The ‘fountain of youth’ and the insurgent subject of history
Soldier resting, 1911. Mikhail Larionov

The 2011 revolution, as a collective memory, has helped consolidate a generational discourse around it, with the uprising quickly becoming known as the “youth’s revolution.” This “youth” label has been vigorously popularized and systematically consumed by actors from across the political spectrum during the Arab Spring, shaping a major discourse around the nature of this generation, as well as its national role and historical responsibilities.

Egypt’s post-2013 government is no exception, coming to power with its own vision and version of “youth” and heavily investing in state-sponsored initiatives — including a number of conferences targeting the younger generations, most notably the World Youth Forum (WYF) and the Presidential Leadership Program (PLP), which was launched in 2015 following a speech by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in which he declared that 2016 would be the “year of the youth.” The PLP is an attempt by the state to build up the caliber of youth who can serve it in the future, once it is shaped according to the state’s own imagination. Indeed, over the last few days in polling stations during  the referendum on constitutional amendments that will see Sisi’s time in office extended, young people could be seen dancing and mobilizing other voters to cast their ballots — signs of legitimacy for those in power.

The “youth” offers able bodies for use in achieving a broad range of national desires: expansion, power, freedom. The nation is in debt and pays back these debts by putting the youth on a pedestal. Young people’s fury and power are coveted and summoned — but also feared, disciplined and co-opted.


The Fountain of Youth. Maestro della Manta.


‘Where the sun never sets’

Stories about the “Fountain of Youth” can be located across numerous histories and geographies. According to lore, this fountain consists of a spring of water that can heal and restore the body and mind of those who drink or bathe in it. The power and magic of this seductive symbol intertwine with a number of historical events — most remarkably, the story of the Spanish colonization of the Americas.

The story starts with the support of the Spanish King Ferdinand II to Christopher Columbus to launch the first European expedition to the Americas. Juan Ponce de León (1474-1521) would make a name for himself as an explorer in King Ferdinand’s court, quickly rising to power by the early 1500s as a top military official in the Spanish colonial government of “Hispaniola” (the island of the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and the first person to be named governor of Puerto Rico by 1509.

To reward Ponce de León for his services, Ferdinand II encouraged him to look for undiscovered land northwest of Hispaniola and, in 1513, he led the first known European expedition to La Florida. Upon his death, the legend was born: Ponce de León’s expedition to Florida would become a popular myth, in which he discovers Florida by accident while searching for the Fountain of Youth — a myth that plays a pivotal role in the colonial project. This myth, dubbed a “public dream” by Joseph Campbell — who also says that dreams are private myths — sheds light on the ways in which the first European colonizers imagined the world.

Those first colonizers included Queen Isabella I of Castille and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, whose marriage resulted in the consolidation of what became known a unified Spanish kingdom. The Catholic Monarchs — a title bestowed to them by the Pope, in “recognition of their defense of the Catholic faith within their realms” — set their eyes on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Although doubtful at first, they invested in the plans presented by the mariner Christopher Columbus to sail west and claim lands for Spain. The rest is common knowledge: Columbus ends up discovering the “New World,” settling Spanish colonies along the Americas, generating an influx of wealth for decades to come and establishing the Spanish kingdom to become a major global force for at least two centuries.

The Fountain of Youth added a mystical dimension to the newly unified Spain, one in which the young Catholic Monarchs were bound to push the limits of the old order and attempt to surpass the unknown. In their quest, they expanded their colonies into far-reaching lands. They continually shifted the material and imaginative possibilities for the Spanish empire. This “New World” was created by crossing the Atlantic, a trip meant to be carried out only by tough bodies and daring souls: skilled, experienced and adventurous sailors. It represented the new spirit of the age: to go beyond the seas and discover riches and resources where nobody else had dared to venture. Every new territory discovered was a reaffirmation of the myth of the Fountain of Youth: colonizers extracted resources from the land using all of the manpower available, subjecting and consuming young and agile bodies — as well as the land in question — until their last drop.

