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Hanging with Egypt's tiger mom

Egypt, April 9, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Tara Noronha/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Farida and Amal. Photo: Tara Noronha/Mercy Corps

Since arriving in Cairo three weeks ago as a member of Mercy Corps' Egypt assessment team, I have had the opportunity to meet and befriend many of those who participated in Egypt’s recent revolution. In order to fully understand the needs of young people in the “new Egypt,” Mercy Corps is studying the factors that motivated youth across the country to unite in quest of political and economic reform.

But how would one prepare for a meeting with one of those behind Egypt’s stunning movement? And who would you imagine to be one of the driving forces that toppled an oppressive 30-year-old regime, with the entire world watching?

In a buzzing café in downtown Cairo, the answer arrives to meet me in an unlikely package.

Amal Sharaf is a pint-sized 36-year-old with soft, gentle eyes and a thoughtful smile. She greets me warmly, as if we are old friends, and introduces me to her sidekick, daughter Farida. As we get settled in to steaming cups of Arabic coffee and chai koshry, I look across the table and wonder…was this tiny lady really one of the initial drivers of one of the most powerful movements in the region's history?

In 2008, Amal — a former English teacher — decided that she needed to take action against rampant corruption. Via Facebook, she and a handful of youth activists organized protests against the country’s exorbitant food and fuel prices, as well as police brutality. Although Amal survived the protest day unharmed, one of her friends was arrested by police and subsequently beaten and tortured for 16 days. Upon his release, the April 6 Youth Movement was born, with Amal as its lone female founder.

Through campaigns on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the group soon amassed tens of thousands of young followers across Egypt and beyond, advocating for increased economic opportunities for youth, free speech, as well as the promotion of ethical business practices. Explains Amal, "The April 6 Youth Movement never intended to seek authority. We seek democracy."

In December 2010, inspired by the events in Tunisia, Amal and a group of youth activists (who eventually formed the Youth Coalition of the Revolution) discussed holding a "sit-in" demonstration against the government on January 25, 2011, in Cairo's Tahrir Square. "We were receiving energy from Tunisia and had to act," Amal says.

And well, the rest is history. Literally.

Although petite, Amal is tough and resolute. She is both a creator and survivor of the youth movement that’s changed Egypt — overcoming abduction threats, snipers, teargas, beatings, and countless brutal advances by pro-Mubarak forces. On February 3, at the height of the revolution, anti-protestors raided the human rights center where Amal was seeking refuge each night to remain safe from kidnapping threats. Although many of her friends were injured, Amal believes that it was Farida's presence and their evident bond which spared her from a much worse fate ultimately saving her life.

"I'm the real 'Tiger Mom,'" says Amal softly, as she gazes over to Farida who has happily perched herself next to me, humming as she draws tiny hearts and flowers in my notebook.

Farida, Amal's daughter, is perhaps one of Egypt's littlest revolutionaries and is in many ways a mini-version of her mother: a strong, outspoken and passionate Egyptian woman. Bright-eyed Farida is an ever-constant presence at her mother's side.

What was Tahrir Square like on February 11, the day when Mubarak relinquished power after three decades?

"Sooooo good! I was so happy!" Farida squeals, taking my hand.

"It really was like a dream," says Amal. "I went to Tahrir and just couldn't breathe, couldn't believe it had really happened."

Amal continues thoughtfully, "But we still haven't fully succeeded; we still have a lot to do. We need to make people aware of their rights. Our people, especially our youth, are still economically insecure. Our education systems need repair. We're still not clean from the dirt of the past 30 years."

So what is Amal's hope for the new Egypt? And for her daughter?

"I want people everywhere in Egypt to be aware of their rights. I want Farida to be aware of her rights. And have the ability to choose the job she wants."

Amal shares these thoughts with Farida in Arabic, who immediately leaps out of her chair to make an excited proclamation.

Amal giggles. "She is telling you that she is going to go into politics one day." Farida, eyes beaming, is nodding her head enthusiastically. I return her smile confidently, knowing that as a result of her mother's determination, Farida now has new opportunities to determine her own path in a new Egypt.

Egypt is not the easiest of places for young women. More than 70 percent of young women have experienced sexual harassment and over 80 percent of both young males and females believe that men should have priority over women in the labor market. Despite these challenges, Amal and her daughter have emerged as strong, female leaders. Although small in physical stature, Amal's enormous determination and unbridled commitment to collective action led to a movement which ultimately altered the course of history for 80 million Egyptians.

And, although the real work for shaping the new Egypt begins now, I have no doubts that the Tiger Mom and her daughter will persevere in their quest to improve their country, continuing to make history.

As for me, I am humbled to have had the opportunity to meet two of Egypt's most dynamic female change-makers. A few hours after our coffee date, still buzzing with the excitement of meeting one of the original youth revolutionaries, I receive a text message from Egypt's tough-as-nails Tiger Mom: "Thank you, darling. A pleasure. And Farida adores you." I'm also quite honored to have two new friends.