1/2016
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Henri Onodera

On waithood and social change in Egypt

Prolonged adolescence and youth activism

Unprecedented numbers of young people are coming of age globally and assuming new roles and positions in society – some better than others. This article examines the issues of prolonged adolescence and youth activism in Egypt before the 2011 popular uprisings.

In early February 2011, I met “Mustafa”, 27, on Tahrir square in central Cairo. He had travelled to the capital to participate in the revolution, far from his home city in Southern Egypt, leaving behind a life full of economic hardship due to the lack of jobs in the tourism sector. Joining the revolutionary masses on Cairo’s streets was his first time to take a public stand on anything political. The protesters were encouraged by the removal of Tunisia’s president Ben Ali through popular uprisings in January, hoping for similar events to take place in Egypt. The 2011 popular uprisings marked the end of President Mubarak's 30-year rule.

The 2011 popular uprisings marked the end of President Mubarak's 30-year rule.

The atmosphere in central Cairo, after protesters had occupied its central square, was highly precarious, yet filled with immense hope and determination.

So I asked "Mustafa":

H: Are you convinced that this revolution is for real?
M: Of course.
H: And Mubarak will go?
M: God willing, he will go. God willing. We really want him to go. We are fed up and tired from hunger, from poverty, from unemployment.
H: What are you demanding for you personally?
M: I’m not asking anything for myself. I am personally just one out of 20 million youth. We want to have hope. We want to settle down. We want a job. We want good social conditions. We want apartments to live in. We want to get married. We want to have our dignity in our country. You can have your dignity here, and abroad. I can’t enjoy dignity here nor abroad. I mean, where is my dignity? I’m revolting for the sake of my dignity.

Back in 2011, Mustafa’s response echoed that of many of his peers at the time: That his generation had been disenfranchised and disillusioned with the state promises of socioeconomic progress that they had heard repeatedly when growing up. They were born and raised under President Mubarak who took office in 1981 and whose removal the protesters saw as the precondition for any meaningful changes to happen in Egypt.

His response also insinuated much wider sentiments that simmered among the youth in the Middle East already years before the uprisings: being young had become an increasingly precarious experience, mainly due to the growing difficulties in accomplishing the life aspirations they were brought up to embrace since childhood. Their claims to rights, dignity, and a better future were coupled with the sense of being deprived of the possibilities in life that their parents once enjoyed and of the ways of making a future of one’s own, together with others.

In this article, I discuss the intertwining issues of prolonged adolescence and youth activism in the late Mubarak era in Egypt. It is partly based on my doctoral research on lived experiences of young pro-democracy activists for which I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Cairo for 12 months between 2007 and 2011. They were mainly but not exclusively young unmarried men in their 20s, who represented a range of leftist, liberal and Arab nationalist orientations, and whose political opportunities were differentiated due to their diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Similarly, their experiences of prolonged adolescence varied, while combining the exigencies of different spheres of their everyday lives – especially in terms of activism and livelihood – disposed some to protracted public dissent more than others.

Growing up in waithood

In her seminal research on youth in Africa, anthropologist Alcinda Honwana suggests that one of the underlying reasons for popular uprisings in 2011 was “waithood” or the period of prolonged adolescence due to the near impossibility of young people making appropriate transitions to social adulthood. Even years before the Egyptian revolution, Diane Singerman raised the notion of “wait adulthood” to describe the emergent youth predicament, whereby growing numbers of young people continued to live in a liminal stage between childhood and adulthood.

In the late 2000s, some two-thirds of 80 million Egyptians were under 30 years of age. The apparent youth bulge and socioeconomic polarization that intensified in parallel with the structural adjustment programs of the 1990s and the global financial crisis of the late 2000s, had led to a situation whereby transitions to adulthood were challenging due to the challenges to make ends meet and to save for the future.

Increasing number of young Egyptians could not find work after graduation, hence it was difficult to find affordable apartments, and to get married and establish a family of their own. For young men, it was especially the question of saving for the costs of marriage that could be astronomical in relation to their income levels.

