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Keeping the Tahrir spirit of inclusion, equality and non-violence alive

It may appear that the revolution of 2011 has come to a dead-end, but social activism in Egypt is a genie that is well and truly out of the bottle

Amid polarisation, the stifling of free expression and a security crackdown on dissenters of all stripes, some analysts have written off the Egyptian revolution of 2011 as a “wasted opportunity”.

More than four years after President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by mass protests, the goals of ''Bread, Freedom and Social Justice'' are still far away from being achieved. Poverty and corruption - two of the factors that generated mass discontent - are still rampant.

The massive financing ($20 billion) committed by Gulf allies to Egypt since the military takeover of the country in July 2013 and reforms introduced by President Sisi last July - including cuts in energy subsidies and increased taxes on some commodities - have yet to translate into improved living conditions for Egyptians.

A draconian protest law, in effect since November 2013, continues to undermine the right to peaceful assembly and free speech. Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and dozens of secular activists languish behind bars. The mass death sentences handed down to leaders of the ousted Islamist government and their loyalists are a manifestation of a politicised judiciary.

Revolutions take time to achieve their goals. History tells us that the years directly after the French Revolution were by far the most chaotic in French history. An ongoing insurgency in the Sinai, a surge in terror attacks targeting security personnel across the country, and an unprecedented wave of repression all signal it may be a while yet before the dust settles in Egypt.

Bright side of the revolution

Despite the dark clouds hanging over Egypt's future, there is a bright side to the Egyptian Revolution. People's perception of themselves have changed; in today's Egypt, citizens feel empowered. A new sense of confidence, positivity, determination and national pride has set in, replacing the old apathy and feelings of hopelessness that prevailed during the Mubarak era. Having succeeded in overthrowing two regimes within the short span of less than three years, people's self-esteem has been dramatically enhanced.

The failure of successive governments to address the wide range of problems plaguing Egypt has prompted citizens to take matters into their own hands. They are coming up with innovative ideas to tackle poverty, illiteracy, sexual harassment and other challenges head on.

Convinced they now have a stake in their country, many Egyptians are reclaiming their space in the public sphere. A culture of volunteerism - lacking in the Mubarak days - is beginning to take root. Youths in particular, are increasingly engaging in community service projects, putting the common good above their self-interest. A host of youth initiatives bear witness to increased civic participation in building the ''new Egypt'' and the continued use of social media to breathe life into the revolution.

In the last four years, a multitude of informal and volunteer organisations have sprung up. The members of these organisations are dedicating their time, energy and skills to the development of their communities. Much like the Popular Committees that were formed during the 2011 uprising to secure neighbourhoods against attacks by thugs and criminals, the new informal organisations were also created in response to the dire need for the services they provide. The majority of these initiatives target vulnerable and deprived groups, providing basic services like health, education and charity services to underprivileged segments of the population. Some provide capacity-building and training to enhance the potential of youths and support them into employment.

Union Media of Women

One such organisation is the ''Union of Media Women,'' established in March 2015. Frustrated with the restrictive media atmosphere and the increased risks facing journalists and women in particular, Saffa Abdel Hamid - herself a journalist - decided to establish a  network of women journalists that allows them to  exchange information, share  ideas and support each other. The idea for the network came after she attended a training workshop organised by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) in Cairo earlier this year.

The DW workshop focused on the challenges facing women journalists in Egypt, including discrimination and harassment at work and difficulties in reaching senior managerial positions. After the eye-opening workshop, Abdel Hamid decided it was important to pass on what she and the other participants had learnt to younger, less skilled journalists. She has since organised several training workshops and seminars, attended mostly by students and fresh graduates.

Abdel Hamid has also launched a mentoring programme under which veteran journalists offer  guidance and advice to younger inexperienced mentees. She plans to organise a series of workshops in various provinces outside Cairo ''where training opportunities are scarce and far between''.

The Facebook page she created is used by members of the group to share information and promote upcoming events. Among the group’s Facebook page's 5,600 followers are scores of male journalists who have expressed interest in the training.

Fighting sexual harassment

Meanwhile several voluntary organisations are working to raise awareness about the long-standing problem of sexual harassment. Their work has been effective in breaking the silence on what was previously a taboo issue and in piling pressure on the government to issue a law criminalising sexual harassment. The law was decreed by President Sisi in July 2014 following a series of brutal mob sexual attacks in Tahrir Square and a leaked video on YouTube showing a young woman being stripped by a frenzied mob. Contrary to expectations, the law has not been an effective deterrent in curbing harassment. A report released last week by the International Federation for Human Rights cites “a surge in sexual violence against women by security personnel since July 2013”.

Initiatives like Tahrir Bodyguards, I Saw Harassment and Operation Anti Sexual Harassment  were created in response to warnings from rights groups after the January 2011 uprising that the problem had reached ''epidemic proportions' in Egypt. At least 500 women were sexually assaulted by mobs in the period between 2011 and 2014, according to Human Rights Watch. Not only have the attacks increased in number, but they have also become more brutal in nature.

Using social media, the NGOs continue to mobilise the public against gender-based violence, encouraging more women to report harassment and assault incidents. The groups also monitor and document harassment cases and warn women about ''potentially dangerous'' neighbourhoods. They “also provide a safe platform for survivors of rape and sexual assaults to anonymously share their harrowing experiences”. Following the release of the recent IFHR report, the youth volunteers have vowed to step up her campaign.

''Perpetrators of sexual assault crimes must be held accountable,” insisted Azza Kamel, head of ACT, an NGO which last year held harassment awareness sessions for students on campus at Cairo University. She exhorted the government to take action to end the ''culture of impunity”.

Art initiative

Meanwhile ''Colouring the Grey City'' is an artistic endeavour aimed at building community engagement while beautifying Cairo. The brainchild of Marwa Nasser, a third-year student at Helwan University's Faculty of Arts, the initiative was launched in August 2014. Creating a Facebook page, Nasser invited fellow students from her faculty to join the project, which has brought both colour and cheer to some of Cairo's dull, grey public spaces.

Adopting the mantra ”If you want to see change, be the change,” in the course of the past year, Marwa and her artist friends have made several “art trips” to various working-class districts such as Ghamra and Kit Kat where they have painted colourful murals on public walls, lamp posts, bridges and staircases. The Facebook page bearing the same name as the campaign to date has 43,000 followers and new volunteers from outside the faculty are joining every day.

These and other similar initiatives are keeping the Tahrir spirit of inclusion, equality and non-violence alive. Not only have the lives of Egyptians been transformed as a result of the revolution, Egyptians themselves have changed, becoming active and effective citizens. Citizen participation and empowerment - two essential elements of sustainable development - give hope for a better tomorrow in a fairer, more equitable Egypt.

 - Shahira Amin is a Cairo-based award-winning independent journalist that has won several international awards including Spain's Julio Anguita Parrado Journalism Award in 2012 and the Global Thinkers Forum's Excellence in Promoting gender equity Award 2013.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Youth of Egypt with their faces painted with Egyptian flag, Tahrir Square, July 2013 (AFP)