Cairo – No one, except the activists preparing it, saw the Egyptian revolution coming. And yet they might have gotten a pretty good idea of what was coming if they saw what happened in a summer camp for Arab children aged 12 to 15 in August 2010. They came to the camp, located in Ismaïlia, 150km from Cairo, to learn how to express themselves, and ended up taking over. Because of candy.
These 70 kids from eight countries (Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq) came in order to learn how to speak their mind in every possible medium – film, music, drawing, blogs, posters, to name a few. The camp expected poems, songs, or videos; but five days had barely passed before the kids were demanding sweets, which the organizers didn’t provide. Or didn’t allow (I forgot to ask).
Getting no response, the kids decided to organize. The most active ones led a protest, mobilizing the other campers to the sound of a drum, occupying the radio and choosing a representative to negotiate with the organizers.
“Even though we didn’t show it, we were delighted,” said Ranwa Yehia, director of ArabDigitalExpression.com. She was also surprised. Yehia has journalism in her blood: “it’s what I love, and what made me what I am today,” she told me in her apartment, located in the Zamalek neighborhood in Cairo’s center. “But I left in 2005 when I realized how bad traditional media is.”
Yehia and her husband, Ali Shaath, a computer scientist, decided to devote themselves to Arabic children’s digital expression.
The first group of campers met in summer of 2007. In 2009, they protested – already, against the lack of candy and soda – but didn’t take action. In 2010, on the other hand, they took control inside the camp. Even more astonishing is the fact that, when a group of “veterans” from the previous year’s protest wanted to arbitrarily resurrect it, the majority didn’t listen.”There’s no consensus,” they told them. “Make pamphlets. Convince us.”
They had actually posted their rules at their arrival:”We except nothing less than absolute freedom.” In every case, Yehia said., “their slogans are often inspired from whatever country they come from.”
The secret of this astounding success lies in part in three rules that Yehia and Shaath hold rigorously in place: the amount of boys and girls must be equal; social differences are reduced to a minimum (everyone wears the same shirt, at least at the beginning); and above all else, “when they realize that we are treating them as equals it is amazingly empowering for them.”
Incredibly, the kids of 2010 even tweeted their revolt to the rest of the world … which didn’t notice. But for Yehia and Shaath, there is no doubt: “After January 25th (the date of the first major anti-Mubarak protests that led to his fall on February 11th), we understood – after the fact – that the 2010 revolt was a symbolic forerunner.”
“In 2009, they demanded. In 2010, they took what they considered to be their right. They stopped believing that things change themselves. It’s very similar to what happened in the Arab world this year.”