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The Young Egyptians Who Launched the Arab Spring Are Quitting Politics Altogether

AFP/Getty Images

The uprisings now sometimes collectively called “The Arab Spring” seemed at first like stories about the political and economic empowerment of young people. But in Egypt, after the military removed President Mohamed Morsi from power in July, some youth have begun to look at the events of the last two years in a different light: In February of 2011, President Hosni Mubarak stepped down with millions of Egyptians in the streets. After the mass protests on June 30 that led to Morsi’s ouster, many young people like Andeel now feel that the youth were used in a larger power struggle between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Right after the revolution there was so much focus on the youth of Egypt, who did the revolution because they wanted their rights,” says Andeel, 26, a political cartoonist, screenwriter and stand-up comedian. “And now that seems like it was somebody else’s agenda. It turned out that the revolution worked because of a bigger game.”

Fifty-seven percent of Egyptians are under 25, and Egypt is failing them: Unemployment rose to 13.2 percent in May of this year, and Egypt ranked last in primary education on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. Many young people who were a driving force in the January 2011 uprisings now find that there is no longer a space for them in politics. In many families, the older generation gives full-throated defenses of General Abdel Fattah el Sisi, Egypt’s de facto leader, and calls anyone "Brotherhood supporters" if they disagree. There is no middle ground.

In fact, as Mubarak-era media personalities come back to the air, some are calling those who participated in the 2011 uprisings “traitors,” saying that this year’s uprising, when millions of people took to the street to call for Morsi’s ouster, was the real revolution. Meanwhile, Brotherhood Members, residents of Sinai, Syrian refugees, and anyone who is anxious about the events of the last few months, are accused of being terrorists across Egyptian media. The current environment leaves little room for some of the more progressive voices that emerged during the last two and a half years. For instance, Salafyo Costa, a youth movement comprised of Salafists and secularists that seeks to foster understanding across Egypt’s political and religious spectrums, has decided to take a break from politics.

“In Egypt, if you say anything you will take a nickname like a terrorist or a traitor... Both choices are very bad, so we stopped playing” says Andrew Adil Khaled, 23, a member of the Salafyo Costa movement who identifies as Christian and secular.

Andeel says that often the accusations come from within the community of people he once saw as allies and friends. “Recently I started feeling very excluded,” he explains. “After the 30th of June there was an idea among some intellectuals who were supporting the coup that they have to eliminate any ideas that are against the coup... That made me feel for the first time that maybe Egypt is not the right place for me to be right now.”

Some young people feel that Egypt is no longer their country at all, like a 17-year-old member of the Muslim Brotherhood who spoke on condition of anonymity. He now says he is Muslim and a “Rabaawy”—someone who was at the Rabaa el Adaweya protests against Morsi’s reomaval—but he no longer sees himself as Egyptian. We meet in the garden of a mosque because he no longer goes to cafes for fear of being arrested, and these days, many mosques, once sanctuaries to anyone in need of them, are locked except at prayer times. He can’t focus in school, even though he is in the midst of important exams that will decide his future. He and his family move from apartment to apartment, mostly so that his father, who is wanted by the police, can avoid detection. More than ten of his close friends have been killed since the crackdown on the Brotherhood began, he says.

Around his right wrist he wears the prayer beads of his teacher within the Brotherhood who was killed on August 14 when the protest camps were violently dispersed. Before the summer, he says, he had wanted to live a long life. Now he wants to die soon.

The background photograph on his phone is an image of his friend dying and he talks constantly of becoming a martyr himself.

Even those who are not being targeting as directly feel the pressure. “It’s more of a police state than it was during Mubarak,” says Ahmed Zeidan, a freelance filmmaker and cameraman for CNN. He cites the rhetoric of terrorism as the reason for the current climate of fear: “In a “’war on terrorism,’ we have to accept things like curfew, emergency laws, laws on protesting.”

Sally Zohney, a vocal activist and founder of women’s movements “Beheya Ya Masr,” “Nesfi,” and “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World,” says that for the moment, she will continue her work on involving women in politics at the local level. But as for protesting in the streets, she says that it’s not safe, that neighborhoods themselves are rejecting protesters and that no one is listening to street protests at the moment.

Andeel, Andrew, Zeidan, and Zohney all signed the Tamarod petition that called for Morsi’s removal and early presidential elections. But all four say they had wanted early elections, which was what the movement had originally called for, and not Morsi’s ouster. Zohney says that when she sees the violent suppression and imprisonment of the Muslim Brotherhood, she knows that any other group that opposes those in power could be dealt with in the same way.

“I’m frustrated and disappointed but as long as there is always change so fast there’s always hope that maybe something is going to happen that’s going to make things better, versus,” says Zeidan. However, he says he will not participate in politics until the bitter struggle between the Islamists and the military dies down and a third power emerges.

In the end Andeel has decided to stay because, if after a few years away, he came back to Egypt and things had improved, he would feel really ashamed of not having been part of it.

Meanwhile, Andrew is engaging in his own political project: Andrew is Christian but has grown his beard out as many observant Muslims do here, at a time when many bearded men are being harassed and targeted because of the backlash against Islamists. Andrew says he has experienced harassment, in one instance a police officer grabbed his beard. He says, “when I ride a taxi, half of the time I a treated like a sheikh (Muslim religious figure), then I… shock him by my Christianity and tell him not to judge [based on] appearance.”