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The Middle East's Generation Facebook

What will the Middle East look like 25 years from now? That was the assignment the World Policy Journal gave Mona El Tahawy for their 25th anniversary edition. Mona decided to have some fun and imagination. This is what she came up with, mixing real people in imaginary scenarios in 2033. Who knows? They might come true!

Here are excerpts from AlTahawy's blog:

It’s October 2033 and Shahinaz Abdel-Salam, 55, has just been appointed Egypt’s first female interior minister. She’s about to address the nation by live holofeed to explain why she’s accepted a post that as a young woman she’d always dreamed would be abolished because, in the Egypt where she grew up, interior minister was synonymous with “chief torturer.”

…. Her speech is short, but remarkable. In one of her first decisions as interior minister, she designates Lazoghli a national museum, including the dungeons, so that Egyptians would always remember the struggles of the past. Then, she appoints a poet as her deputy. Call me a romantic fool, she’d later say, but the interior minister should be a woman or a poet. But not all the romance in the world could salvage the post of information minister—also known as the “censorship minister”—so she was relieved the post had been abolished and replaced by a social networking minister, responsible for boosting the online communities that had become vital to Egypt’s civil society.

Shahinaz's father

stopped speaking to Shahi for a few years after she started blogging in 2005. At the time, she would tell any journalists who would listen that she’d started to blog so that she could call the then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak a dictator. Shahi’s father didn’t think it was appropriate for the daughter of a proud army man to be so disrespectful to the head of state who was a fellow graduate of the army corps. Mubarak was to be the last of Egypt’s leaders from a military background. Shahi had tried to explain to her father that she belonged to a generation that would change Egypt, but to his death her father remained skeptical. He never told her that he’d read her blog secretly and was especially proud of the role model she had become for other young people when she started blogging.

… But Shahi’s father couldn’t imagine how a bunch of kids could change the country using their computers.

ElTahawy continues her dream by forwarding to 2033:

Shahi’s boss, Prime Minister Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, 50, knew all about how computers could change not just a country but a movement, even the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization founded in Egypt in 1928 and of which both his great grandfather and grandfather were iconic leaders. Ibrahim had been a protégé of a Muslim Brotherhood editor who had impressed upon him and other young Brothers and Sisters the importance of the Internet to express themselves. In 2005, that editor, Khaled Hamza, had launched the Muslim Brotherhood’s first English-language website, called IkhwanWeb, aimed at getting the movement’s news and views out to the Western media.

… Ibrahim, developed a reputation for feminist sympathies when, as a board member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s English language website he wrote an op-ed in 2007 for a Jewish newspaper in New York in response to a secular Egyptian female writer’s complaint that while she supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s right to exist, she didn’t believe they would return the courtesy. Ibrahim had gone on the record as criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide for calling the women writer “naked” because she wasn’t wearing a headscarf when she’d gone to interview him. Ibrahim bolstered his feminist credentials when he went on to write a blog post criticizing the Brotherhood’s manifesto, which said that Islam allowed women to vote but not to become a leader of a country.

Mona does not forget to mention the role of Facebook for this generation of change agents:

Ibrahim and Shahinaz got to know each other through the social networking site Facebook, which, starting in 2008, began functioning as an online forum for young activists in Egypt. At a time when the Egyptian state was becoming increasingly out of touch with the needs and troubles of the average citizen and, more worrying, unable or unwilling to provide them with services they needed, the Facebook activists were becoming both the oxygen and blood of Egypt’s civil society.

On the future of President Mubarak's regime ElTahawy writes:

After he turned 80 in 2008, President Mubarak appeared in public less frequently, and soon it seemed as if every month brought a new disaster or crisis. The country teetered on the edge of a real revolution— and not a coup disguised as a revolution à la July 1952—fueled by the rage of the poor who were dying, fighting over bread and whose houses simply collapsed because of shoddy building standards or because of neglect. Facebook activists became the thin line between rage and sheer anarchy. They organized online fundraisers and encouraged their friends to go to poor neighborhoods and help clean up after disasters, such as the September 2008 rockslide that buried alive dozens as they slept in their homes in a shantytown on the outskirts of Cairo in. The activists also used Facebook to organize demonstrations and encourage each other to join nationwide strikes in support of workers protesting rising food prices and inflation.

This Facebook Generation soon became central to Egypt’s civil society, taking the reins from a Muslim Brotherhood, which having won in 2005 an unprecedented 88 seats in parliament becoming the largest opposition bloc, had lost touch with the ordinary Egyptians it had long claimed to champion. Instead, it had become obsessed with moral values and banning racy music videos. After Mubarak’s death in 2012, when his son Gamal took over, this Facebook generation—no longer mere children—began in many ways to function as a shadow government, able to mobilize and provide services that the Muslim Brotherhood had once been famous for.

Mona envisioned Gamal Mubarak's era to be an era of further strife:

Gamal struggled as crisis after another challenged his already tenuous legitimacy. He could not trigger the trickle down of economic growth that he used to boast about as son of the president and head honcho of a select group of uber-wealthy businessmen. As the Egyptian population continued to grow, so did its skepticism that a Mubarak could ever improve their lives.

