After the revolution, Egypt's youth are still wandering lost
The word "freedom" has been given quite a workout in Egypt lately, especially by young people. Not that the concept has been particularly scrutinised. "They think freedom means doing what they want," says a shopowner on my street in downtown Cairo, where his competition has increased exponentially since last January. Hundreds of young men have set up businesses, selling clothes and accessories, mostly Chinese, and blocking the sidewalks with their makeshift tables and rows of racks.
Hyperactive vendors climb on top of cars hawking their wares. The latest attention-getting trend consists of bellowing inarticulately like a war cry or a signal of some great distress. Startled pedestrians turn to see what's wrong, realise it's nothing, then smile uneasily and move on.
Not everyone is downtown stripping their vocal cords for profits of about 90 Egyptian pounds (Dh55) per night. Some came for the two-week Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival organised by a small group of directors, artists and musicians. Although reasonably priced (about Dh12), tickets were still too expensive for the young men who predictably prefer electronic-music concerts to theatre performances.
In the run-up to presidential elections, with Islamists already dominating the parliament, there has been a noticeable increase in high-end dance parties (that can charge the equivalent of Dh145 at the door), not to mention the availability of designer drugs. Nightclubs are packed these days as if the end were upon us.
And perhaps it is.
The contrast between Egypt's rich and poor has always been stark. But the commonality among today's young people is an arsenal of energy that they haven't a clue what to do with beyond obtaining the necessities, whether food for the family table or bacchanalian distractions from the nation's plight.
Some young people are forming community groups and volunteering here and there, but they are the exceptions and generally lack direction. Leadership was never encouraged in Egypt during the Mubarak days, only obedience and control. But young people also seem paralysed with a lassitude that is a by-product of the confusion. A friend who just launched a newspaper offered American University in Cairo journalism students a chance to investigate and report on anything they wished. They were excited at first, but perhaps overwhelmed by the challenge, they never came back to the office.
Aside from a handful of individual efforts, post-revolution Egypt has produced no movements aimed at channelling young people's energies. In fact, not since the Nasser era has Egypt's government seen the value in mobilising public efforts towards a national project, nor has the public trusted government enough to make one possible.
But the need for collective action has never been more urgent. Campaigns calling for nationwide clean-ups, or the conservation of precious water resources and vanishing agricultural lands, would boost confidence and prove how individual efforts add up to collective gains.
Egypt's upper class has the resources to organise and finance media-supported public service projects, but they are too busy protecting their own interests. No one wants to admit it, but Egypt is facing an environmental catastrophe that is deepening daily, while young people, who sense the danger and have the most to lose, are unsure where to turn.
Many turn to religion for a sense of feeling useful and to provide some structure in the chaotic landscape of their lives. Many attendees at a recent rally for the Salafist presidential hopeful Hazem Abu Ismail were young men who see him as someone whom they can trust. Although he has been disqualified, other religious candidates offer the same seductive solution: follow a virtuous leader, abandon self-questioning, individuality or initiative, embrace conformity, and find relief.
The willingness to relinquish responsibility to authority remains Egypt's greatest weakness. Egyptians yearn for freedom, but responsibility on an individual and community level is what lends freedom meaning, creating choices and advancing the collective good.
Egypt's greatest strength is the young people that comprise the majority of the population, who have a thirst for freedom that will not go away, however limited its means of expression. From my window in downtown Cairo, I hear the vendors' shouts and music, a raucous noise that somehow makes me glad.
They're all selling the same shoddy Chinese imports, but they could be stealing, or fighting, or destroying a country that has found no use for them except as followers or voters.
Maria Golia is the Cairo-based author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt
Updated: April 22, 2012 04:00 AM