Election in egypt: freedom gets under your skin

It is often only a few years that separate Tahrir activists from adolescents. But the differences between them are serious.

Some 55 million Egyptians can vote for a parliament for the first time since 2012. Photo: dpa

Maybe they should kill all the old people. Kareem Shaheen says this sentence after talking himself into a rage. He is sitting with his friends in a pub called Freedom. Freedom is a desolate drinking establishment near Tahrir Square. The Arabic word for freedom, horreya, was chanted by protesters on the streets of the Old City during the 2011 revolution.

Now those who were too young to be there then sit in the pub called horreya. Boys and girls drink their beer together and laugh. The old drinkers sit scattered among them, looking rather bashfully at their glasses. It obviously still grieves them that their vice is haram, a sin.

Kareem Shaheen is something of a star of Cairo’s young tattoo scene. Over the past few years, he has transformed his body into a work of art. Together with an Italian colleague, he runs a studio in the Zamalek district. Shaheen is exhausted. In the days before, he had set up the first tattoo convention in Cairo. He had expected a bigger crowd. There are now too many cheap street studios, he grumbles, which is the downside of the hype.

The poorer ones would let the ink under the skin be stung by neighbors with accordingly unsightly results. In his eyes a sacrilege. Wearing a tattoo is a philosophy. "It’s something beautiful that’s always with you, with all the ugliness around us. It shows that at least you’re wearing your damn right on your skin."

The Tattoo Studio

When the revolution broke out in 2011, Kareem Shaheen was already wearing a peace sign on his right upper arm. His mother thought it was beautiful, but haram. Today, her son makes a living from un-Islamic art, and his mother no longer comments on it. Maybe because her son hardly talks to her anymore, either. "We have two different cultures in Egypt," Shaheen says. "The old ones don’t get it. The best thing would be for them to die as soon as possible."

Is he going to vote? "It’s none of my business. We don’t have any rights here. I don’t belong to Egypt anyway," says the young man who named his tattoo studio Nowhereland – no man’s land.

Young partygoer

"Our parents drove the country to the wall".

Kareem Shaheen expresses in clear words what even the Egyptian press, which has the same direction, has already noticed. The daily newspaper al- Ahram complained that only the old would go to the polls. According to official figures, the turnout in the first round of voting was just under 27 percent of those eligible to vote. The average age of Egyptians is just under 25.

The travel guides for Cairo will have to be rewritten. Whereas it used to be the rule not to show affection for the opposite sex in public, today you can see boys and girls holding hands. Or you can see women sitting alone in a coffee house smoking hookah. While in 2011 even revolutionary women wore headscarves, today it is fashionable to take them off.

Unthinkable a few years ago, it now even happens that young people of both sexes share an apartment. It is not, as it once was, only the young rich who think they do not have to live by the unwritten laws. The children from the middle and lower middle classes no longer ask whether something is appropriate or not. They study at state universities and have no prospect of a job. The salary is not enough to start a family anyway. Many dream of emigrating.

"Why should we let our parents tell us anything?" asks a 21-year-old at a party. "They put us in this situation and drove the country to the wall," he says. Needless to say, he won’t be voting. "This has nothing to do with us."

The black bloc

Egypt is electing a parliament for the first time since 2012. 55 million Egyptians can cast their votes in the second round of elections by early December. Egypt has been governed without a House of Representatives since 2012. At that time, the Constitutional Court had ordered the dissolution of the parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. It was banned in 2013 and is now not allowed to run in the elections. The elections had been postponed several times.

Ibrahim Daoud still wears his hair the way he used to. He grew his wild mane back after the guards in prison shaved his head. On his lapel, the 24-year-old wears a button. It shows the face of a friend who was hanged from a lamppost under the presidency of Muslim Brother Mohammed Mursi.

In 2013, Daoud belonged to the so-called black anarchist bloc, which also wanted to defend Tahrir Square with violence: against the police and the Muslim Brotherhood. Sometimes they paralyzed the metro, sometimes they beat up Islamists, then again they scaled the buildings around Tahrir Square like the incarnation of Spiderman, where they raised the black flag with the white anarchy sign. Today, Ibrahim Daoud laughs about the old days. "We turned the whole country against us." The violence was wrong, he says. "I grew up in prison."

And lonelier. Numerous old friends are dead, in prison, abroad – or they are no longer friends. After his imprisonment, Ibrahim Daoud learned that he had been betrayed by people in the group. He knows stories of men who found out that their wives betrayed them to the secret service.

He chooses his friends carefully these days, he explains in a coffee shop in Cairo’s Old City. Daoud suspects that he is being monitored, which is why this is not his real name. Wearing a button is the only rebellious thing he does. He wants to finish his engineering degree in 2016 and get married.

He met one of his new friends at university. He is only four years younger than Daoud, and yet there is a deep rift between him and the former anarchist. The friend has no interest in the revolution and sits down at Daoud’s table. "You would have been better off using a condom," he says, comparing the fruit of revolutionary toil to a wayward child. Daoud takes it in stride.

"I can trust him," he says. And they would think alike about many things – except politics. While Daoud smokes and rants about the mistakes of revolutionaries, the friend pulls out a pad and starts drawing. His way of staying polite. "True freedom is in ourselves, after all," he says, adding with a grin, "I believe no more than God."

Intelligence listens in

A ticking bomb is Egyptian youth, Mohammed Mohsen moans. "When it explodes, the young will tear everything down, not knowing what will take the place of the old." The former Tahrir activist, 27, suit and engagement ring, works as a mechanical engineer in an oil company. He still meets regularly with like-minded people. If they were sitting in a sidewalk cafe, the secret service could be sipping tea at the next table. That’s why Mohsen doesn’t reveal his real name either. "I am afraid of fear," he says. He forbids himself the thought of arrest and torture. There is no longer a revolutionary underground in Egypt anyway.

Mohsen doesn’t want to hear about a failure of the revolutionaries in 2013 and afterwards. There are many points of criticism: They marched haphazardly in 2011, fought the freely elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 instead of recognizing that the army was the enemy, and then retreated in the face of its repression. Arguments Mohsen refuses to accept. "We would have risked war," he says. "We have to wait" – wait until President al-Sisi’s regime collapses.

Is the regime at an end?

Mohsen believes that will happen soon. He interprets the signs: the helpless reactions to the plane crash over Sinai, the collapse of the infrastructure in Alexandria: "The regime stands almost naked." Low voter turnout also continues to deprive the regime of legitimacy. And Egypt’s large financial deficit is – still – being made up by Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps Mohammed Mohsen is fantasizing about an approaching third revolution. In one breath he speaks of the overthrow and then again expresses his fear of the youth, who no longer believe in anything, not even the revolution. He hopes that the Tahrir generation can succeed in reuniting the old and the very young. The elders have also changed as a result of the revolution, he says, otherwise the young wouldn’t be able to revolt like this. "Many feel guilty that they can’t offer their children anything other than this life. My father was against the revolution. Now he rails against the government every day."

Many Egyptians have used their enforced abstinence from politics to acquire knowledge. "Today, when I open Facebook, people are discussing Einstein’s theory of relativity. That wouldn’t have happened before the revolution." He also believes that no one in Egypt can put the revolutionary genie back in the bottle. Mohsen has kept hope among all the hopeless.

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