Class Background of Egyptian Youth Activists

Middle Class

Many Jan25 protesters were middle class young people who were informed by Facebook pages, as well as satellite TV news. Al Jazeera satellite TV, begun in 1996 by Qatar’s royal family, became the most viewed channel in the Arab region and wasn’t afraid to criticize Arab leaders. It helped publicize the Jan25 event, as did CNN, BCC and Egyptian channels ONTV and Dream Satellite TV. In her description of the revolution, Wendell Steavenson’s Circling the Square: Stories from the Egyptian Revolution (2015) includes a slum youth with a homemade gun and a variety of backgrounds, not just middle class.

The Princeton study reported both revolutions were supported disproportionately by the educated middle class and by males (76.5% of the demonstrators in Egypt and 79% in Tunisia). In Egypt the participants were more likely to be middle-aged, middle class, professional, and religious, but the millions of protesters obviously included a variety of people. In Tunisia the rebels were younger (likely to be students), more secular and from more diverse class backgrounds. Regarding youth, the Princeton co-authors state that the group aged 25 to 39 were a bigger share of the population in countries where uprisings occurred and they suffered from the high unemployment rate. The authors suggest that these ingredients for revolution can be applied to other countries in the future. Many developing and emerging countries sit on these powder kegs of rising expectations, youth bulge and economic stagnation.

Youth activist Jawad Nabulsi was raised in upper-class family in Cairo. He worked with NGOs in Upper Egypt where his sense of justice was outraged by the lack of water and electricity in houses, like the Stone Age.[i] He thought Egypt’s problems were too enormous to tackle until he read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Galdwell and realized it wasn’t necessary to change everyone and started education programs for Cairo’s slum children. In Tahrir Square he saw most people were not like him–not educated and some were disruptive.[ii] Women and children were in the square and he said the revolution couldn’t have happened without women. On the other end of the social spectrum, from a working class neighborhood, activist Ahmed Hassan said in documentary The Square that he started working at age eight. He paid his school tuition by selling lemons on the street, without dignity or hope for a better future until the people got rid of Mubarak. He said that as long as there is a camera the revolution will continue. Other youth activists interviewed in The Square documentary said politics is different from revolution as it requires compromise, but “We don’t know how to compromise,” said actor Khalid Abdalla and singer Ramy Essam.

The Princeton study found that although the outcome of the uprisings was free elections, the primary motivation for rebels—including youth–in both countries was economic grievances, and to a lesser extent anger about corruption, rather than a desire for democracy. In Egypt, the second greatest motivation was opposition to Mubarak’s son Gamal as heir to the throne. He and his brother Alaa were billionaires who received bribes from recently privatized businesses. Being unemployed wasn’t a significant predictor of participation in either country and the poorest people had the lowest rate of participation. For the minority of rebels who prioritized democracy as their main goal, in Egypt they were likely to have participated in civil society associations, while in Tunisia they had higher levels of income. Few in either country wanted an Islamic regime, but the participants were not less religious than non-activists in the sample.

Despite young people’s beliefs that they made the revolution, a Harvard scholar agreed with the three Princeton scholars that increasing support for democracy by the middle class was the main force behind the revolution.[iii] Ishac Diwan based his conclusion on the 2000 and 2008 World Value Surveys that showed “little inter-generational differentiation” in Egypt by 2008. Support for democracy jumped from 24% to 52% over the survey period. He believed that class has more impact than other explanations for increasing support for democracy and the Arab Spring, more influential than modernization with its secular rational values, or the youth bulge, or splits within the governing coalition as when the army supported the uprising, or political Islam, or conflict between the rich and the poor over resources with the latter in favor of democracy.

Diwan argued that the middle class was motivated to abandon support for the regime by the rise in unemployment among skilled workers and frustration over economic inequality. He concluded, “While the movement towards democratization was initiated by the youth, it spread among the poor and especially the middle class by 2008,” partly due to the MB’s support of democracy in the 2005 elections. Lower middle-class factory workers were active in Alexandria and other provincial cities, joining in strikes four days before Mubarak resigned. The poorest slum dwellers in Cairo weren’t active in the revolt, even though they comprise over a quarter of the population in the city, nor were the rural peasants. Dillon, an American student who visited a slum called Cairo’s Garbage City, Manshiyat Naser, reported on his blog, “Families live in, on, and under the garbage. It is raw, it is putrid, it is alive with pests, and noxious fumes burn your nostrils and eyes. Many will never see the rest of Cairo, as they have no means or reason to leave. Their lives exist within the context of trash.” Many contacted hepatitis C from handling garbage with bare hands. Hence, they weren’t involved in the revolution.

