Stepping into Tahrir Square at night, the citizen guards who block
the entrances showed me through. These men stand by to check for weapons
being smuggled into the square. Despite the conflicting political
groups that are vying for control of the country, and how much is at
stake, the citizens of Egypt refuse to let the scene of their greatest
victory be degraded by violence. Tahrir Square is a place of peace that honors the spirit of the revolution of the Egyptian people.
In mid-July I visited Egypt as the guest of a US State Department grant program and a representative of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. My mission was to train youth opposition leaders in grassroots policy campaigning, political communications, and civic engagement. My status as an independent member of US civil society afforded me the ability to have open, one-on-one exchanges with Egyptians who might otherwise be distrustful of American-sourced information. Over the course of a week, I traveled through Cairo and Alexandria, giving trainings to groups that included members of Egyptian political parties, activist groups, and advocacy organizations.
The faces of the revolution are young, tech savvy activists who are college educated and have traveled abroad. But their "Facebook and Twitter Revolution" is a myth perpetuated by U.S. media. The reason that the Egyptian revolution (and the Arab Spring) has frozen is as much about a communication gap between protesters and the working class as much as it is the result of the interim government dragging its feet with reforms and prosecution of the former leadership. The poor Egyptian economy and its lack of social services are important drivers of revolution. But ultimately, what happened in Egypt, and what is happening across the Arab world, is about dignity. The people of Egypt want control over their own lives. To create a functioning democracy, the elites shaping the course of the new political system will have to engage and empower the working class.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been providing social services in the streets of Egypt for the past 60 years. They have handed out bread and provided education and medical care to desperate populations. This is how extremism in the developing world wins the game. This is how Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban gain supporters. They provide social services in places where governments do not and therefore gain support where democratic governments should.
To defeat the Muslim Brotherhood, and to defeat extremist groups across the developing world, citizens of failing states will have to beat them at their own game. To build political support, parties need to engage in grassroots political campaigns much deeper than the lip service that we pay the term in the United States. Secular elites, the Facebook and Twitter generation that we celebrate in the media, will have to engage the constituencies they want to represent in the new government: the rural poor, the people in the slums, and middle class professionals who have protested for human rights. They will have to build local policy programs block by block, using existing resources from the community and including citizens and civil society in the decision-making process to provide social services. There are already two shining examples from the Egyptian Revolution: the street cleaning that was organized by protestors in Tahrir Square, and the neighborhood security groups that organized locally during the breakdown of the rule of law. Instead of giving someone food for a vote, these parties will have to teach someone how to grow food for a vote. That's how real democracy can be built in Egypt.
Social responsibility can only occur when people feel they have ownership over their own lives and are productive members of society. When they grow up with no belief that they will ever get a good job, get a good education, have the opportunity to afford a decent standard of living, or be able to provide for their families, they have no stake or sense of responsibility for what happens in their communities. They do not care and have no reason to. They do not trust their government or the institutions supported by that government to treat them with respect and dignity. To have real democracy, to give a sense of social responsibility to every citizen, Egypt's political parties will have to find a way to include every citizen's voice in their party platforms and policy campaigns.
We are lucky in the U.S. We can argue loudly about tax cuts and raising the debt ceiling, but when we wake up every morning we know our armed forces will not be staging a coup. The brave protesters in Egypt don't have the luxury of a stable democracy. They have their first elections coming up "soon" (still undetermined) and their constitution is going to be rewritten. But by whom? If the protesters cannot find a way to rally together and bring working class Egyptians into their fold, the future of Egypt will look a lot like the past. If the protesters succeed, there is unlimited potential to unlock the economic and social power of the Egyptian people.
The bravery of the protesters in Egypt and across the Arab world is stunning. It was a deeply humbling experience to walk through Tahrir Square and experience a place where revolution is happening. It will serve as an inspiration for the continued advancement of the mission of the Campus Network. Perhaps the young people of Egypt and America have much to learn from each other. And perhaps we can learn from the courage of the Egyptian people, by realizing that when our government refuses to act for us, it is our duty as citizens of a democracy to exercise our rights.
Reese Neader is the Roosevelt Institute / Campus Network's Policy Director and wrote this report for the New Deal 2.0 project. The Campus Network's Think Impact model of engagement is a strong tool for communicating that message to young leaders. Communities that are dislocated from their government know what issues they face and how to solve them; what they don't have is the access to resources that can properly address those issues. Through Think Impact, grassroots policymakers connect these communities to the resources they need to address systemic challenges and blaze a trail towards shared prosperity. Campus Network students are using the Think Impact model to generate progressive change across the U.S., and it's a model that young leaders across the world, especially in emerging democracies, can also use to build responsive political platforms, craft democratic institutions, and cultivate civic engagement.