The Prodigy: Aya Mohsen

CAIRO, Egypt — Aya Mohsen calls herself an “underage” revolutionary. The teenager Tweets against Egypt’s ruling generals from her family living room, where she faces off with a prominently displayed photo of both parents in Egyptian Army uniform.

She wouldn’t exist were it not for the military, though, because that’s where her parents first met. Her dad was a top military prosecutor, her mom an army administrator. But that doesn’t stop her from accusing the establishment of using brutal methods to suppress young dissidents like one of her friends, recently arrested at a protest against the Egypt’s transitional ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).

In fact, listening to the Mohsen family is like watching Egypt’s national discourse in miniature:

Dad: The military is the only disciplined institution.

Daughter [snickering]: Oh yeah? And the cabinet events [clashes] were proof of that. 

Dad [interrupting]: Believe me, it’s the military that’s protected the country. With everything that Egypt has been through, the military has been the only stable institution…

Daughter: If they were good in the first place, then there wouldn’t have been [protest] groups like No To Military Trials [for Civilians]. 

Dad: But with what was happening in the country, we needed quick military trials. The police were gone. So who was going to take over? The military. The military had to give strict orders. This had to happen, because there had to be discipline. … The military court is very fair. The military court officers are qualified lawyers.

Mom: That’s because he worked in military law.

Dad: They’re qualified!

Here’s where Mom giggled. She has an opinion on all this too, but her feelings have changed a lot since her photo was taken next to the now-deposed president Hosni Mubarak. She’s not so sure about the cadre of military generals who took his place. Rights groups have accused them of launching a brutal crackdown on opposition activity, including the use of torture on hundreds of political dissidents.

Like many in Egypt, the middle-aged housewife feels torn between the call to change represented by can-do progressives like her daughter Aya and feelings of security associated with the former establishment.

“So many times I agree with her,” she said, referring to her opinionated 14-year-old. “I agree with her a lot. Sometimes I go talk to her myself, and she ends up convincing me, and I go to her side. Then I go tell her father, and he says, ‘don’t listen to her.’”

One thing she’s sure of, though, is that her creative youngest daughter — painter, jewelry-maker, pianist — is not the indifferent artist she was a few months ago. A mother of four children, Mrs. Mohsen is no stranger to the changeable teen years, but even she was unprepared for her apolitical youngest daughter to suddenly turn into an activist.

The culprit? “The moment of [Mubarak’s] resignation,” according to Aya.

Prior to that, “I was always neither for the revolution or against it,” she said. “I just wanted them [the demonstrators] to go away, because I wanted to go to the club, or go out,” adding, “comparing myself today to how I was before the revolution, the way I thought was completely different.”

Is this normal? Aya said her classmates at the private all-girls school she attends “talk more about Turkish soap operas” than they do about politics, but that doesn’t change the fact that the nation’s youth witnessed seismic political events this year. Many watched from their windows as massive crowds of protesters stormed Cairo streets. Even more saw YouTube videos of demonstrations as they streamed onto their favorite social networking sites.

Aya herself is a prime example. After Mubarak was overthrown, the eighth-grader thought to herself: “Well then, they [the protesters] were right. Why wasn’t I with them? I was with no one. No, I must find out more. There were children in Tahrir Square as well. I have to know why they went there, because for instance, if they have another revolution, I want to be with them.”

So she became this “underage” revolutionary by way of the politically-oriented Twitter stream #underage, joining a virtual conversation that soon lead to in-person meetings. After a few gatherings, the group of a dozen or so 14-to-18-year-olds branded themselves “Revolution without an ID,” a name Aya made sure to emphasize was chosen by “referendum.” 

“We’re very different from the older generation,” she said. “As time passes, it’s always that the younger people know more than the older people.”

“For instance, there are young feluls,” she explained, using a colloquial term describing those loyal to the Mubarak regime, “and there are young revolutionaries, and there are young couch parties,” a popular expression for the politically apathetic. “But at least we all know something about what’s happening.”

Aya herself is constantly logged into Twitter, where she’s known as “elmehtasa” [puzzled] and has over 9,000 followers. She recently appeared on a talk show with the popular host Yosri Fouda as part of a program on young political activists.

But Aya doesn’t come off as a firebrand rebel. She’s soft-spoken, almost reserved, her voice demure yet demanding. When excited, she rushes through words in a chattering stream punctuated by quick spurts of light, gasping laughter. It’s a lively nature that seems remarkably self-contained for a young woman her age.

“I used to read Harry Potter,” she said. “Now I read books about the revolution.” Perhaps that was why the Hannah Montana stickers on bedboard made her so embarrassed. She’s a serious activist now.