Connecting the student movement to a broader policy toward youth

Successive regimes in Egypt have adopted similar cooptation methods to manage the threat of youth activism by creating government-controlled avenues of participation away from student unions or off-campus activism. One example of this is the Council ofYouth and Sports which was established by Sadat in 1979.22 After Mubarak became president, he upgraded the Council to a ministry. The 1980s and the 1990s did not witness much youth contention, as their activism was kept behind closed university doors. However, in 2000, youth policy started to change with Gamal Mubarak as the new rising star in politics. When Gamal Mubarak began to rise to prominence on the political scene, his father stressed that young people might pose a serious threat to the economic and political stability of Egypt if they were ignored. The Egyptian government established the “Future Generation Foundation” as a vehicle through which young people could be incorporated into policy making circles. This foundation was mainly managed by Gamal Mubarak in an effort to appear as a champion tor youth grievances (Zahid 2010).

The first decade of the new century was also marked with increased youth street contention. In 2004 the Kifaya movement was established. It brought many young people to its ranks, who established their own youth movements afterward, the first of which was the Youth for Change movement. Like his predecessor, Mubarak used various strategies to coopt the “liberal” containable youth, while, on the other hand, he used force and imprisoned “radical” youth who were perceived as uncontainable (Abdelrahman 2015).

After the ouster ot Mubarak in February 2011, the Supreme Council ot Armed Forces and Mohamed Morsi used the same policy of coopting young liberal or nonradical Islamists and excluding and using force against radical leftists or young people who refused to cooperate with the rulers (el-Bendary 2013). In the same manner, since the ouster of Morsi in 2013, the regime from Adly Mansour (interim President) to Abdel Fattah al Sisi has been coopting young liberal or Salafi Islamists, who support the current regime, while using excessive violence against young people ot the opposition.

Youth interviewed as part of field research for this chapter agreed that the government divides youth, who engage in either civic or political participation, into two main categories. The first are the young people who obey the authoritarian structure, want to work within it, and can be coopted within the regime. These young people are the ones whom the regime can easily contain and co-opt through developing policies regulating political participation, along with economic, cultural, and social participation. Young people of this sort are the ones who participate in development non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who belong to political parties, whether from the “tolerated” opposition or from pro-regime parties. These young people accept the boundaries of the state laws, and rules, and agree to work within these boundaries.

On the other hand, young people who are perceived by the regime as “radical” or those who want to move beyond the authoritarian structure in which they live are the ones that the regime tries to directly exclude from economic, social, cultural, and social participation. In trying to contain the second type of young people, the regime utilizes various methods. One method is to coerce them through either using direct physical force or through imprisoning them without due process of the law.


The rich history of the student movement in Egypt has seen many transitions, linked to the political situation of each time period. Despite usually adopting a reformist approach, student movements in Egypt have sometimes contested decisions linked to war, socioeconomic concerns, or lack of political freedom, and have at many times been very influential. In comparison with student activism during the Nasser and Sadat years, which could be characterized as being active in both national-level political affairs and student-related issues, activism during the Mubarak regime could be characterized in terms of dormancy and acquiescence, where very little student activity was present and those who were active were screened heavily by security, which maintained a tight grip on universities. In stark contrast, the period between 2011 and 2013 witnessed an increase in mobility in and out of universities, where students were able to freely make their demands with little or no fear. Curtailment of student activity returned once more after 2013, where the regimes fears of certain groups in the political opposition led it to mainstream its strict security regulations in all universities without exception, setting conditions for participation and student activity' that impede engagement to the extent that remaining docile has become a favored option for many students in Egyptian universities.

In explaining such transformation, and through the historical analysis and results of the interviews and focus group discussions presented here, we have highlighted a number of patterns characterizing each historical time period. First, the greater the threat posed by students toward the regime, the more likely it is that student activity will be curtailed within the university. Through the record of the student movement history in Egypt, it could be argued that the time period in which students were most influential was that of the late 1960s and the early 1970s.Yet, while students were active in resisting certain state or university policies, the ideology' adopted by the more powerful student organizations at that time was not tar from alignment with the state. This is reflected, for example, by students’ participation in the demonstrations protesting Nassers resignation. Second, support from the general public and other students is key in sustaining student activity'. Illustratively, support for student activity from external political and social actors in Egypt in the 1960s and the 1970s was more significant than for modern- day student movements—as reflected in the strong relationship formed between students and the labor movement. This meant that students in the 1960s and the 1970s had more resources and more influence. Yet, once the vision of the student movement was at odds with the states vision, curtailment ot student activity was intensified, as can be seen from Sadat’s position on student activity. Modern-day student movements in Egypt share more characteristics with student movements of the mid-1970s onward than with the period between 1968 and 1972, as their ideologies and goals are very different from the current regime’s vision—positioning them as more of a threat to the state. In reaction to this threat, the space allowed for student movements has become limited once more.Third, student activism does not stop altogether, but it assumes different shapes and forms. Students look inward, toward exclusively student-related grievances, and adopt more reformist—as opposed to radical —approaches in times of shrinking spaces for student activity. It is in these moments, when students look inward to student-related grievances, that their activism departs most from broader youth activism/movements in Egypt. This can partially be linked to government, as well as university administration, policies to coopt and direct student activity —but it also reflects strategic decisions by student activists to regain influence and trust of both the administration and the student body.

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