Why Elections in Egypt Matter to You

True political engagement is not yet a thing of the past.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

It’s an election year, and two candidates are polarizing the voter base. One candidate represents an incumbent administration whose solutions have been lackluster at best and oppressive at worst; the other is a symbol of religious conservatism who has already indicated he will bring his religious views to bear on his policies. Both have completely different takes on how to lead a languishing employment rate and, if elected, will apply different strategies to foreign policy issues, not least of which is an escalating military crisis between Israel and one of many Arab (or Persian) nations on the roulette wheel of possible enemies within missile range.

In America, despite these grim prospects, voters will turn out in unimpressive numbers and peacefully select the best of two unimpressive options. 

But this isn’t America. This is Egypt, where people have been protesting almost non-stop since last spring. 

Egypt is a nation that for the first few millennia of its history was ruled by pharaohs and kings but for the last year and a half has been ruled by the military—and for 34 years before that had been ruled by the same man, Hosni Mubarak, a Western-backed secular despot.

Ever since protestors ousted Mubarak last spring, Egypt has been slowly progressing toward democratic elections, and on May 23 and 24, Egyptian voters went to the polls to participate in their first democratic election in the history of the nation. The two top candidates, Mohammed Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq, will be featured in a run-off election later this month, an outcome that has inspired more protests. Mursi represents a threat of state-backed sharia law, and voting for Ahmed Shafiq, former prime minister of the Mubarak regime—denounced as a “felool,” an Arabic term that means something like “more of the same”—is no more welcome than his predecessor was.

But just how relevant is international politics to young American Christians? 

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, describes Millennials—generally considered to be young adults born in between 1981 and 2001—as disengaged. He points out that while young voter engagement in America has gone up in the last few years, the number of young adults actually showing up to vote is still unimpressive. “The people who elected the last president,” he says, “were not primarily those under 30—they’re still the least likely to vote of all age segments.”

With political interest so predictably low that it begs to be a punchline, how can young Christians possibly be expected to engage with a political process half a world away, no matter how important? The problem, says Kinnaman, is that Millennials are distracted.

“This generation knows more about more things, but in less relevant ways. It’s a case of a mile-wide-but-an-inch-deep," he says. Millennials have the ability to be globally aware but often have only a microcosmic sense of where some of these issues are played out. For example, they’ll have a passion to build wells in Africa, but past that, Millennials feel stuck—what else can they really do? Before too long, the next social issue comes barreling along, borne on 140 characters of a status update.

Social media, of course, is one of the building blocks of the Millennial ethos—a way to legitimize information. It’s the perfect medium for a generation that believes authority almost by definition cannot be trusted, that sniffs out ulterior motives and self-interest in every headline and, at the end of the day, just doesn’t believe that much can be done. This is a generation that on the one hand has a bleeding heart for social issues, yet on the other hand is enriching weapons-grade cynicism.

Of course, skepticism has its positives, but Kinnaman’s concern is that where Millennials eschew certain influences, they are extremely vulnerable to others. “Programs like the The Colbert Report or [The Daily Show with] Jon Stewart are just info-escapism," Kinnaman contends. "You’re being informed, but you can totally disengage because, after all, what can we really do about that? We see the problem, but we’re too amused to do anything about it.”

If there is an encouraging trend, it's this: Christian young adults tend to be more globally aware than their non-Christian counter parts. “The Church is the original social network,” Kinnaman says. “We’re organized around what we’re interested and passionate about: Jesus. It helps us learn about the world and other parts of the world.” 

Kinnaman recalls talking with a few Millennials who were extremely engaged with the events surrounding the Arab Spring because some of their friends were missionaries in Cairo. “They were deeply concerned about the danger [their friends] were facing and how the Gospel would go forth," he says. "They were experiencing the event through the lens of their peers.”

He easily could have been talking about Fady Gergis, a young Christian born in Cairo. He was working at a missions base in the United States during the initial phases of the Arab Spring. “I talked with my friends on the phone during the protests,” Gergis says. “They were locked up in their houses and had to protect their buildings with knives and sticks. I would be on the phone with my friends and there would be shootings—outside you could hear machine guns and people dying in the streets.” As a result, his friends in the U.S. had a much more vivid sense for what was happening and prayed for him when he went back to Cairo in May 2011. Working in a makeshift hospital operating out of a church, Gergis helped people injured in the protests and even got tear-gassed himself.

Back in the U.S., Gergis watches the election process in Egypt with great apprehension. “I don’t see either candidate as a good option," he says. "Neither would be beneficial at all.” Gergis shares this with a group of young adults at the missions base—all Christians—who are about to pray for Egypt. Statistically, Gergis is speaking to some of the most engaged people in his generation: Millennials who are far from amused but who are so connected, they can almost taste the tear gas.

Bret Mavrich is an independent journalist writing from Kansas City, Kan. He is primarily concerned with stories on education, poverty, human trafficking and world events. Read his "dispatches from the prophetic city" at wwww.bretmavrich.com.

6 Comments

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Bret Mavrich commented…

You know, J.M., one thing that David said that I didn't include in the article is that it is nearly impossible to get free from a culture of distraction. But I think the point that I'm trying to underscore here (and this might not have come across as strong as I would have liked) is that missional engagement is the strongest form of global engagement. There are young adults that are overcoming the disengagement and cynicism that characterizes their generation, and they are doing it through the church, the "original social network."

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J.M. commented…

Bret, thank you for your response. In reading the article, I think I was unable to distinguish whetherthe Egyptian election or "missional engagement" was your subject. From your comment, I now understand that Egypt was an example, and Christian Millenial re-engagement your topic.
I will say that I appreciated learning about Fady Gergis: his passion, commitment, and involvement; he's rare.

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Bret Mavrich commented…

J.M. thanks! Are you a writer? You're giving me a writing critique more than anything, and I do admit, I think I could have been tighter.

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Tivs707 commented…

Quite enjoyed this, Im a millenial who currently lives/studies in Cairo. Curious what will happen to Christians here if the Morsi victory of lastnight is true...especialky since Ill be here for at least a couple more years

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Bret Mavrich commented…

What is the sentiment? Are Christians afraid of crackdowns? I actually would've thought Shafiq would have been more of a threat to that.

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