet been won in almost none of the countries. And when I look at Egypt, then there is a great probability that people will voluntarily elect a representative from the military as president. Because people are worn down by the long phase of insecurity and waiting, the economic crisis, the fear that an Islamist might win. There have been a few reforms, a bit more freedom. But basically not that much has changed. At the moment it is not a good time for optimists.


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