Some two-thirds of Egyptians were under 30 years-of-age in the late 2000s.

On the surface of things, Honwana suggests, the prolonged adolescence is a global phenomenon. Youth researchers have for instance observed similar delays in the average age of marriage in the United States and Western Europe. However, the socioeconomic realities, individual responses, and cultural norms attached to prolonged youth do not lend themselves easily to far-fetching global explanations.

To say the least, the debate on waithood is not be equalled to that on “emerging adulthood” in the more affluent parts of the world, where some youths prefer postponing the roles and responsibilities commonly attached to adulthood – such as marriage, parenting, and mortgage – over career-making, travel, and individualistic lifestyles. In waithood, the prolonged adolescence is less a matter of choice than that of constraint.

The new millennium witnessed unprecedented numbers of young people not only in Egypt, but globally, whereby 1.3 billion people aged between 12 and 24 were living in the Global South. In Africa, the youngest of continents, youth experiences are often shaped by unsound economic policies, protracted warfare, viral diseases, gerontocratic power structures, and the mismatch between the educational curricula and the demands of the labour market.

Although an emphasis on waithood as today’s new norm points to structural and societal challenges, it is not meant to divert attention from the very innovative agencies, and creative ways of resilience that young people resort to to improve their lives and livelihood prospects. Just how waithood is experienced is an emerging field of research that appreciates also the ways how young people conceptualize their ways of managing and transgressing uncertainty.

Time before the revolution

In my doctoral research, I studied the lived experiences of young Egyptian activists in the run-up period to the Egyptian revolution. The issue of waithood emerged in the context of trying to better understand the ways in which some young men and women had more opportunities to engage in political activities since the early 2000s.

In comparison to Mustafa, the unemployed tourist guide, many of the most visible activists did not however easily fall into the category of “waithood”. They were relatively privileged and cosmopolitan capital city youth, who had gained higher education as well as transferable skills, such as IT and foreign languages.

In the 2000s, activist youth emerged in the context of wider processes of contentious politics. Since the turn of the millennium, new political movements targeted the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the Iraq war, and the authoritarian regime under President Mubarak and the ruling National Democratic Party. Later on, labourers’ protest and strike movements played important roles in challenging the status quo in the industrial centres.

In this context, activist youth acquired new roles and visibilities in the pro-democracy movements by combining street protesting with innovative media tactics on the Internet. New youth movements, such as Youth for Change and April 6 Youth, would add to the more individuated acts of blogging, graffiti, and flash mob-like street stunts which brought new dynamism to the political opposition. The political opposition had for long been afflicted by internal strife, competition over resources and followers, and the narrow lines of public dissent that were tolerated by the state authorities.

New youth movements, and other coalition initiatives such as the popular movement in support of Mohamed ElBaradei’s presidency in 2010, brought new members to the wider pro-democracy movement. Activist youth had often beneficial relationships with older opposition politicians, civil society activists and public figures, especially those belonging to the so-called “1970s generation” of former student activists. At the same time, they collectively constructed generational boundaries not only in relation to the state authorities, but also within the opposition, by experimenting with and reimagining their political opportunities of raising the awareness of the public and mobilizing it.

Although many of the young activists were relatively affluent and cosmopolitan, not all of them were. As to the oppositional youth activism, their political opportunities and experiences were shaped by social differences, such as socioeconomic background, educational level, and gender. Some did not have similar IT and language skills, as others did, or personal contacts with lawyers, human rights organizations, and journalists. In times of personal crisis, such as detentions, the latter would provide important safety-nets beyond family and friends.

Dealing with the police would often produce personal files at the Interior Ministry’s archives that could hamper their chances to find or keep a job, to set up a business, or, for instance, to rent an apartment in the future. For young women, being detained by the police was more problematically associated with the question of their honour and, by extension, that of their families, and this potentially affected their future marriage arrangements in an unwanted way.

