14 August 2013

Volunteer work prepares young Egyptians for revolution

The Arab Spring

A new movement of young Egyptian Muslim committed to voluntary social work has given many young people a stronger social and political consciousness, and the courage to change the country. This is the conclusion of anthropologist Sara Lei Sparre from the University of Copenhagen in her newly submitted PhD thesis. She followed a group of young Egyptians before and after the historic protests in the Tahrir Square in 2011 leading to the fall of President Mubarak.

During the 18 day long protests in the Tahrir Square, young Egyptians organised groups of volunteers delivering food and medicine to the protesters. Later on, they opened a field hospital in the square. The young people used the skills they learned from voluntary work in charity organisations. Thus, the protests were more organised than first thought.

"What the young normally did for poor Egyptians in their voluntary charity work, they were now doing for the protesters in the Tahrir Square. Had it not been for them, the rebellion would probably not have received the same support from the general public. The organisational experience and social consciousness gained by Egyptian youth during recent years proved to be an extremely effective method to drive forward the revolution which was surprisingly well organised", says anthropologist Sara Lei Sparre, who will be defending her PhD at the University of Copenhagen on 16 August.

The PhD thesis is a result of the researcher following young volunteers from the Egyptian youth charity organisation Resala which was founded in 1999 and is  one of Egypt’s oldest charity organisations. The young volunteers from Resala, who also played an important role during and after the rebellion, are moderate Muslim middle class men and women. They are typically well educated and spend their free time helping the poor.

Social work gave political self-confidence

One of the things which gave the courage to take part in the rebellion was the social commitment of the young to social charity work. After the rebellion, it became legitimate to speak of political topics which used to be taboo.

"The Tahrir moment became a catalyst for new political self-confidence and ability to act among the young. After the rebellion they suddenly had the courage to speak out politically as citizens with rights and obligations. They became aware that they could change things", says Sara Lei Sparre.

Even though the young people did not speak about politics in the organisation, they have long desired change, perhaps even more so than their parents. This has also contributed to creating their political consciousness.

"Contrary to their parents, the young generation has not to the same extent experienced neither the fear of terrorism from militant Islamic groups nor the State’s response in the eighties and nineties. This means they have not had the same need for stability. On the contrary many young people associate stability with stagnation and dark predictions for the future, both politically and economically. Their parents valued the time of political stability, when it created peace for their family life and careers. But many young people want change, and they had the courage to pursue it", emphasises Sara Lei Sparre

Religious duty to commit

For many young people the new political commitment is motivated by a religious duty to help through the act of charity work.

"The young volunteers believe they will get a place in heaven if they help the poor. Committing is a religious duty to them, say Sara Lei Sparre". She continues:

"When meeting the poor, the young experienced the need for change and they learnt that dialogue and corporation was the way to move forward – skills normally associated with being an active citizen in a democracy".

Sara Lei Sparre sees the movement of the young Egyptians as the expression of a larger movement spreading across the Arab countries.

"It is a regional tendency that religious communities encourage young Muslim citizens to be active in society by doing charity work. A movement which was started by the popular Islamic TV preacher Amr Khaled among others".

Anthropologist Sara Lei Sparre
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