Perihan Abouzeid, the 26 year old owner of an online supermarket, is one of the young, female, twittteriffic activists that the media has so far put, not without justification, at the centre of the story of Egypt’s uprising. When I first met her a month and a bit ago, it was at a posh coffee shop on the island of Zamalek, an island on the Nile populated by foreigners and wealthy Egyptians. She was participating in a meeting of Shabab Masri (Egyptian Youth), a group she formed with other young activists during the eighteen day uprising that ousted Mubarak.
Their plan, she told me, was to travel to the poor and less educated areas to carry out “public awareness” campaigns, utilising debate, performance and other visual mediums to explain the basics of democracy, like why people shouldn’t give their vote to the guy who gives them flour, cooking oil and money the day before the election.
According to the CIA world Fact Book (which is actually a fairly reliable source) a little over 28% (17% of men and 40% of women) of Egypt’s population is illiterate. So the benefits, the necessity even, of such a program seems self evident.
When we met again more recently, this plan had undergone an important change. Before they started talking to these people, they needed to do some listening. They had been travelling to poor areas, both rural and urban, all over Egypt, learning about the concerns of the people in those areas. In the city slums like Cairo’s Ain Elsira, they had found that food was the main issue. Stagnant wages and endemic unemployment, combined with rising prices had left people desperate and struggling to survive. In rural areas, where traditional structures were still firmly in place and people were more likely to be self sufficient in terms of food and other basic necessities, issues of nepotism and corruption, particularly the undue dominance of certain families, were more pressing. These were just a few examples, as every region, she emphasised, was different. The whole thing had echoes of Mao’s orders that the intellectuals should be sent out to the villages to be educated by the peasants.
Of course, this is not the whim of a dictator, it’s a voluntary project carried out by people who just participated in deposing one. What’s more, Shabab Masri still think their high quality education and twenty-four-seven access to the facebookverse give them something valuable to offer and still intend to send their awareness caravan around the country.
It has even maintained its original, and very noble, platform. Perihan aims to ensure that all voters have at least two criteria for any candidate they may consider voting for: that they were never part of the formerly ruling National Democratic Party (Shabab also intend to expose anybody who was); and that they don’t buy their votes.
Considering this, and with the fact that their travels have also put the group in touch with various opinion leaders who will help facilitate and generate excitement about their tours, it would be easy to think of this learning tour as a purely strategic exercise.
Talking to Perihan however, it is clear that the cross-class dialogue has had a profound effect on her. “Whether you like it or not, or intend it or not, you’re still living in a bubble,” she says, “I’ve aways thought that anybody who is poor or anybody who doesn’t have his basic needs satisfied would not be interested in politics.”
She described how, in the past, she and her other classmates from the exclusive American University of Cairo would feel uncomfortable, even scared walking from one down-town campus to another.
Her change in perception started with the revolution, when she found that the people she would once have hoped the police would protect her from, were, instead, protecting her from the police.
Her participation in politics since then has further driven home the changes. On the day Egypt held their referendum she took to the same downtown streets that had once made her so anxious, donning a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “give your vote to Egypt”. Her role was not to tell people which way to vote, but just to encourage them to vote and answer questions about the options to the best of her abilities, and she was amazed by the enthusiastic response. Travelling to poor neighbourhoods has only further strengthened her faith in the people at large. She was especially struck by how many of these people were educated but poor. “They really understand the strong ties between the policies the regime has set and whatever problems and challenges we have in this country”.
On the other hand, she says she has also realised how many wealthier Egyptians, who are so up to date with western fashion, had only engaged with western culture on the consumer level and were otherwise uninterested in the ideals of freedom and democracy. They could be found, during the revolution, sitting in Zamalek’s posh coffee shops, drinking coffee and smoking shisha like nothing was happening.
This shift in perceptions has, as one might assume, led to a substantial shift in her politics. Whereas before she had favoured a liberal capitalist model, she now thinks that “whatever new government is going to have to have a leftist direction”.
The needs of the people are too immediate and important to be left to the whims of the market.
A thriving social democracy in the Arab worlds’ biggest nation world still seems like a distant dream and the threats to the fledgling revolution are myriad. But those of us who indulged in such pessimistic cynicism were busy denying the possibility of the revolution right up to the moment it was an undeniable reality. The brave Egyptians who were practicing foolhardy, Han-Solo-like (“never tell me the odds”) optimism, made a profound change that will reverberate through the Middle East for years to come.
Perihan learned this lesson well and it is reinforced every day by her hands on engagement with the broader population. “We’re betting on the people,” she tells me, and I think that’s where the smart money should always go.