Back to El-Houdaiby

In 2015, when he was just 32, Ibrahim and two other disillusioned young Muslim Brothers broke away from the movement and formed a new political party modeled after Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, otherwise known as the AKP.

… Soon after Gamal assumed the presidency, Ibrahim returned to Cairo from a job in Abu Dhabi, drawn back by a burning sense that he must provide an alternative that neither Mubarak Jr.nor the Muslim Brotherhood, led by a new—but just as authoritarian and out-of-touch—supreme guide, could offer Egypt. He started slow, hosting small meetings of like-minded fellow Muslim Brothers and Sisters whose blogs had identified them as frustrated with the Brotherhood’s rigid hierarchy.

… Ibrahim was already acknowledged as a leader-in-waiting by the time President Gamal Mubarak took the historic step in early 2033 of handing over power to a prime minister. Gamal, then 70, was tired of trying to prove he could govern. His heart was always in business, so he had made the mistake of thinking that his businessmen best friends could fix Egypt. Instead, they’d alienated the people with their lavish and corrupt ways. Gamal had inherited from his father an Egypt that was already teetering on the edge of social decay, its politics fueled by faded memories of glory. The 2008 global financial crisis hit the country particularly
hard. With every year of hardship, more neighborhoods—especially in Cairo— turned into “no-go zones” ruled by local thugs. Affluent Egyptians increasingly retreated into gated communities and, for its own protection, the Mubarak regime sealed off huge parts of downtown.

On India's leading role, ElTahawy dreams saying

Worried about Gamal’s increasing dependence on Brotherhood support, India, then holding the chair of the G-10’s revolving presidency, took the historic step in 2020 of pushing Egypt to open its political space. Almost overnight, a flurry of underground political parties gained licenses, allowing them to exist in the open. Ibrahim immediately began maneuvering to create his new party, Justice For All.

… Ibrahim’s party won the general elections, he seized the opportunity to deliver on his promise to surprise Egyptians with his choice of a cabinet. He was especially eager to prove his administration would not be beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood, but instead lay out a new vision of Egyptian politics: one that respected Islamic principles of social justice but did not use religion as a political weapon (thus avoiding the long-fought wrestling match between Gamal and the Muslim Brotherhood). In stead, he was determined to focus on rebuilding Egyptians’ crushed confidence by creating new jobs, stamping out corruption, and inviting deep-pocketed investors into the country. By giving ministerial portfolios to Shahinaz and seven other women, Ibrahim created Egypt’s first ever woman majority cabinet. It was a historic move that at once answered all the critics who continued to wonder if he meant it, all those years ago, when he criticized the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on women leaders.

Mona's dream gets better

Egypt’s first prime minister from an Islamist background had named a woman as his deputy and he put the entire Muslim world on notice. Egypt would revive its proud history of cultural and political leadership. What better way to shake the country awake than to place a woman as vice president? And what better way to show his break with the Brotherhood than to have a woman deputy who insisted that Egypt needed every man and woman working side by side to rebuild the country. Thankfully, his deputy had completed her graduate studies in Denmark and was well versed in Scandinavia’s success in supporting women. 

… and in 2033 he would set out to emulate Erdogan’s successes. On his second day in office, Ibrahim then put Europe on notice: Egypt would apply for European Union membership.

On the Saudi front Mona ElTahawy dreams of a female mufti

One of the first people to congratulate Ibrahim was Maha El-Faleh, who, in 2032, was appointed Saudi Arabia’s first female mufti. Maha and Ibrahim had met at a conference in Dubai in 2010 after an online acquaintance. He had lived in Abu Dhabi at the time, while she had traveled from Jeddah. Their friendship, however, had long been brewing: in 2007, a mutual friend had invited Maha to join a Facebook group Ibrahim had created in support of political prisoners.

As co-mufti, she shared her post with two men—one a Sunni and the other a Shiite. Their appointments coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of what is now recognized as a tragic turning point in Saudi Arabia’s relationship with its powerful clerics. In March 2002, 15 girls were burned to death in Mecca when officers of the morality police refused to let them out of their flaming school building and barred firefighters from rescuing them because the girls weren’t wearing headscarves. The ensuing outrage allowed then Crown Prince Abdullah to snatch girls’ education away from the clerics and to further promote his reform ideology.

Abdullah had become king when his brother Fahd died in 2005, but he became mired between liberals impatient for reform and conservatives who hoped it would never come, unable or unwilling to press decisive actions. Abdullah had often spoken of furthering women’s rights and introducing much-needed reforms into Saudi Arabia. Many took him seriously because unlike some of his brothers who had ruled before him, he wasn’t a playboy king but a serious and earnest man whose simple tastes appealed to Saudis proud of their Bedouin past.

Before his death in 2015, Abdullah had prepared legislation to allow women to drive, but more important, to codify a criminal code which would end the free-for-all of Saudi Arabia’s courts in which hard-line clerics who also served as judges passed verdicts based on their own interpretation of Islamic law. The nephew who assumed the throne after Abdullah was laid to rest had not been expected to be much of a reformer. He’d had a little too much fun during graduate school in the United States and maintained the family tradition of summer vacations on the topless beaches of the French and Spanish Rivieras. But before his uncle’s death, Faisal had dipped a few toes into the Generation Facebook pool.