Two other academics emphasize the impact of expansion of education and rising middle-class expectations combined with job scarcity.[iv] This combination creates discontent, plus an unresponsive autocratic government, equals the Arab Spring. Educated people are more likely to be politically active. A poll conducted in Egypt in April 2011 asked participants in the protests what motivated them—64% cited “low living standards/lack of jobs,” while only 19% mentioned desire for democracy.

This seems to conflict with Diwan’s emphasis on class and desire for democracy although the middle class is more likely to be educated. When I asked him about this, he emailed, “My results do not contradicts theirs – I find that democracy is a means to an end, and that most people who shifted from support for ‘order’ in 2000 to support for democracy in 2008 have done so because of their grievances.” Over a year after the revolution, despite economic problems, two in three Egyptians thought democracy is the best form of government.[v] Almost the same percentage had favorable views of very different organizations–the April 6 Movement (68%), the MB (70%), and the military SCAF (63%). Dalia Mogahed, a Gallup pollster of Arabic speakers, said in a TED talk that the deep longing for freedom was the main impetus for the revolution, while we’ve seen other emphasize economic problems. When she polled in 2001 to find out what Arabs most admired about the West, 88% of Egyptians said democracy. Perhaps it’s not either/or but both a desire for freedom and jobs.




In 2016, the Ministry of Religious Endowments told preachers to warn that demonstrations on the anniversary of Jan25 would be a crime that would lead to destruction. A young woman, age 20, commented “Already there is no democracy, and now they are telling us where to pray. The government is pressuring the youth, and it’s going to blow up in their faces.” [vi] Police searched more than 5,000 homes in central Cairo to prevent demonstrations on Jan25 and arrested Facebook page administrators and raided homes to search Facebook accounts. Tens of thousands of activists, journalists, and other political people were already in jail—many of them tortured including teenagers, evidence of repression even worse than under Mubarak and Nasser. When he was 18, Mahmoud Hussein was detained by police on Jan25, 2014, for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Nation Without Torture” after attending a demonstration against military rule. He was freed after nearly 800 days behind bars during which time he was frequently tortured. Someone tweeted, “To understand how bad things are in #Egypt: we’re celebrating news that a kid has been released from jail after [two years] for wearing a t-shirt.”

Despite the police presence with tear gas, demonstrations against the government were held in Cairo and Alexandria on Jan25 in 2016. Newspapers started to cover the disappearances and TV shows give voice to people looking for missing relatives. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms documented 340 cases of forced disappearances from August to November 2015, including 11 children.[vii] Activist Abdel Rahman Mansour predicted, “I think the collective psyche of the Egyptian people is waiting for a moment, an opportunity” to rebel again.[viii] He saw the low turnout in parliamentary elections as a “silent protest.” Professor Mohamad Elmasry predicted, “Another Arab Spring is coming to Egypt,” which became a recruiting ground for ISIL. He reported that after the 2013 military takeover, more than 40,000 people were arrested including reporters and activists, some tortured, and more than 2,500 people killed.[ix]


[i] Bel Trew, “Jawas Nabulsi: Egypt’s Urban Activist,” Middle East Institute, March 18, 2014.

[ii] Anya Schiffrin and Eamon Kircher-Allen. From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices From the Global Spring. The New Press, 2012, p. 33.

[iii] Ishac Diwan, “Age or Class? Leading Opinions in the Wake of Egypt’s 2011 Popular Uprisings,” Youth Policy, December 2012.

[iv] Filipe Campante and Davin Chor, “Why was the Arab World Poised for Revolution?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring 2012, pp. 167-188.

[v] “Egyptians Remain Optimistic, Embrace Democracy and Religion in Political Life,” Pew Global Attitudes Project, May 8, 2012.

[vi] Declan Walsh, “Egypt’s President Turns to Religion to Bolster His Authority,” New York Times, January 9, 2016.

[vii] Sophia Jones, “Egypt’s Young “Anti-Torture T-Shirt” Detainee Finally Free After Nearly 800 Days Behind Bars,” Huffington Post, March 25, 2016.

[viii] Mohammad Elmasry, “Another Arab Spring is Coming to Egypt,” Common Dreams, January 25, 2016.

[ix] Mohamad Elmasry, “Another Arab Spring is Coming to Egypt,” Common Dreams, January 25, 2016.


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