While riding home in a taxi one night last week, a small truck packed with five or more young men in their early twenties was driving in front of us. The exuberant-looking group seemed to be cruising the city while enjoying dinner in the back of their truck.
All of a sudden, after they had finished with their meal, the truck’s occupants started throwing out their rubbish, which was a lot, aiming at random passers-by on both sides of the street while laughing hysterically in elation.
The old and decent-looking taxi driver became very angry and kept repeating “Safala!”(immorality) over and over. He decided to speed up to catch the truck, as if his intention was to beat them up and teach them a lesson.
All of the people, including the taxi driver, looked anxious and spoiling for a fight, with faces that seemed to express: “What the hell do you want?” The situation did not look good at all. Especially, knowing that if something were to go wrong, the furious old taxi driver and I might be badly beaten and the police were unlikely to show up.
With an accusatory tone, the driver literally said to them: “Isn’t it a shame that flower-like-youth would do that?” (this being a common Egyptian expression).
The immediate reaction of the young group was to perform an identical reverse in temper, switching from their previous state of vulgarity and aggression to absolute politeness mixed with a very apparent show of shame. They all looked toward the old man, some stood up, and all crossed their arms on their chests, repeating “We’re sorry, haj” (sir). The old man smiled and replied “God bless you,” then waved his hand to gesture goodbye, as they did too.
A situation that started out a very ugly one, took an interesting turn and ended up beautifully.
In my opinion, this little scene is a perfect example that could help us understand the reasons behind the spread of social diseases and misconduct, in particular when looking to understand the mentality of youth in the public sphere, after the January revolution.
Reflecting on the situation brought me to conclude that the contradictory behaviour of this sample group of young men was the result of a combination of factors. These factors are all related because, cumulatively, they have resulted in the fading reference of morals that society should provide to its younger generations, whatever these morals may be as they differ from one society to another.
Firstly, parents and older generations were, and still are, passive towards regimes so corrupt that the least that could be said about it was that they were immoral. Religious institutions were, and still are, divided between being supportive to this corrupt regime and being superficially conservative. Added to this, Egypt has for decades suffered from a low quality educational system that has no specific goals. On top of this the police system is largely absent, often apparently on purpose since its failure to suppress the revolution.
In addition, we can mention the relation that Egypt’s youth had with the revolution, which they initiated and led for a short while, and were soon after unfairly blamed for.
I recall that, right after ousting Mubarak and for around a couple of months, there was a very popular expression people would use to comment on whatever they considered to be a wrongdoing. They would say: “Shame on you, not after the revolution.”
The revolution in itself was the moral reference of the youth, compensating for the lack of all other traditional references. However, this connection was deliberately killed from the very beginning.
The state-run and anti-revolutionary media, funded by the corrupt business elite, have been used very skillfully by SCAF, remnants of Mubarak’s regime, the aforementioned business elite itself, and Islamist groups seeking political powers. Together they succeeded in demonising the youth and blaming them for whatever went wrong after the miraculous initial success of the revolution. Over and over we heard: “They [the youth] have no morals, they are destroying the country.” Unsurprisingly, many almost succumbed to this tide of negative portrayals to become unruly youth.
So let’s go back to our story and the moral of the wise old driver’s response to the messy young group. He simply represented what had been stripped away from them shortly after the revolution. Contrary of much of the older generation’s attitude toward the young, this man accorded them respect and a moral reference. In essence, because of his intervention, their vulgarity transformed into respect and a desire to take responsibility.