In the middle of yet another round of protests led by Egyptian youth in Cairo, a 70-year-old man calling himself Dr. Amro stood in the stinging, tear-gas-infused dust in downtown Cairo, pleading for calm. "I am just a citizen like all of you," he said to a large crowd of angry young men who were anxious to get past him to continue their battle against the police guarding Egypt's Interior Ministry. "When I look at what is happening, I feel sad, and I don't want to see our country turn out this way," he continued. "Please, I have a promise from the central security forces that if you just step back, they will not shoot you."
The doctor had formed a human chain with other men, predominantly middle-aged and even elderly, in an effort to defuse the violent standoff. But the youth before him were angry. "We don't trust them!" one shouted back. Another hurled insults, calling the police officers behind them "pimps," and still others continued their chants: "Down, down with military rule."
A few blocks away, in a Tahrir Square that has been intermittently shut down and blanketed in tear gas for months, Mustafa Taher, a tour operator, echoed a different kind of anger but one that has grown increasingly prevalent. "The revolution has changed a lot over the past year, and now we're moving backwards," he said, looking toward the demonstrators' tents set up on a nearby traffic median. "This is supposed to be tourist season, and we haven't made a single pound."
Gone are the accolades of heroism and courage that just a year ago greeted Egypt's so-called Facebook youth when they led the popular uprising against the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak. In that emotional and miraculous 18-day revolt, many proud Egyptians say, the youth succeeded where decades of repressed and compromised opposition parties had not. "What made the revolution happen was the youth," says Shadi Ghazali Harb, 33, a surgeon and liberal activist. "We managed to come together when the seniors [older politicians] could not come together because they were used to playing politics."
But 12 months later, Egypt's youth movement is failing, dissolved by fractured groups, competing priorities and petty fights. To Hisham Kassem, 53, a prominent newspaper publisher and longtime thorn in Mubarak's side, the youth are sliding into unpopularity and he argues irrelevance. "There's no one they look up to," he says. "They accuse us of being a weak generation, a generation that was compromised and I agree." But the result has been a movement that knows no other means than Tahrir Square. "To them, the way forward is to keep doing what they're doing," says Kassem, "to take down the state and rebuild it again from scratch without examining the implications."
That all-or-nothing attitude does not square with most Egyptians, who are eager to move on from Tahrir especially with the economy spiraling into a $30 billion deficit. The inherently conservative population now largely embraces the Islamist parties as an alternative to the corrupt, seemingly pro-American liberalism of Mubarak's regime. Well attuned to those popular sentiments, the ruling generals and, indeed, even many Islamist politicians have been quick to pin the blame for Egypt's postrevolution turmoil on the kids in the square.
The youth are at a disadvantage. The lack of a leader once a point of honor in a movement that trumpeted equality has hindered them in the complex game of postrevolutionary politics. "Most of them believe politics to be a very dirty game, and the rest feel very intimidated," says Mahmoud Salem, a liberal activist, blogger and parliamentary candidate. Salem was among the relatively few leaders of the youth protest movement to exert a serious effort toward an electoral campaign in November as Egypt entered its first democratic election since Mubarak's ouster. Salem lost as did most young candidates while the far more organized and politically dedicated Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-Islamist Salafis surged to power with a combined 72% of the seats.
Most of Salem's fellow activists, including leaders of the influential April 6 Youth Movement, which advocated for organized peaceful protest at the outset of the uprising, sat out the campaign in favor of continuing the revolution through protest and social media. Now many of the same youth who urged for freedom and democracy are calling the first democratically elected parliament a flop. Some have gone so far as to allege that the Islamists rose to power through collusion with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in an us-vs.-them dichotomy that has increasingly come to define the youth-protester discourse.