He set up a Facebook profile (under an assumed name, of course) to read what his fellow Saudis were saying and was in awe of their inventiveness. Maha had come to his attention when, one slow evening, she’d posted as her Facebook status: “Maha wants to be liberated once and for all.” (The social networking site encouraged its members to describe how they feel in what were known as “status updates.”) Though Faisal didn’t know it at the time, he was soon to find it serendipitous that his coronation coincided with an event in Saudi history that had empowered the hard-line clerics.

… On the eve of his coronation, Abdullah’s nephew, Faisal, had a dream where the Prophet Mohammed placed his hand on his forehead and told him that he had the chance to revive Islam’s great message of social justice and gender equality. When he asked the Prophet how he could do that, the future king of Saudi Arabia was told to recall the year 1979. Puzzled at first that the Prophet hadn’t quoted verses from the Koran about the responsibility of leadership, Abdullah asked his friends to help him interpret the message. One of those friends, Ahmed al-Omran, a Shiite Muslim from the Eastern Province who had visited the United States in 2007 as part of a State Department visitor’s program, told the future king of a book about the siege of Mecca he’d bought during his visit. The book’s author maintained that the incident was the precursor to Al Qaeda’s murderous ways. Ahmed, a fervent blogger both in English and Arabic,
had reviewed the book online after he returned to Saudi Arabia. The book was the first he’d ever heard of the siege, as the event itself had been omitted from the Saudi history curriculum.

Relieved that someone had known what the prophet had tried to tell him, the new king of Saudi Arabia was determined to set the kingdom on a just course that would revive that message of social justice and gender equality which the prophet had emphasized.

… The oil had lasted longer than the naysayers had predicted, but by the time Faisal took over, the price of oil had plunged back to the low double-digits, which marked the beginning of the end of the Saudi welfare state. As the managerial posts dried up, Faisal encouraged young Saudis to train and apply for the junior jobs they had once eschewed as “beneath them.”

… In 2032, Faisal felt the country was ready and he asked Ahmed to become the first Shiite mufti and to recommend two others to share the post. Ahmed nominated Maha El-Faleh and Fouad al-Farhan, his contemporaries from Generation Facebook. Maha, Fouad, and Ahmed had stayed in contact as their careers progressed and as Saudi Arabia and the Middle East changed around—and because of—them.

Fouad, for his part, became quite a celebrity after he was detained for several months in 2008 for the crime of calling for the release of dissidents in Saudi Arabia. Both Ahmed and Maha had campaigned for his release on their respective blogs. Unlike some other bloggers, Fouad had used his real name online, making it easier for authorities to corral him. But friends maintained his blog in his absence and likeminded bloggers across the Arab world called for his release via a massive online petition. Protest banners were posted across the Internet.

At the end of her article Mona admitted that she is a dreamer

To misquote John Lennon, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one who imagines such a rosy future for Shahi, Ibrahim, and Maha—and the Middle East. Why? To quote one of my favorite George W. Bushisms, don’t “misunderestimate” Generation Facebook and its ability to change not just Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but the entire region.

… The Middle East today, in 2008, is full of young people—the majority of the region’s population is below the age of 30. Paradoxically, their nations’ rulers are all old, having for years fought off any potential alternative leaders, creating a political vacuum into which those young people of the region are increasingly stepping. The Internet, blogs, and social networking sites now give voices to those most marginalized in the Middle East today—young people and women.

It’s impossible to look ahead in the Middle East without stopping for a moment to appreciate the myriad connections that keep the region in touch and aware in ways unimaginable in 1978 when Shahi was born. Satellite television means one can watch, over and over, the aftermath of the tragic September Cairo rock slide. On blogs like Shahi’s “An Egyptian Woman,” young people write about such tragedies, posting pictures and eye-witness accounts that rival the best media reports in Egypt. And, true to form, a group of young activists organized a group on Facebook calling on their friends and supporters to go to the griefstricken shantytown to demonstrate in support of its bereaved inhabitants.

Generation Facebook is the godchild of two important developments that took off in tandem over the past three years in Egypt—an increasingly bold blogging movement and street activism. Both are among the few reasons for optimism in a country where most are pessimistic about the future.

… The recent Internet-inspired activism has flipped the script—the needs of the masses have sparked a wave of unprecedented activism among young Egyptians. Bloggers have been instrumental in the conviction of police officers for torture and in getting neglected stories into the headlines.

… I call myself a foolish optimist. I’m a child of the “Naksa,” as those of us born in 1967, the year of defeat by Israel, are called. So what, beyond a foolish dream, is left for us? I am confident that Generation Facebook is planting the seeds of an opposition movement that gives Egyptians, and by extension the whole region, an alternative to the state and the mosque. In 2033, I will be 66 years old. Nothing would make me happier than to see Shahi, Ibrahim, and Maha make my dream come true.

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