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Why Egypt erupted

By Kelli Arena, Special to CNN
  • Kelli Arena says youth of Egypt were denied economic, social, political opportunities
  • She says the November election added to sense of repression
  • Youth groups, other protesters relied on social networks to organize, she says
  • Arena: The future of a generation is riding on the outcome of showdown

Editor's note: Kelli Arena, a former CNN correspondent, has worked as a communications strategist with youth groups and political and social organizations in Egypt.

(CNN) -- Stunned by the events in Egypt? I'm not. Anyone who has spent any time there in the past few years could see this coming. Egyptian youth have been in a state of paralysis. They can't find jobs, can't afford to get married, and have little hope for real change.

Anyone under 30 has lived under emergency law their entire life. In plain English, it means more powers for the police, fewer constitutional rights, and a whole lot of censorship. Thousands of people have been detained, and there are an untold number of political prisoners.

I have been working with youth, civil society and political organizations in Egypt over the past year. The frustration they felt was palpable. But this past fall the dynamic changed.

For the first time, many of them were going to vote. They had braved going to the police stations for voter cards, many bringing their parents with them in case they were harassed or detained. They had organized Facebook campaigns to rally Egyptian youth to get involved in the political process. A quota had been passed to seat more women in parliament. There was talk of a better future.

It seems the Egyptian government sensed it, too. A friend of mine who was also working with youth groups was detained in October as he arrived in Cairo. A consultant for Emerson Human Capital, Mark Webster has worked in Egypt for years without incident. Webster had been doing communication work with youth groups using tools such as Facebook and YouTube.

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But with the November election approaching, he was detained for 15 hours at the Cairo airport. His request to call the U.S. embassy was denied. He was asked if he knew Hillary Clinton and if Human Capital had anything to do with human rights. As Webster put it, "this surely was odd behavior for an American ally in the region, but not odd behavior for a dictatorship."

November came. The Egyptian government did not allow outside monitors to observe the elections. There were reports of rampant fraud and abuse. Some young people I had worked with sent me messages complaining that polling places had been closed early. Some were not even let in to vote. Many female candidates were not given party support or funding.

It was a devastating blow to those young Egyptians who had worked so hard to try to initiate change. It was hard to be encouraging. That is, until we saw what happened in Tunisia.

I got a message the night before the protests from a young woman I had trained in Cairo. She wanted me to know that thousands of youth were going to demonstrate to fight corruption. She warned that police violence was expected and wanted me to spread the news to support her in her fight for freedom.

The news spread like wildfire over the huge social networks those groups had built over the years. Thousands marched.

But their only plan was to unseat President Hosni Mubarak. It didn't take long for other voices to co-opt their message. Mubarak took his time responding, letting protest fatigue set in. Lines of communication were shut down. Mubarak did not step down.

My heart broke when I saw the violence erupt in the streets. The young people who are in touch with me say many of those "pro-Mubarak" supporters were paid thugs, some flashing department of the interior badges. Others report that Egyptian state television is broadcasting that Israeli agents and the media are behind the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Journalists were hunted as they continued to shine a light on what is going on there.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the future of a whole generation is riding on the outcome of this showdown.

Stunned by the news out of Egypt? I'm not.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kelli Arena.

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