Egypt's Elders Wary of Twitter Generation

Egypt's Elders Wary of Twitter Generation

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CAIRO -- Kareem al-Gehiny, a 23-year-old college student from southern Egypt, has had little rest since the fall of the Mubarak regime on February 11.

He sits for hours at his laptop, signing on to various online forums making suggestions on how to save the economy, create new campaigns for nation building, and list potential candidates for the presidential election later this year.

When he isn't at the computer, he's out with hundreds of his friends and neighbors cleaning the streets, painting the sidewalks and directing traffic in the almost total absence of state institutions in Egypt.

“This is my country, and it’s my responsibility to rebuild it,” al-Gehiny said. “It’s a job that I can’t leave for others."

Over half of Egypt’s 80 million are under 30 years old, a population some call the Twitter Generation. Having led the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, Egypt’s youth now lead the way to civic reform. Whether it is in the virtual world of the Internet or on the streets, Egypt’s young are heavily involved in post-Mubarak nation building.

They clean up Egypt's litter-strewn streets, hand flowers to tourists near the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, rebuild and paint police stations destroyed during the revolution, and even launch public awareness campaigns to educate their elders about good ethics and public behavior, including appeals to stop littering and paying bribes.

One group of financial planners has launched a Facebook page advising their compatriots on which stocks to buy, in a bid to help the economy recover. The group suggests that once labor unrest settles enough for the authorities to allow the national stock exchange to reopen, every Egyptian buy stocks to the value of 100 Egyptian pounds (U.S. $16.9).

But will Egypt follow? The answers can vary. When local newspapers started writing about this last initiative by the financial planners, many in Egypt applauded in support, even those who did not have enough money to buy stocks.

“This is a good strategy to save the economy,” said Amany Shaaban, an Egyptian civil servant in her late forties. “Of course, I will go to the stock market so that I can contribute.”

But even after the successful ouster of Mubarak, Egypt’s young activists are typically seen by Egypt's elderly and older middle aged as meddling, disruptive and a nuisance. Many openly complain that the younger generation will lead Egypt to nowhere, or worse.

Mohamed Ahmed, a 65-year-old former civil servant, was furious a few days ago when a young man on the bus in the city of Giza asked him and other passengers not to smoke or litter on the bus.

“These kids should not tell us what to do,” Ahmed said. “They should not tell people the age of their parents how to behave. This is rude.”

This is not the typical generational divide story. After decades of stagnation, deteriorating social mores, and economic ruin, there is a concerted effort by many to turn Egypt around. But the generation which most longs for a return to "the good old days" are the most resentful of -- and resistant to -- change.

Fear and uncertainty are no doubt a part of it.

While Ahmed resented Mubarak’s rule, he had grown accustomed to seeing Mubarak’s photos on the streets and on TV, obeying policemen, and complaining against corrupt government officials (but never -- openly -- against the President himself). Now Ahmed sees the security vacuum created in the aftermath of the revolution, the losses the economy has sustained, and unending labor unrest.

But there is something more going on here. For some, it might be fear that revolutionary hubris will sweep aside Egyptian traditions and culture as if they're relics of the failed regime. Others might object to intrusions into their personal lives and private practices, something that they had control over.

And perhaps for some, there is an embarrassment for their generation's 30-year accommodation of a dictator.

Sherif Hafez, a political psychology expert, said Egypt’s elders resent being led by people who are younger and sometimes less experienced.

“The opposition of some old people to the change that is about to engulf Egypt is understandable to me,” Hafez said. “Some of these old people had hoped to be part of (the) revolution against Mubarak." Instead, Hafez said, they found themselves "on the spectator's benches" as the youth of the nation rose up.

This is a view shared by Ibrahim Ouf, another revolutionary. An older workmate still ridicules him and other revolutionaries, and challenges them to lead Egypt to anything good. Another colleague stopped talking to him simply because he does not like his generation’s aggressive calls for reform.
"Some of the people who oppose us today had once hoped that they could" be the leaders of change, Ouf said, noting: "But their fear prevented them."  

But this is not about politics anymore. Rather, it's about the kind of future the people of this country want. And the youth have chosen one of order, cleanliness and cooperation.

They have placed dustbins around central Cairo, and posted requests for pedestrians to keep the streets clean. On the Cairo subway stations, tens of volunteers stand on platforms and direct passengers to entry and exit doors.

A group of young activists called "Protect Egypt" distribute fliers that call for notifying the Consumer Protection Agency about merchants who cheat customers or engage in price gouging, for speaking politely and treating people equally, and for an end to the pervasive harassment of women.

Hind Samir, 21, and a group of other young activists are appealing for the removal of articles in the Constitution that discriminate between the followers of different religions. Samir was recently in Tahrir Square, once the focal point of the revolution, lecturing a crowd about the importance of national unity.

“There are no Christians or Muslims anymore,” Samir said. “We are all Egyptian.”

One man in the crowd didn't like what he heard, and started singing out loud so other people couldn't hear Samir's message. Samir attempted to engage with the man, but was led away by a bystander who feared the heckler was going to turn violent.

“I just want him to understand that talk about religious beliefs will divide us, not unite us,” Samir said.

On the streets, volunteers stand by traffic officers and give motorists fliers about personal conduct.

“This country has already become ours,” one of the fliers reads. “Let’s make a new start. Stop littering. Come with us to clean the streets. Stop paying bribes. Do not violate traffic rules. Do not accept oppression. Bring reckless officials to account.”

Spreading the word, however, can come at a cost. Al-Gehiny nearly came to blows with a cab driver, almost 30 years his senior, when the driver overheard his phone conversation about the massive demonstrations that brought down Mubarak.

Such resentment simmers within al-Gehiny's family, too. After Mubarak stepped down, al-Gehiny’s 70-year-old aunt accused him and other revolutionaries of wreaking havoc on Egypt.

Al-Gehiny said one of his cousins, 20 years his senior, becomes infuriated when they discuss politics.

“He keeps accusing my generation of being superficial and lacking experience,” al-Gehiny said. “When he met me for the first time after the revolution, he greeted me with, ‘Congratulations, you have ruined Egypt.”
The level of frustration and nervousness has even revived the former regime's canard of "foreign meddling."

When thousands gathered in Tahrir Square on Friday to demand the resignation of the Prime Minister, Mohamed Abulela, a 65-year-old retired civil servant shook his head in disbelief.

"These people," Abulela told his daughter, "must be paid by foreign intelligence services to destabilize this country."