This myth also comes into play when crystalizing the intimate desires of colonization. Mythology, Campbell says, “is the penultimate truth — penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words.” And this “beyond,” which the Catholic Monarchs attempted to control and which Ponce de León embodied in his expeditions, has dramatically changed the world. In this sense, Ponce de León fulfilled his role in both the historical and mythical worlds. His expeditions and the myth borne out of them have set the tone for the Spanish empire to be one of the early empires described as “the empire on which the sun never sets,” and which controlled territories in Europe, islands in the Mediterranean, cities in North Africa and vast portions in the Americas.

Maybe Ponce de León did discover the Fountain of Youth after all.


Juan Ponce de León, painted c. 19th century


For freedom

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919 formally ended World War I. The “Great War” had left no stone unturned in either colonizing or colonized nations, which meant a shift in the relationship between the two. This shift materialized in Egypt in the 1919 Revolution, which aimed to gain independence from the British occupation, and in the Constitution of 1923, which was seen as an opportunity to liberate Egypt from the autocratic rule of the kings affiliated with the Mohamed Ali dynasty that had been in power since 1805.

But the fragile political power balance between the Egyptian monarchy and the parliamentary parties broke down again in 1930 when King Fouad decided to make his boldest move yet: revoking the 1923 Constitution, while also dissolving the House of Representatives and the Senate. By royal decree, King Fouad ordered the drafting of the Constitution of 1930, which aimed to consolidate greater power in the hands of the king, while diminishing support for the Wafd Party.

Reversing all these developments, Sir Samuel Hoare, foreign secretary of the British Empire, announced in 1935 that Britain considered the 1923 Constitution “inapplicable” and the 1930 Constitution “unpopular.” The statement was furiously received in Egypt: On November 13, 1935, about 2,000 students from Giza University marched to Abbas Bridge. The following day, that number had doubled and police fired onto marchers crossing the bridge, wounding a student and killing another, whose funeral later turned into a striking national event. The demonstrations continued periodically over the next few weeks, and the uprising ended with a royal decree restoring the 1923 Constitution and paving the way for the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936. The treaty required the United Kingdom to withdraw most of its troops from Egyptian territories, except those needed for the protection of the Suez Canal and areas in its vicinity.


1935-1936 student protests


A ‘youth crisis’

In Youth as Peril and Promise: The Emergence of Adolescent Psychology in Postwar Egypt (2011), the scholar Omnia El Shakry traces the emergence of a public discourse around the “youth crisis” in Egypt to the 1930s, particularly the period following the 1935 and 1936 student demonstrations that rocked the Egyptian political scene and “ushered in the figure of youth as an insurgent subject of politics.”

This discourse around the crisis of youth was connected to the wider, global political realities of the time.

The Bolshevik transformation of Russia in 1919 would echo in the Middle East in the 1920s, when most of the region’s communist parties were established. In parallel, the 1920s and 1930s also witnessed the rise of nationalist fascist parties in Italy and Germany, a model that was enthusiastically received in Egypt with the creation of the Young Men’s Muslim Association in 1926, the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, and the Young Egypt Party in 1933.

The crisis of youth also emerged during the interwar years (1918-1939), which had witnessed the rapid spread and multiplication of political organizations working outside the logic of the formal political realm. The interwar period saw growing violent confrontations between socialists, communists and anarchists on one side, and nationalists and fascists on the other. These conflicts took place and were formed through the creation of movements outside of parliamentary politics, which heavily recruited high school and university students, many of whom were later radicalized into paramilitary forces. For example, the Nazi Party established its “Hitler Youth” in 1922, and, by the 1940s, began recruiting its members into the SS, the biggest paramilitary forces of the party and one of the largest armed organizations in Nazi Germany. In Mussolini’s Italy, the “Italian Youth of the Lictor,” established in 1937, was the consolidated youth organization of the National Fascist Part of Italy, serving as a paramilitary group alongside the army.


Aqua De Vida


The interwar years ended with the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), where Spanish communists and anarchists faced a bitter and crushing defeat at the hands of General Franco, leading the Nationalist Fascists.

Positioning the 1935-36 student demonstrations in Egypt in this larger international context might shed some light on the nature, dynamics and routes in which this imagined “youth” emerged, at a time when radical ideas were quickly gaining steam all over the world, dangerously threatening to overthrow empires, class systems and the social imaginary. In this context, the “youth” emerged as a distinct and powerful category in modern politics, becoming an insurgent subject of politics. More precisely, the fear of student radicalization stood at a crossroads with the “national project,” which saw partisan politics and a united national discourse as the path to counteract colonization in the face of European hegemony. As Shakry writes, this fear was discussed and scrutinized by journalists and writers who “recast the question of youth politics as central to national unity, highlighting the role of youth in moderate internal political reform and social welfare projects.” The fuss around this emerging political insurgency splashed across the front pages of newspapers and covers of magazines, with writers demanding a serious and scientific approach to the study of the subject.