Although pro-democracy movements became visible during the decade prior to 2011, involvement in them was still very marginal. The large majority of young Egyptians actively disengaged themselves from politics. Following youth researchers Joakim Ekman and Erik Amnå, active disengagement does not here imply the lack of interest in public affairs but, rather, the popular disdain of, if not disgust for, the formal arena of political participation – such as voting and party membership – under authoritarian rule.

In the late Mubarak era, public political life was largely considered as a distant and rather corrupted sphere. Moreover, according to a survey conducted by the Population Council, only a fraction of youth, some 2.3 per cent between 10 and 29 years of age, ever involved in voluntary activities in the late 2000s, while the large majority of these activities were channelled through charities and religious associations.

Having family and children is increasingly difficult for youth in waithood.

As for the activist youth, both young women and men faced the need to justify their public dissent on several fronts. In 2008, less than three years before the Egyptian revolution, I talked with “Muhammad”, a young engineer, at a café on the outskirts of Cairo. We talked about the present challenges Egypt was then facing, as well as his personal involvement in youth-based protest movements during the presidential elections in 2005, and his way out of it afterwards. He worked at a state-owned company, and his oppositional activities had raised concerns among his colleagues.

For him, delaying marriage was a personal choice. He was engaged, but before marrying he wanted to build a career out of his political activism, and to become a public figure in his own right in the future. He was however compelled to justify his political activities for his colleagues at the workplace, and for his parents and his future parents-in-law. After lengthy negotiations on several fronts, he gradually received cautious endorsement for his career choice.

Multiple engagements

Muhammad’s considerations of his marriage prospects were privileged in comparison with most of his peers. “Ahmed”, 25, an occasional participant in political seminars, explained that the issues of marriage and settling down were for him much more existential. He came from relatively poor background, and lived in an agricultural village on the outskirts of Greater Cairo. He visited central Cairo only occasionally, and often skipped the university lectures so as to spend time with friends in down-town cafés. Although he and his friends shared the grievances against the government, his personal stakes were high due to his less affluent socioeconomic background.

In addition to the personal risks that came with activism, personal engagements with protest movements especially often had repercussions in everyday social relations. A young university student “Menna”, 23, told me in 2008 that her friends started to avoid her as soon as she participated in the 6th of April Youth Movement. Her activism had resulted in a short period of detention and afterwards she spent much of her free time solely with political youth. In contrast to most of her female peers, her parents gave her a relatively late home curfew, allowing her to participate in public talks, seminars, and activists’ get-togethers that usually took place in the evenings.

For being not yet married, or head-on busy with their work, the prolonged adolescence in certain ways benefited some young Caireans, as they used the leisure time at their disposal for intensive social networking, late-night socialization in Cairo’s streets, cafeterias, and ad hoc meetings on the fringes of public oppositional events. Indeed, the acts of public dissent, such as protesting and flash mob-like street stunts, were rather common events in the context of their everyday life.

Living in different parts of the city, they spent much of their free time down-town, where several political parties, newspapers, and NGOs held their offices. Some had access to these spaces and their facilities, others gathered more in the street-level cafés that came to provide one of the central hubs for pro-democracy activists since the mid-2000s.

Although the growing use of mobile phones and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, alleviated the need for face-to-face meetings, these urban spaces offered them prime opportunities to meet others in person, to negotiate friendships and shifting alliances, and to recreate bonds of trust and solidarity that could be crucial when engaging in oppositional activities under police surveillance.

Frequenting street-level cafés with friends is preferred leisure
activity for many young Caireans, especially young men.

In general, those young Caireans, who combined activism with other exigencies of everyday life, were able to engage in protracted public dissent easier than others. Having a job in a civil society organization or, for instance, in journalism eased the tensions between activism and earning a living. In this way, some could combine political involvement – following the news, participating in seminars, and online discussions – with their job. Moreover, if their parents were politicized themselves, their offspring were generally less subjected to family oversight and control. Some parents belonged to the so-called 1970s generation, who were themselves active in the pro-democracy movement. Also, friendship relations were important for mobilization and politicization, although, for the likes of Menna, political activism would bring changes in friendship relations in other spheres of life.

