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Youth Seen as 'Heart' of Democracy Movement in Egypt


The youth population is growing rapidly across the Middle East, and, in many countries, it is a force for change. Huge crowds of mostly young people have taken to the streets in Egypt over the last year, demanding democracy. In a country where half of the population is under the age of 24, the demands of youth are becoming more important than ever. And the scenario is echoed in other countries in the region.

Over the last year, pro-democracy activists have staged hundreds of street protests like this one, demanding change. They shout slogans boldly criticizing President Hosni Mubarak, something nobody has ever dared to do here before.

The loosely organized movement is known as Kifaya, the Arabic word for "enough."

President Mubarak has been in power for 24 years. That is longer than some of the protesters have been alive. Many of these demonstrations are led by people in their 20s and 30s. They are part of a Kifaya offshoot, known as Youth For Change, headed by 38-year-old Ahmed Salah.

"Older generations are always more conservative, when it comes to action in the street....," he says. "Let's say, Youth For Change has been the spearhead of the democracy movement now, when it comes to action."

It would not be accurate to say that Egypt's pro-democracy movement is entirely youth-based. Some of its leaders are in their 60's, and one is 85. But those older leaders acknowledge that much of the movement's energy comes from the youth.

"You know, because the young people… they are the heart of the movement," says George Ishak, 67, is one of Kifaya's founders. "They are the heart of the movement."

Young people have been at the center of other protest movements around the Middle East for decades. For example, university students played a major role in the Iranian revolution of 1979. Young Iranians were also behind the push for change that brought reformist President Mohammed Khatamei to power in 1997.

But the promised reforms there never materialized. The movement lost steam. Many young Iranians grew disenchanted with politics, and a hard-liner was again elected president earlier this year.

In Egypt, not all youth are enthusiastically engaged in political struggle. Widespread unemployment and disillusionment about the political process have kept many young people away from the polls in this year's elections.

In September, President Mubarak faced other candidates on the ballot for the first time. But voter turnout remained low, and local human rights groups said there were some serious irregularities. The State Department called it one step in the march towards full democracy, but also urged continued reforms to ensure that future elections are more credible to the Egyptian people.

Ahmed Salah of Youth for Change acknowledges that many young people are either not interested in politics or are afraid of the consequences of speaking out. But, he says, in the current environment, apathy is becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer can afford.

He sarcastically compares life in Egypt to the dystopian novels of George Orwell.

"We are supposed to be living in the best country in the world," he says. "We are having the best kind of freedom that anybody could enjoy, and we should be very thankful to our government and our popular, lovable dictator all the time. This is crazy! How could you just take it? Wouldn't you just get to a point where you have to say, 'no', and you wouldn't care whether you live or die anymore, because you can't get a job anyway?"

Mr. Salah says many young people feel they have no future here anymore. That leaves them with few options. They can try to emigrate, and many do. They can join the street protests. Or they can just give up.

Doaa El-Shami, 21, is working for a popular Islamic Web site, but she says she knows many people her age who are unemployed.

"It is a very big problem," she says. "There are lots of college graduates, who cannot find a job, and are doing nothing but selling belts or handbags on the street." She also says a disturbing number of young people - frustrated, bored and unable to find work - are idling their time away in cafes, and some are turning to drugs.

But the first thing she mentions when asked about being young in Egypt is marriage, specifically, that many young people cannot afford to get married. That is a common complaint.

Egyptian tradition requires a young man to buy and furnish an apartment for his new bride. But with so many young people out of work, and real estate prices climbing, that is often impossible.

Ahmed Salah from Youth For Change knows first hand.

"The same thing happened to me," he said. "I was engaged, and I recently had my engagement broken, precisely because I couldn't afford what I had to do, and because I lost my job."

But rather than give up, drop out or move, Mr. Salah and other members of Youth For Change have decided to stay and fight for change. He says it is partly a matter of self-preservation.

"Also being, in most of our cases, unemployed, or having very, let's say, not very rewarding jobs, due to the condition of the country - this also gives us another motivation, because we want to have a place in this world," he says. "And, for us, it is a matter of life and death, because, if we continue the way we are as a country, we will never have a chance. Most of us will never be able even to get married, or ever have families or children, because there is no way to do so."

Mr. Salah says the problems facing Egypt are far from unique in the Arab world. He says the Kifaya movement has inspired pro-democracy groups in other countries in the region, such as Tunisia and Yemen.

"Even Libya, against the dictator they have, yeah, there was a Libya movement called Khalas ['finished'], which is like Kifaya," he says. "It's the same idea. Of course, it's working underground, not like us, because it's much worse over there regarding what Mr. Ghaddafi can do."

It may be years before the world knows whether Kifaya and Youth For Change will actually achieve their goal of a more democratic Egypt. But, if change comes, Mr. Salah believes, it will have a ripple effect throughout the region.

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