Middle East
2:43 pm
Wed January 4, 2012

Egypt's Street Kids Are Revolution's Smallest Soldiers

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, one out of every four 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 to a problem few protesters like to talk about: the plight of street children who take part in demonstrations.

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

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

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.

Partners In The Revolution

Abdelhamid lauds children like Adel 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 brassiere and being dragged by soldiers who kicked and beat her drew worldwide condemnation.

Protester 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 in his chest.

"A lot of controversy happened about the women's march and about that girl who was stripped, 'Why ... was she there?'" says Abdelhamid. "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 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.

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

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

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.