As social movement scholars Florence Passy and Marco Ciugni propose, the tensions and synergies between different spheres of everyday life – such as family, friends, studies, and employment – necessitated constant consideration as to how they could negotiate their roles and activities in the making of their collective futures.

In conclusion

In 2011, at the height of the popular uprisings, the notions of youth and dignity gained much currency in the narratives of the so-called Arab Spring. In retrospect, the early optimism was unfounded. Five years on, Syria, Libya and Yemen have gone into downward spirals of violence, and armed insurgences have challenged the realization of democratic reforms in Egypt and Tunisia. In Egypt, many of the Mubarak era activists face growing suppression at the wake of internally waged “war on terror” against armed Islamist militants. Human rights groups and activists are under public scrutiny and many face jail sentences for over-stepping the narrowing lines of freedoms of expression and assembly.

While the economic difficulties that affect young people – such as unemployment and high inflation – persist in the post-2011 era, also public debates on the role of youth in social change have continued. The early limelight on youth as “celebrated revolutionaries” shifted quickly to being portrayed as a “menace” to public order as rights-demanding protesters, as armed insurgents, or merely as members of a growing young population in waithood.

Today, as Egyptian scholar Amr Adly observes, there seems to be a re-emerging public discourse that projects the responsibility to find work on unemployed youth themselves who are, as goes the narrative, “lazy and irresponsible and prefer to sit in cafés and hang out in the streets”. It conspicuously echoes the public charges of “youth apathy” that existed already in the late Mubarak era.

In my doctoral research, I did not aim at overemphasizing the role of young Egyptians in the making of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. For one, the uprisings did not concern young people alone. People of all ages, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, participated in the popular movement for ousting President Mubarak from power. Labour activists at workplaces, parents at home and impoverished citizens outside Cairo played important roles, too.

Nevertheless, activist youth helped to raise the critical masses needed for the popular uprisings, tapping on the popular grievances that already ran wide in society. In the mid-2010s, online dissent is not anymore an asset of pioneering activists alone, as various opposing forces, including the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, conservative Salafists, and the Military resort to the use of social media so as to make their influence felt.

In this article, I discussed some of the interlinkages between youth activism and waithood in the late Mubarak era in Egypt. The large numbers of youth in waithood do not naturally concern Egypt alone. It is crucially linked to the processes of social reproduction and generational renewal elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa, and beyond.

If waithood has become a global norm out of necessity, what comes next? Prolonged transitions to social adulthood represent a global need for consideration for public policy-makers, development practitioners, and social scientists alike. It is equally important to ask how do youth themselves experience and conceptualize their life chances in the process. My doctoral research points towards the simultaneous diversity of waithood experiences among young activists as their future life trajectories pointed to different directions.

Some had relatively good prospects of employment and marriage, but waited for an appropriate moment for establishing a family and having kids of their own. For the less privileged, the exigencies of waithood hampered further their political opportunities. They had more reservations about the personal risks involved and the influence of public dissent over Egypt’s future that seemed to benefit the already better-off members of society. In both cases, activism meant engaging in an alternative lifestyle that evolved both online and offline under police surveillance. Their regular leisure activities, such as hanging out with friends in cafés, did suggest that sometimes there is only a fine line between actively disengaging from politics and reimagining their opportunities anew.

Henri Onodera

Henri Onodera is a postdoctoral researcher at the Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki, Finland. His doctoral thesis, titled as “Being a young activist in the late Mubarak era: An ethnography of political engagement in Egypt”, was published in 2015. His current research interests include youth experiences of waithood and citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa, and young asylum seekers’ everyday life in Finland.

henri.onodera(at)helsinki.fi

Professor Alcinda Honwana will give a keynote lecture at the Finnish Youth Research Conference (Nuorisotutkimuspäivät 2016) on 7‒8 November 2016 in Helsinki, Finland. Click here for more information.

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Lisätty 16.11.2016: were generally less subjected to family oversight