Engaging the young people in the political shaping of Egypt will be crucial for the success of the revolution, says Fathy Abou Hatab, Egyptian journalist and managing editor. The question is how to do this, he says in this interview.
As the youngest panellist invited to speak at the DIPD opening conference: “The future of Democracy in Egypt and Tunisia and the Role of External Partners”, it seemed natural for Fathy Abou Hatab to highlight the importance of keeping the youth engaged in the Egyptian revolution.
A trained journalist, Fathy Abou Hatab previously worked with Islam Online and the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute in Cairo before taking his current position as managing editor of the online edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm, one of Egypt’s independent and most vocal news media.
Courage and will power
Himself a typical representative of the movement that made history in Egypt in February this year, Hatab said:
“I have no experience living in a democratic country. I am 36 years old and through all this time democracy never existed in Egypt.”
“The young people who led the demonstrations in Tahrir Square didn’t have any real political experience. What they did was based on their experiences from social networking. They know how to communicate and mobilize people.”
According to Hatab, the largest group currently is 6 April, which is an online network. So is the “Khaled Said” group on Facebook. They are, on one hand, young and do not want to lose what they gained in Tahrir Square. On the other hand, they are reluctant to conform to traditional rules of engagement – meaning among others having to organise in formal structures.
It remains a question, if they are willing to organize in more formal structures like parties or structures with formal organizational institutions Fathy Abou Hatab said:
“6 April recently decided not to transform into a political party but to remain a movement and a lobby for change.”
Even so, Hatab said he was optimistic:
“Young people today know how to live with others and exchange ideas through social networks.Through the use of Internet they have been brought up in a culture of sharing and a culture of forming groups around common areas of interests. This is good, said Fathy Abou Hatab, in terms of sharing experiences and introducing peers to each other.
He said this trend was spreading to other areas of society and stressed the importance for Danish organisations to understand the nature of the movements in Egypt that drive the revolution.
New political arena takes shape
Fathy Abou Hatab pointed out that there had been no clashes of generations, but young people reacted to mere the fact that the youth had never been involved in Egyptian politics.
“I think the young generation is open to bridge the gap between generations, and I believe they did so in Tahrir Square. But they also found themselves steering a revolution. With their energy and wish for change, young people in Egypt can do a lot for the future.”
As for the old guard, Egypt has very strong parties, like the former ruling party that used to have a very strong organisation. Fathy Abou Hatab referred to the smaller ones as “window dressing that had in reality been controlled by the ruling party”. Egypt also had a traditional opposition, but it was excluded from playing a real role previously.
Emerging as a new and very powerful political force, the young are in a process of finding their place in the arena, Hatab explained:
“A new area is the middle of politics, which is attracting many new parties. A right and a left wing still exist, but mutual respect, jobs and decent salaries as well as democracy play a bigger role with the new parties than among the old political sides.
Fathy Abou Hatab’s plea to Denmark was clear:
“We need your experience to overcome this transitional period successfully.Old parties need technical skills and to get fresh experiences from other countries. New parties also need these tools in addition to skills and experiences regarding starting a new party and how to run it,” he said during the conference.
Look beyond parties and focus on the people
Acknowledging that some parties may not last long, Fathy Abou Hatab insisted they might still need support and benefit from it:
“What they learn will spread to society. I believe it is not a matter of supporting specific parties but to support the right people and those groups who are interested in playing a role in politics.”
In terms of how to proceed without leaving anybody outside in this period of uncertainty and constant change, Hatab said:
“In any activity you can invite not only parties but also movements such as 6. April and others and include them in conferences and training activities.The current scene is not final, quite the contrary there is a general movement towards creating new organisations, new NGOs – new everything.”
Don’t repeat past mistakes
Referring to an Egyptian proverb, Fathy Abou Hatab referred to Egypt as ‘moving sand’ – everything might change and do so very quickly. Treading cautiously was therefore his best advise to Danish actors:
“The most important point right now is that outsiders make an effort to get an understanding of what’s going on in Egypt, what the real needs are and to go through local partners to assess the situation.”
He warned Denmark and all international actors not to repeat past mistakes:
“During the Mubarak era, NGOs got billions but didn’t change anything. We need to develop a good way to match people with the right activity. It’s not only a matter of budgets being allocated. Most importantly there is a need for donors to invest time in researching the region and the needs much more carefully than ever before.”