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Granted, these young people may not all have a clear vision of what kind of democracy they want, only that it is accompanied by free and fair elections. But that counts for a generation that has only ever known one ruler, the opportunity to kick one out every four or five years may be democracy's greatest appeal. "I don't care who ends up running this country," says Egyptian student Khaled Kamel, "as long as I have the ability to change them if I don't like them."
A Thousand Sparks
If most foreigners couldn't put the sheer numbers of Arab youths together with their political aspirations to measure their clout, neither did the young Arabs themselves. Jared Cohen, director of the corporate think tank Google Ideas, who until recently worked on online outreach at the U.S. State Department, says young people were the "de facto opposition in many of these countries, but they didn't see their own power."
As always, it needed a thousand little sparks to light the fire of revolt to reveal to those who thought they were weak how much power they really had. Kamel, a university student from the Nile Delta village of Zawiyat Ghazal, recalls when he fell from a train at a station and a policeman came up to him. "Instead of helping me, he hit me because I was lying there on the platform, which you're not supposed to do," says Kamel. That sort of humiliation at the hands of authority was common-place in Mubarak's Egypt, but Kamel, 20, had an outlet for his frustrations: an ancient Hewlett-Packard PC and an Internet connection. He created a blog and chronicled his anger in sarcastic prose.
Then last summer, another instance of police brutality became the talk of the Egyptian online community: in Alexandria, a young businessman named Khaled Said was beaten to death by cops. A Facebook page entitled "We Are All Khaled Said" was created by an anonymous administrator. Kamel joined the Facebook group and became one of its lead organizers. He got to know the group's administrator online, and the two began an e-mail conversation. It wasn't until Feb. 7 that Kamel finally learned the identity of his correspondent: Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who has become the face of the Egyptian revolution.
Kamel's first sense that his activism could help change the entire system came when he worked with Ghonim and others to plan a day of protests on Jan. 25. While Cairo and Tahrir Square got the most international attention during the uprising, Kamel concentrated on rallying protesters across the country, marching with them in Alexandria and in the nearby town of Damanhur, where fleeing officials set fire to the state security headquarters.
Now Kamel walks through the burned and ransacked building, pointing to cells where security officers brutalized prisoners with dogs and electric prods. He exudes a sense of wonder that his generation put an end to these abuses. "We have forces now," he says. "And we're starting from right now to build Egypt the way we wanted to."
If Said's murder at the hands of the police spurred young Egyptians into action, in Tunisia it was the self-immolation of vegetable vendor Mohammed Bouazizi after he was slapped by a policewoman. In Yemen, activist Tawakul Karman was moved by the plight of 30 families expelled in early 2007 from their village when the land was given to a tribal leader close to President Saleh. The families are known collectively as Ja'ashin, after the name of their village, and Karman, 32, a mother of three, has made them her cause: every Tuesday since 2007, she and scores of others have protested in front of Sana'a University.
Her tenacity has yielded nothing: the government has refused to intervene on the Ja'ashin's behalf. Karman now believes that only Saleh's resignation he's been in power three years longer than Mubarak was will allow Yemen to start addressing its problems. Like activists elsewhere, she finds her spirits raised by what's happened in Tunisia and Egypt. The ranks of protesters at Sana'a University have swelled to the thousands. Several protests have been broken up by police or armed supporters of the regime, but Karman is undaunted. "Now there's a race between Yemen and Algeria to see who will be next," she says.
Not all the activist Arab youths are looking for regime change. In Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian territories, Fadi Quran has set his sights on what are arguably more difficult goals: unification of the warring Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas, followed by an end to the Israeli occupation. Quran, 22, a Stanford University grad who runs an alternative-energy start-up, set up a Facebook account calling for a sit-in in front of the Egyptian embassy while Mubarak was clinging to power in Cairo. But he was forced to take it down by the Palestinian Authority's security services and was then questioned for hours. "It truly was obvious they had never had to deal with this type of activism before," he says.