Wandering through hazy-blue, crop-green rural areas and mud-brick, dusty villages in Upper Egypt right now, a chance to see how far the revolution and the rekindling of pride and dignity it has generated has penetrated. It has.

This was a Facebook entry I wrote in July, whilst working with a colleague to conduct an evaluation of an initiative that is part of CARE Egypt’s overall governance and civic engagement program. We were driving through irrigated countryside at the time. Google maps is becoming good at time series mapping, showing you what a landscape looked like in the past so you can compare with the present. A pity this cannot be done for a few millennia ago. I wonder just how much the landscape along the Nile has altered throughout this time. The narrow fertile belt along the river is intensely cultivated and criss-crossed by irrigation channels and small roads. Nowadays fuel pumps are used to lift the water in plastic pipes from the drainage channels into the fields; mostly gone are the traditional shadoofs.

The new motorway that passes south of Cairo through the hellish landscape of Helwan (the sky obscured by the relentless flood of murkiness from the cement factory chimneys), gives the floodplain a wide skirting. Instead it runs parallel through the desert, which, leaving Cairo, resembles a giant sandpit, feeding the construction of the ever increasing outward sprawl of apartment blocks. Past the Helwan fog, occasional glimpses of a tree line to the right (compass orientation I always find a challenge here, where Upper is south and Lower is north) reminds one that the river is still there, keeping pace. Eventually one heads in towards it, and abruptly the terrain changes as one leaves the blasted rock and sand, and enters the tranquil landscapes of the floodplain.

Beni Suef is 90 minutes south of Cairo, still within touching distance, but yet a different world. After flying to Luxor later in the week, much further south still, it became apparent that as distance grows from Cairo and the delta area, so does the conservatism of the culture. This means not only the less presence that women have, but youth too. Social decision making is dominated by the family heads, and this extends across into local governance structures too.

Given this situation we were profoundly thrilled by the energy and the optimism of the youth we encountered, women and men. These were people who had joined women’s and youth groups, affiliated to community development associations, and collectively made much more conscious of their rights and entitlements. The youth themselves were becoming the trainers, and the social analysts. They were building social records and maps in communities of each household and all resources, far more accurate than anything government possessed. These were serving as the basis for participatory exercises to determine community priorities, as well as to understand the extent to which existing entitlements – like free health care for both expectant and new mothers – were not being met.

But the bravest acts were being reserved often for the women in the women’s groups. In a country where women generally have had limited voice, those in the poorer and more marginalised districts of Upper Egypt have had none whatsoever. It is not just that women are not elected: they don’t have voter registration cards, so they cannot vote, and they don’t have ID cards, so they cannot get the voting cards, and they don’t have birth certificates, so they cannot get the ID cards, and they can’t leave the home, so they cannot get any of this. But now, in the areas these groups exist, women are now voting. And it is because the women members do not take no for an answer, and they have the confidence that what they are doing is right and legally entitled, and they are now being back by the CDAs and the local government structures. They do not take no for answer. “Some women were reluctant to deal with us – some households are very closed and introverted and refused to let us in. But we insisted and visited them many times until they agreed to listen to us.”

This persistence in getting past the men in the house and women’s own fears was only the start. Then they had to deal with the authorities. “We were criticised and laughed at in the police station, they used to mock us a lot and asked what we are doing and why. But afterwards the police officer was very proud of what we achieved. He said that before coming here I heard that the women in Upper Egypt cannot do anything but you proved me wrong.”

These youth, women and men, were better educated than we expected. Several in each group often had degrees from local universities, nearly all had some kind of secondary educational or vocational training certificate. Yet their potentials were not being tapped, they had been viewed as not being able to contribute to society. Now, “the CDA has a database including demographic data, numbers, students, pregnant women etc, services and how to access them, both in soft and hard copies.” As another male youth leader also said, “the needs assessment… made us learn now to organize ourselves, how to talk to people, and how to plan and solve problems.”

In this timeless landscape, where people are crammed into this narrow, fertile strip alongside the river the pharaohs traversed, this is indeed a revolution. For the first time, leaders are emerging other than the stifling voices of the male patriarchs, who themselves are having their eyes opened to the vast potential of the younger men and women they have ignored. Some 52% of the Egyptian population, over 44 million people, are under 25. How magnificent it would be if the 26 January revolution did truly enfranchise them. It certainly won’t happen overnight. There are still too many old men in power throughout the country. This is not to appear ageist, since many of my generation and older are just as joyful. But Mubarak’s reign made for complacency and compliance. A feeling that the landscape truly would not change. They were wrong. And it is so exciting. Maybe one day these young men and women of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and the rest of the MENA countries will fully liberate themselves. What a different world that would be and what an example that would set for the western world, now also in the process of beginning to imprison too many of its own youth.