CAIRO — Young Egyptian musician Ramy Essam boasts a distinction that few others can claim: a starring turn in a documentary film shortlisted for an Oscar nomination, as well as an arrest warrant hanging over his head.
Amid an unprecedented crackdown on protesters from across the political spectrum, Egypt’s seemingly unstoppable turmoil is taking a particularly heavy toll on the country’s youths.
There’s 19-year-old Mohamed Reda, shot dead last month during a demonstration at Cairo University. Or the 15-year-old high schooler whose teacher summoned police after noticing that the boy’s ruler was emblazoned with a banned Islamist symbol. Or the 14 young women from the Mediterranean city of Alexandria who were given 11-year prison terms for taking part in a peaceful protest, though the long sentences were later reduced after a public outcry.
Teenagers and twentysomethings have been at the forefront of successive waves of protest-driven tumult: the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, mass demonstrations aimed at the military administration that took over, followed by an uprising against the repressive and inept rule of elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, and street protests — now in effect banned — in opposition to the current authoritarian-minded government.
There is no monolithic youth movement here; the young protesters often hail from political camps with sharply competing agendas. But they have this in common: They are being targeted by one of the most sustained and determined campaigns against dissent in modern Egyptian history, surpassing even the police-state excesses of the Mubarak years.
Human rights groups have decried the harsh tactics employed by security forces against mainly unarmed demonstrators; an estimated 1,300 people have been killed since the military staged its coup five months ago. Tens of thousands are in jail.
The vast majority of the dead and imprisoned come from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that continues to demand the reinstatement of Morsi. More recently, though, authorities have taken aim at mainly secular protesters, drawn from civil society movements, who denounce recent authoritarian measures taken by the army-backed interim government.
In particular, they have mobilized against a new law banning street gatherings of more than 10 people without authorization. To those who fought and sacrificed to drive Mubarak from power, the idea of being deprived of the right to protest is an unbearable affront.
Musician Essam, 26, is a case in point. Stubble-faced and soulful, he shot to fame after writing and performing a song that became a touchstone of the Tahrir Square protest movement, “Leave,” which urged Mubarak to give up and go. Together with a few other young activists, his is one of the intertwining personal stories that propel “The Square,” director Jehane Noujaim’s acclaimed documentary that early this month was named a finalist for an Academy Award nomination.
The same week, Essam learned that there was a warrant out for his arrest. The prosecution told him days later that the warrant had been suspended but that his case was being left open, meaning it could be reactivated AT any time.
“I am most certainly going to prison soon — not just me, me and others like me,” he said. “Because we will not stop. I am not stopping. I will not stop what I do.”
Essam, like many activists, scoffs at the stiff requirements of the protest law. “It doesn’t make sense for me to go to the person I am protesting against to ask for a permit to protest against them,” he said.
Sometimes young activists find themselves in harm’s way when they try to speak out against injustices suffered by fellow protesters.
Reda, an engineering student, made the fateful decision on Nov. 28 to attend a march at Cairo University to protest the harsh sentences meted out to the female protesters in Alexandria. As police moved in, he was shot and killed.
Fellow students and university administrators blame police for his death. To their disbelief, authorities have turned the accusation back on them, insisting that Reda was shot by another protester. His death is now a rallying cry for student demonstrators across the country.
University campuses have become hot spots for unrest since the school year began in September. Until recently, college campuses were a kind of protected zone for letting off political steam. But last month, the government gave police permission to enter university grounds at their discretion. At other times, police have fired tear gas and birdshot from outside the gates. In the past week, Egyptian police have repeatedly used tear gas and high-pressure hoses to break up student marches.”
“If I come to classes early on any day, I see weapons in my face,” said student activist Ayman Essam. “Why?”
Not all young activists express complete solidarity with one another, even when their causes overlap. Protest leaders at Cairo University asked pro-Morsi students not to “hijack” their demonstrations by brandishing the yellow four-fingered symbol displayed by those who demand his reinstatement.
During the deadliest phase of the crackdown on Morsi’s supporters — the security forces’ violent breaking up of protest camps in mid-August, which left hundreds dead — secular liberals remained largely silent, unwilling to criticize the military out of gratitude that the widely despised Morsi had been removed from office.
But while the Islamists have enjoyed scant sympathy to date among the larger public, members of Alexandria’s 7 A.M. Club — so named for scheduling a protest before the start of school hours — have proved an exception. The 21 girls and women were put on trial last month for taking part in a pro-Morsi march, and the result shocked and dismayed many Egyptians.
The seven minors were sentenced to juvenile detention centers until they turn 18; the 14 women, all but one of them younger than 22, received the 11-year prison terms. Authorities accused them of having “stirred chaos … instilling fear” in bystanders.
The case drew wide attention, with front-page pictures of the white-veiled young defendants looking out anxiously from a courtroom cage. A week ago, after appeals for clemency by human rights groups and the public, an appeals court reduced their terms to one year, suspended.
But theirs was not the first case of lengthy prison terms meted out to young activists; in November, another court sentenced 12 male student protesters to 17 years behind bars.
As for musician Essam, he remains defiant. He is working on a new song, he said, critical of a recently completed draft constitution that gives expanded powers to the security forces. The constitution is subject to a nationwide referendum next year, and presidential and parliament elections are to take place as well.
Many activists are skeptical that the process will be genuinely democratic.
“When the elections start, I won’t leave them [the authorities] in peace,” Essam said. “When they do wrong, I will shame them. I will not be quiet in the face of what is happening in the country.”
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.