In Egypt's election, youth seek their own voice

CAIRO Sat Nov 26, 2011 6:56am EST

A protester with his face painted the colours of the Egyptian flag looks on during a demonstration against the military council in Cairo's Tahrir square November 25, 2011. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

A protester with his face painted the colours of the Egyptian flag looks on during a demonstration against the military council in Cairo's Tahrir square November 25, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Just days ahead of Egypt's first election since Hosni Mubarak's overthrow, young activists organized their own vote for a civilian council to guard their revolution from military rulers they no longer trust to oversee a transition to democracy.

The youthful activists who were at the forefront of the uprising that toppled Mubarak in February are back in the streets, this time challenging the generals still in power.

The past of week of violence, in which 42 civilians were killed, has overshadowed the parliamentary election that begins on Monday and has forced the army to name a new prime minister.

Young protesters reject Kamal Ganzouri, 78, who served in that post under Mubarak in the 1990s, as a man of the past, and are pushing for his replacement by a leader of their choice -- hence the impromptu "election" with ballot papers and pamphlets in Cairo's Tahrir Square this week.

But young activists are also keen to make their voices heard in the parliamentary election, despite the formidable challenge of competing against established politicians and groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood -- who they feel are more interested in securing seats than in honoring the goals of the revolution.

They worry that the revolution they started was incomplete and they feel unrepresented by existing political parties. So hundreds of them are running in the election and thousands are mobilizing voters and watching out for electoral abuses.

"Tahrir Square and all squares across the country are regaining the revolution from the hands of parties that have traded it in for power and those who avoided coming back to the place where freedom was born," said one pamphlet distributed in Tahrir, where protesters have been camped out for a week.

Although a quarter of Egypt's 80 million people are aged between 18 and 29, youth candidates may not necessarily win seats in the election. They believe it is vital to compete -- and also to make their voices heard in the street.

TAHRIR'S PARLIAMENT

"The revolution is in the square!" thousands chanted in Tahrir, near a banner reading "Here lies the true parliament."

When the latest turmoil erupted, many of the youthful candidates suspended their campaigns and returned to Tahrir.

Plunging into politics involves a steep learning curve in a country where elections were routinely rigged for 30 years under Mubarak, whose now-dissolved National Democratic Party faced opposition only from a handful of officially approved parties, and sometimes from "independent" Muslim Brotherhood candidates.

"Whether we win or lose in this election, we'll keep going. We will evaluate our mistakes, learn from them and prepare for the next battle. There are still many to fight," said youth activist and parliamentary candidate Shahir George.

"The street will always be there," he added with a smile.

When young Egyptians rose up nearly a year ago, Mubarak was 82. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who leads the military council that replaced him, is 76. Kamal Ganzouri, the council's latest pick for prime minister, is 78.

That makes Egypt look like a country for old men, something a young generation of activists is determined to change.

"The new Egypt will be more youthful because youth have thrust themselves upon the political scene," Abdullah Helmy, a member of the newly formed Reform and Development Party, said.

"All political groups are now racing to strengthen themselves with those youth," said Helmy, who formed a union of activists in Tahrir during the anti-Mubarak uprising.

He now coordinates the party's election list, which he says includes more than 140 young candidates to attract voters looking for a clean break from the relics of the past.

CANDIDATE'S DREAM

Hanging up bright yellow posters with a 'Yes to Youth' slogan, 34-year-old candidate Yasser Ali, who never voted in the Mubarak era, says Egypt's future lies in the hands of its youth.

"It is a dream and a goal that an ordinary citizen who does not belong to any party may have a voice in parliament. Change won't happen through political calculations or agendas, it will only come through the spirit we had in the square," he said.

With a dozen other volunteers, Ali walks the streets of his district, handing out pamphlets and talking to voters in a last- minute appeal that he hopes will turn the odds in his favor.

"People genuinely want youth in parliament, they are sick of the old people, the ties and the suits. They want our young force to be unleashed," said Ali, who owns a small business.

But he is virtually unknown in a district where more than 100 other candidates are running. Egypt's new constituencies are bigger than before, making it hard for newcomers to break in. Most youth candidates simply don't have the money or resources.

In the past, many NDP and other candidates used money and favors to buy votes to secure parliamentary seats from which to further their business interests under a cloak of immunity.

Sitting in a coffee-house in his Cairo constituency, where he is running on an Egypt Freedom Party ticket, George said the challenge was to forge a new model of politics.

"We won't have a young parliament, but Egypt as a whole now has a more youthful face. The opportunities available for youth representation are very promising," George said.

"I want to be seen on the street not just as a rebel, but as a viable political alternative," he added. "Even if I don't win, it is important to participate to show that youth aren't just capable of toppling the regime, but have a vision for Egypt."

GRASSROOTS CAMPAIGNING

The uprising has spawned dozens of pressure groups eager to encourage civic participation, monitor voting or expose candidates seen as tainted by links to Mubarak's old party.

"Revolutionary action is not just about protesting, it is about developing pressure groups. This is the evolution we need," Seif Abou Zaid of "Ehmy Soutek" or "Protect your Vote."

His group, run by volunteers and active in more than 15 provinces, scores candidates on their commitment to reform, aiming to ensure that the next parliament will have a "pro-revolutionary" bloc, regardless of party affiliation.

Young activists are also trying to monitor voting and raise political awareness in a country where votes have often gone to the highest bidder and turnouts have traditionally been low.

They seek endorsements from respected public figures and use musical numbers or cartoon flyers to spread the message.

"The vision is to empower citizens. That is the real goal," said Abou Zaid, vowing to see the revolution through, whether via elections or other forms of political mobilization.

Farida Makar, one of his colleagues in Ehmy Soutek, said: "If elections ... don't go in the direction we wish, we want to make sure we have the ability to continue change from a grassroots level. No new power can close those avenues for change."

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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