The youth as an insurgent subject of politics underwent a transformation from embodying the “shab” (the young person) to the “muraheq” (the adolescent). In Arabic, the word “muraheq” has a possible linguistic origin in the verb “raheq,” meaning to come close to getting something (whether or not that thing is ultimately achieved). The word indexes a deeper shift in the movement in the field of power-knowledge, a movement that is now tied not just to active participation in the sociopolitical domain, but also to a realm of violent, repressed and unstable psychological interiority. The “shab” — who moves recklessly through streets and rules — is now a struggling psychological figure, the term itself pointing to a risky and fragile crossing that has to be made into adulthood.

“By the mid-1940s, ‘adolescence’ had been transformed into a discrete category of analysis within the newly consolidated disciplinary space of psychology and was reconfigured as a psychological stage of social adjustment, sexual repression, and existential anomie,” Shakry explains. In this sense, adolescence was viewed as a transitional phase full of abnormalities that needed close attention, guidance and containment. As such, the creation of this category of adolescent “muraheqeen,” as distinct from the more popular “shabab,” proved to be a tool of domestication that was useful in transferring the political category of “youth” into the psychological category of “adolescence.”



Once the social is fashioned into a psychological category, the “youth” no longer shares a collective memory built on political engagement, organization, protest and resistance. Instead, politicization is replaced with a depoliticized individual interiority: to face the social order as a subject of science, rather than one of the social. The insurgent, who has now become an adolescent, will have to cross the threshold between childhood and adulthood, the “perfect metaphor for the political and social transformation from colony to independent nation,” Shakry writes. This is the promise that the “youth” has come to embody. If this promise fails, the nation will be in peril, and so, in order to avoid this possibility, new alliances must be made.

In the 20th century, these alliances needed to cut through class in order to address the “youth” of the nation as a single hegemonic bloc that could embody the national cause and, more importantly, emerge united against one enemy: European hegemony. The national discourse adopted during this period in Egypt aimed to merge the student experience and historical imagination with the national agenda, while denying any form of social tension or class struggle that could pose a challenge to this approach. As Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski note, “[a] myth of youth developed in interwar Egypt, a rhetoric stressing the national role as well as redeeming power of the ‘new generation.’”

The integration of “youth” within the national cause, as a historical priority and responsibility, aimed to create an alternative collective temporality, whereby youth could become the avant garde of the struggle and their experience could ultimately be mediated by the state. In this way, this alternative disciplinary collective temporality replaced the politicized and rebellious collective with one that is docile.


The Curse of Small Creatures (by Iman Mersal)

“هذا المراهق، جعله الجيش رجلًا؛

بطاقته الشخصية في جيب الأفارول المموه

وبدلًا من التدخين بين كراكيب الخزين، حيث العفاريت وعقاب الأب،

الصحراء كلها أمامه وخلفه.

لقد سلّموه بيادة ليدوس بها على الماضي،

فتسرّبت الطفولة مثل قطرة ماء من خرم في حذائه القديم، وزاد

طوله سنتيمترين بالتمام.

كُريك تحت إبطه، وسيجتهد لحفر خندق لن يجد وقتًا ليختبئ فيه.

لا أعرف من الذي كان خلف الكاميرا لأشكره، لكنها وصلت إلى بيت أمه. والحمد لله.

مع ساعة اليد والبطاقة، الجثة.”

“حتى أتخلّى عن فكرة البيوت”.

In the myth, Ponce de León crosses the Pacific, accompanied by 300 sailors, on a mission to find the Fountain of Youth. In history, the “youth” takes the nation across and into the future. In psychology, the adolescent crosses a transitional phase into maturity and adulthood. These three crossings contain different imaginations of “youth” that alter the power-play and disturb the status quo, but, in all three, great, powerful and even dangerous potentials and possibilities may be unleashed if the crossing succeeds.

Ahmed El Serougui 

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