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Egypt's Street Kids Are Revolution's Smallest Soldiers

Jan 4, 2012
Originally published on January 4, 2012 5:45 pm

In Egypt, a disturbing trend has emerged in recent clashes between protesters and security forces: children placing themselves on the front lines.

Activists say several have been killed or wounded in recent months by gunfire and tear gas. Plus, 1 out of every 4 protesters thrown in jail following clashes in December was a child.

Their advocates say most, if not all, of these kids live on Cairo's streets, and that they see the revolution as a way to escape their isolation from society.

Every Friday, crowds of Egyptians gather in Cairo to chant slogans against their military rulers. But recently, a small group tried to bring attention the plight of street children who take part in demonstrations — a problem few protesters like to talk about.

They shout that the ruling generals should be ashamed for killing or jailing the children.

Rally organizer Amira Abdelhamid hands the children who show up helium-filled balloons.

Eleven-year-old Ahmed Adel says he likes going to protests to check out what's going on. Ahmed admits he throws stones at the soldiers and then runs away.

Partners In The Revolution

Abdelhamid lauds children like Ahmed for braving bullets, beatings and tear gas on the front lines with other protesters.

The 20-year-old university student says the children are valuable partners in the Egyptian revolution given their speed, agility and small size, which make it harder for security forces to stop them.

She adds that it is important to recognize their contribution, which is why she and a teen acquaintance organized the rally.

"I wasn't communicating the message of whether it was good or bad because I don't know. It's bad for them, but it's good, it helps us as well, it helps us in the front lines. I was just saying thank you," Abdelhamid says.

Abdelhamid is frustrated that only a few dozen people showed up at the rally. Many more demonstrated nearby against Egyptian troops for attacking female protesters last month.

The photo of one veiled woman stripped down to her blue bra and being dragged by soldiers who kicked and beat her drew worldwide condemnation.

Abdelhamid says the story of an Egyptian boy who was shot by soldiers during the same series of protests drew far less attention.

In a YouTube video of the incident, rescue workers try to stop the frightened teen from bleeding to death from a bullet wound to his chest.

"A lot of controversy happened about the women's march and about that girl who was stripped. [People asked,] 'Why ... was she there?'" Abdelhamid says. "But I don't think anyone would say, 'Why were the children there?'"

Finding Comfort Among Protesters

It's a question the ruling generals are asking, however.

At a recent news conference, Gen. Adel Emara accused activists he did not name of paying children and teens to throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces.

The general also showed a poor-quality video of a boy named Sami confessing to his interrogator that he received the equivalent of $33 to attack buildings.

Many children's rights activists in Egypt suspect the confession was coerced. They accuse the generals of using the kids to try to discredit the pro-democracy movement and justify soldiers' use of deadly force.

Lawyer Tarek El Awady is representing 82 children arrested for taking part in last month's violent demonstrations outside the Cabinet and parliament buildings.

He says these street children sought shelter, food and companionship from protesters encamped downtown.

Abdelhamid says the children tell her and other protesters that they are the only Egyptians who make them feel they are important.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

In Egypt, a disturbing new trend has emerged. In recent clashes between protesters and security forces, children have been fighting on the front lines. Following clashes in December, one out of every four protesters thrown in jail was a child. And activists say several have been killed or wounded recently by gunfire and tear gas. Child advocates claim most, if not all, of these kids live on Cairo's streets.

As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, they see the revolution as a way to escape their isolation from society.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Every Friday, crowds of Egyptians gather in Cairo to chant slogans against their military rulers.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

NELSON: But this small group recently tried bringing attention to a problem few protestors like to talk about, the plight of street children who take part in demonstrations.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

NELSON: They shout that the ruling generals should be ashamed for killing or jailing those kids.

AMIRA ABDELHAMID: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Rally organizer Amira Abdelhamid hands the children who show up helium-filled balloons. One is 11-year-old Ahmed Adel.

AHMED ADEL: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says he likes going to protests to check out what's going on. Adel admits he throws stones at the soldiers and then runs away.

Abdelhamid lauds children like Adel for braving bullets, beatings and tear gas on the front lines with other protestors. The 20-year-old university student says the children are valuable partners in the Egyptian revolution, given their speed, agility, and small size, which make it harder for security forces to stop them.

She adds that it is important to recognize their contribution, which is why she and a teen acquaintance organized the rally.

ABDELHAMID: I wasn't communicating the message of whether it was good or bad because I don't know. It's bad for them but its good, it helps us as well on the front lines. I was just saying thank you.

NELSON: She adds it's frustrating that only a few dozen people showed up at the rally. Many more demonstrated nearby against Egyptian troops for attacking female protestors last month. The photo of one veiled woman stripped down to her blue brassiere and being dragged by soldiers who kicked and beat her, drew worldwide condemnation.

Protestor Abdelhamid says the story of an Egyptian boy who was shot by soldiers during the same series of protests drew far less attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

NELSON: In this YouTube video of the incident, rescue workers try to stop the frightened teen from bleeding to death from a bullet wound in his chest.

Again, protestor Abdelhamid.

ABDELHAMID: A lot of controversy happened about the women's march and about that girl who was stripped, why, why, why, was she there - blah, blah, blah. But I don't think anyone would say: Why were the children there.

NELSON: It's a question the ruling generals are asking, however.

GENERAL ADEL EMARA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: At a recent news conference, General Adel Emara accused activists he did not name of paying children and teens to throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces.

EMARA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The general also showed a poor-quality video of a boy named Sami, confessing to his interrogator that he received the equivalent of $33 to attack the buildings.

Many children's rights activists here suspect that confession was coerced. They accuse the generals of using the kids to try to discredit the pro-democracy movement and justify soldiers' use of deadly force.

Lawyer Tarek El Awady is representing 82 children arrested for taking part in last month's violent demonstrations, outside the cabinet and parliament buildings.

TAREK EL AWADY: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says these street children sought shelter, food and companionship from protestors encamped downtown.

Activist Amira Abdelhamid adds the kids tell her and other protestors that they are the only Egyptians who make them feel they are important.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.