Picture the following scenario. Fed up with how his country is being run, a young man gets together with a few friends to form a political opposition movement. Within less than three months, it attracts 22 million supporters. Those supporters then take to the streets, eventually bringing about the downfall of the government.
Does that sound familiar? It will if you’ve been following the latest upheavals in Egypt, and the role of the Tamarod (Rebel) group, whose online campaign mobilised the mass turn-out that helped topple President Morsi.
But are you also familiar with the young man who organised Tamarod, a 28-year-old in jeans and trainers called Mahmoud Badr? Thought not.
Given his role in recent events, you might expect the young Mr Badr to be picking a new cabinet right now, while thanking a grateful nation. But he isn’t, and while he did get an audience with Egypt’s generals before they kicked Mr Morsi out, he seems unlikely to get a prominent post in the new interim government.
Indeed, aside from this profile on Reuters, which wasn’t picked up very widely, he’s hardly even featured in the media coverage of the 2013 Revolution (or military-backed “revocoup”, as some are calling it).
This isn’t, though, isn’t particularly the fault of the media, which has devoted plenty of space to events in Egypt. Rather, it hints at one of the enduring problems of Egypt’s recent revolutions, which is that while the country’s young activists have proved the leading role in getting governments kicked out, they are less prominent when it comes to putting new governments into place.
The youth in Egypt have certainly done the lion’s share of the demonstrating, fighting and dying since 2011, and have rightfully won plaudits from older Egyptians for doing so. But two years on from Hosni Mubarak’s fall, what is probably the most politicised generations in Egyptian history is yet to produced any clearly recognisable leaders, let alone a party capable of challenging the formidable electoral machines of parties like the Muslim Brotherhood.
There’s no young 20 or 30-something who’s now a regular face on CNN, for example. Nor is there an electorally credible, mass-participation party that is channelling all that youthful protest energy into canvassing, policymaking and the like.
Instead, in the current carve up for positions in the new interim government, it’s ageing politicians like Mohamed ElBaradei, the newly appointed vice-president, who are again being chosen to represent the young, the liberal and the secular. And while most liberals do not have a bad word to say about him personally, some still see him as part of Cairo’s old, superannuated political elite, which had more scheming, domineering patriarchs than an Egyptian soap opera.
So why is this? In a sense, Egypt is reminiscent of France in May ’68, where the huge numbers of youthful, educated people demonstrating on the streets did not have a particularly coherent set of political demands. Instead, the soixante-huitards were a typically agitating mix of students, anarchists, hipsters and idealists, whose only real thing in common was an active disdain for all forms of organised political parties.
That’s a sentiment that you often hear expressed by Egyptian activists too, only with arguably more justification, given the lousy government under which they grew up. When someone in Tahrir Square talks of organised politics as being corrupt or repressive, it isn’t just fashionable Left-wing posturing.
The problem, though, is that this attitude now goes well beyond healthy scepticism. Some of the activists I have met while reporting out in Cairo positively bristle at anyone who describes themselves as a leader, including other people in the youth movements.
True, Mina Narguib, an activist who I worked with in Cairo back in 2011, points out that there is more to politics than mainstream parties. Many activists, he says, are busy campaigning on single issues, like improving the constitution and campaigning for women’s rights, just as May 1968 helped spawn new social movements like environmentalism and feminism.
The difference, though, is that while May 68 merely shook the French political system up a bit, spring 2011 and summer 2013 in Cairo have toppled entire governments. Those governments fell partly because they richly deserved to, and as such, newer better ones urgently need to be put in their place.
But if the millions of people who signed up to the Tamarod movement will not make the long, hard march into Egypt’s mainstream political institutions themselves, they will leave it open for yet more Morsis or Mubaraks to grab power.
Yes, mainstream party politics may be dull, dirty and a little boring at times. Canvassing houses or running for office lacks the heady, righteous buzz of facing down the police in Tahrir Square. But uness Egypt’s new generation are prepared to get stuck in themselves, it may be a long time before they get the kind of decent government they now deserve.