The trains are running again in Cairo, and Sara Labib is optimistic: “Now I can travel from Cairo to Alexandria to see my family.” Egypt has been at a standstill, she said, “especially with curfew. It’s very difficult to cope with.”
Since the latest round of unrest and government upheaval began in June, daily life for Egyptians—rich, poor, and in between—is a series of negotiations. The rail shutdown stalled over 1 million passengers a day, but the country’s interim government said trains posed security risks and halted service for over two months.
Egypt is the largest country in the Middle East, and 60 percent of its people are under age 25. Unemployment among youth aged 15-24 runs at 25 percent and higher. Rail service shutdowns and other upheaval only makes it worse. Sara Labib has a job but at 23 acutely feels the disadvantages of her age bracket.
Born in Alexandria, Sara spent high-school and college years studying in Europe. She just finished a master’s degree in economics and international law in Belgium. Despite the uncertainty and violence in Cairo, she returned to make it her home again this year.
Sara works as a law intern while lending her intellect to the important political developments in Egypt as part of a new nonprofit called Young Voices. She closely follows daily developments in the interim government’s faltering progress toward a new constitution and elections, using her “small platform,” she says, to speak up for Egypt’s youth. She is a faithful chronicler via her own blog (tabulasara.blogspot.com/), plus writes for U.S. and international think tanks and makes television appearances.
“To be honest this is a time where people are tired. People are tired of hoping,” she told me. But politics remains “the first thing we talk about” when she gets together with friends.
A generation of young men and women are coming of age in the Middle East’s post–Arab Spring turmoil. Crony political networks have managed to secure power across the region—even where revolution led to dramatic changes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. They are too slow to tap into their largest age demographic, their country’s young people.
Median age in Egypt is 24.8 years old, compared to 37.2 years in the United States. As Sara points out, “I am 23 and most government members are older than 60 years. They are the ones drafting the constitution I will live under.”
Too often the older leaders take Sara’s generation as the face of terrorism, the source of violence. While there is some truth to that—the Arab Spring began with a 26-year-old street vendor setting himself ablaze in Tunisia—millions more are like her: They have multiple degrees, speak multiple languages (Sara is fluent in Dutch, Arabic, and English), work hard, and stay current, all while navigating rail closures, street curfews, and food shortages. In short, they are powerhouses willing to broker present hardships toward better futures.
They also think differently than their elders. Sara appreciates the muscle of the internet and social media to transmit and shape public opinion. She’s connected via smartphones with 3G (even in Cairo) and Wi-Fi to a vast network of Cairo residents plus Egyptians overseas. She’s looking to a constitutional process for her future, not a crony system based on whom she knows.
You will find Sara Labibs not only in Cairo, but in Baghdad, Tripoli, Damascus, Kabul, and Tehran. They deserve attention, nurture, and a way into the political process. This is where international organizations, including faith-based groups and churches, have vital roles to play. Young Voices started last year to “empower young, eloquent, liberty-minded people,” said its Berlin-based director Fred Roeder. Sara is just one of its stars.
Coptic and evangelical churches, both in Egypt and abroad, function as more than centers for religious worship and study, Sara told me. Many, including Kasr el Dobara Church in Cairo just off Tahrir Square, serve the city’s youth all day long. It has sports facilities and provides meals every day. It and others offer job services and language classes.
Besides a good witness, these programs offer young Egyptians a bridge to older society and its gatekeepers. Nongovernmental organizations, as well as U.S. aid efforts, should focus on reviving the hope of young strivers like Sara.