“This is the first step along the road,” a smiling young man sings in the video for “Inzil wa sharek” (Go down and take part), a song paid for by the ministry of defense. One of the members of the Opera House choir who performed the song explains that he was essentially obliged to take part. Had he said no, there would have been problems, he says. But he didn’t participate in the referendum itself.
Amid the celebratory hype around the passing of the constitution with a 98 percent approval rate, politicians, members of the committee of 50 that drafted the constitution, media personalities and commentators have been pontificating on the question of why the youth did not participate.
Cabinet meetings have even discussed the issue, described as a “boycott”, and there has been a string of meetings with “youth representatives” to address “their concerns.”
Privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that a “sovereign body” had a meeting with heads of satellite channels instructing them not to attack January 25 and affirming to them that June 30 is not a revolution against January 25.
All this would suggest a certain panic on the part of the authorities.
Because the general perception is that young people brought about the revolution, academic Asef Bayat suggests, “they are the source of the legitimacy of the revolution.”
“When these youths did not come forward in the referendum, the media and the new political elite were worried and surprised,” he says. “Youth have been very much valorized in public (even though in private they may still be considered as inexperienced, emotional, adventurous, thus needing guidance from their elders).”
Indeed, there was little debate about the content of the constitutional draft in the run up to the referendum, and it was treated rather as a referendum on the changes that have occurred since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi — or “a wedding,” as many local media outlets had it. In other words, it was a referendum on the legitimacy of the current political order.
“The young have become a symbol of reform in the past three years,” filmmaker Mostafa Youssef says. “So the government wanted their approval, and the media wanted pictures of lines of young smiling beautiful people.”
For Mostafa Fouad — a 20-year-old student who until June 30 saw himself as part of Tamarod, but who did not vote, describing the current government as a “military” one — the issue is not just symbolic.
“It’s a government of old people. They need the youth. Sixty percent of this county is young. So they panicked. They need us symbolically but also practically. How can their projects survive if we are 60 percent of the country and there is no support coming from us?”
“The boycott was the first slap in the face of this government,” he adds.
Others are not so sure that it was a boycott.
“I wasn’t boycotting, it’s more I am watching, trying to figure out what is happening,” the young member of the Opera House choir says. “I think for many people it was despair, not about the possibility of change in general, but despair at what we are seeing now.”
Boycott can be thought of either as a deliberate action, Youssef says, or in terms of how much a population feels invested in the process.
“So in that second sense it was a boycott,” he says.
Meanwhile, Ingie Hamdi, from April 6 Youth Movement said in comments to Sadda al-Balad, “You have your constitution, and we have our revolution,” suggesting a deliberate decision on the part of the youth.
But we should take the claim of youth non-participation with “a grain of salt,” warns Hesham Sallam, a fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
He points out that the turnout, “while slightly higher than that of the controversial 2012 constitutional referendum, was not substantively different.”
Sallam suggests that this talk of a youth boycott reflects the need to put the blame for the turnout “on the moral or political errors of some misguided social groups.”
The implication that the problem was simply the non-participation of youth is perhaps, he further suggests, “also an implicit way of sidelining the major boycott that marred the results and legitimacy of this referendum, which is the boycott of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters.”
Yet, a source from the Interior Ministry revealed that the ministry had identified a Brotherhood plot to promote the idea that youth did not participate, while the minister of youth dismissed the non-participation of youth as rumors.
Meanwhile, most figures have taken the non-participation of youth as given. Some have suggested that the chief reason was the timing of the referendum during the period of mid-year exams, such as assistant defense minister and former governor of North Sinai Ali Hafazy and Mahmoud al-Alaili, general secretary of the Free Egyptians Party and member of the National Salvation Front.
But in the main, figures from government officials and party figures to known poets and artists have suggested that the main reasons that few young people took part in the referendum was to do with the intensity of the “yes” campaign, the return of old faces, and the attack on symbols of the January 25 revolution, often described specifically as “a media attack.”
A number of these opinion-shapers have been at pains to point out that youth non-participation does not signal disapproval of the constitution or roadmap.
Rather the issues identified are more to do with form than substance, and as such are relatively easily addressed. The question for instance of the nature of the media campaign for a “yes” vote has been discussed in terms of reminding young people of the campaigns from the Mubarak-era and of going against the nature of young people. Little mention has been made of the arrests of those who attempted to campaign for a “no” vote.
Tamarod co-founder Mohamed Abdel Aziz, for example, was quoted in Al-Wafd newspaper saying that young people reject the language of pro and anti of the campaign and “insist on the freedom to choose without pressure from media.”
Similarly, Alaili suggested that young people found the “yes” campaign “provocative,” as they are “naturally inclined to object and dissent.”
These suggestions that the young who did not want to give their seal of approval to the constitution are rebellious and impulsive, as well as naive and impatient, feed into longstanding notions of youth.
And it is not just an argument coming from government figures. George Ishaq, for instance, associated with reform movements in the days of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, says that the youth did not participate because they “need immediate change and revolutionary decisions fitting with their ambitions.”
Fouad, the 20-year-old who gathered signatures for Tamarod and who has been active since 2011, says, “they always accuse us of impatience, but we know that you can’t do all that much in four years, and if you do the groundwork according to a timetable, we will give you another four years.”
“We know that social justice can’t happen tomorrow or right away. What we want is a schedule that you answer to,” he says.
Youssef feels that one of the main problems with the depiction of youth as impatient and impulsive is that it reduces the question of the grievances people have to a question of “rebellious youth not wanting to be told what to do against an older wiser generation.”
Similarly, Sallam argues that just as the idea of a “youth revolution” in 2011 had the effect of “denying the social depth of this revolution,” today it “is also used to imply a certain level of youthful impulsiveness and impatience on the part of groups and movements that oppose military rule.”
This did not begin with the revolution, he says.
“Whether by the current regime, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Muslim Brotherhood sponsored government, or Gamal Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, the term ‘youth’ has more often than not been used in politics as a way of belittling and talking down to large communities of Egyptians who are politically or economically marginalized by the underlying political and social order,” he argues.
Three years ago there was an outpouring of love for the “glorious youth” who had managed to achieve what the older generations had not, for the good of the country. Increasingly in the period since Morsi’s ouster, they are seen to be working against the interests of the country and its people.
A woman who runs an organization seeking to encourage youth leadership in business, writes in a Facebook post, “I think that the young people who are making a fuss should thank the couch party and [army chief commander Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi for saving Egypt after they handed it to the Brotherhood due to political ignorance or betrayal.”
Another middle-aged woman addresses her post to young revolutionaries in the days leading up to the referendum calling on them to boycott. “We don’t need your votes which bring nothing but devastation. You made a revolution without a leader and brought us [Morsi] then you rejected his actions but still with your stupid stubbornness you want him to keep ruling us with his damned legitimacy.”
Should these views become more widespread, it would suggest that state authorities have been successful in “imposing the image of incoherence and unrealistic idealism on those who oppose the political status quo,” as Sallam puts it, “and justifying the hierarchy between the wise “elders” who dominate the national political scene and youngsters who are impulsively mobilizing and yelling demands without much of a vision for the future of the country.”
“It may be true that these fragmented youth movements have not succeeded in devising a coherent vision for Egypt’s political future,” Sallam says. “But neither have the wise elders who rule us.”