Revolution in Cairo

April 6 Youth Movement

 

How It Started

VideoIn July 2008, Australian television aired this profile of Egypt's young democracy activists and their use of social media -- including the April 6 group's Ahmed Maher and blogger Wael Abbas, whom we profiled in Revolution in Cairo.

On March 23, 2008, a small group of young Egyptian activists -- calling themselves the April 6 Youth Movement -- launched a Facebook page in support of a planned textile workers' strike in the city of Mahalla al-Kobra to protest low wages and high food prices. The group's leaders included 27-year-old Esraa Abdel Fattah Ahmed Rashid and 27-year-old Ahmed Maher.

The group invited about 300 people to join its Facebook page; within a day it had 3,000 members and within a few weeks, 70,000 had joined the call for strikes across Egypt in support of Mahalla's workers.

“[T]hese kids, basically 20-somethings, decided to create a Facebook page in support of the workers [at El-Mahalla el-Kubra]. They didn't go out to plan to make a movement. They created this page, and all of a sudden it started attracting followers.” -- Arab media researcher Courtney Radsch

On April 6, thousands of workers rioted. But Egyptian security police struck back, killing four and arresting 400. Rashid was arrested and jailed for more than two weeks. After her televised release, she renounced her activism. She and Maher soon split over the movement's direction and Maher took the reins.

After a failed protest on May 4, 2008 -- Hosni Mubarak's 80th birthday -- Maher was arrested, questioned and beaten for about 12 hours. He was released after giving a false password for the April 6 Facebook account. But other arrests and protests by the group followed during the next three years.

During that period April 6 members also studied the nonviolent tactics of Serbian and Ukrainian youth movements. In the summer of 2009, blogger and April 6 activist Mohammed Adel traveled to Serbia to take a course on strategies for nonviolent revolutions. It was taught by people who had organized the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s.

In December 2008, one April 6 member visited the United States to take part in a State Department-organized "Alliance of Youth Movements Summit" in New York City. According to a recently released Wikileaks cable, the activist said he discussed with other activists there techniques to evade government surveillance and harassment.

He also reported to his State Department contact that the April 6 group "would like to call for another strike on April 6, 2009, but realizes this would be 'impossible' due to SSIS [state security] interference," and said that the government had driven the group's leadership, including Maher, underground.

Countdown to the Jan. 25 Revolution

“In the absence of any viable opposition to the Mubarak regime, April 6 became that place where young people could go. More importantly, it was able to take them off the virtual space and into the real world. Because that really was the challenge: that it wasn't just limited to those who 'Like' them.” -- Columnist and speaker Mona Eltahawy

The toppling of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, 2011, after 23 years in power, galvanized young Egyptians. The April 6 Youth Movement picked Jan. 25, 2011 as their protest date because it's a public holiday: Police Day. In previous years they had always marched on Jan. 25 to mock the holiday. As Maher said: "Because how can we be expected to celebrate these thugs, torturers, criminals? But this year, what happened in Tunisia has given a different feel to Jan 25th."

VideoAsmaa Mahfouz: "Don't be afraid of the goverment."

Fifteen days before the date, the April 6 group set up an "operation room," as Maher described it in an interview. Its purpose was "to discuss routine details including assessing the reach of our calls to protest with regards to internet websites, looking at the data and information that was being provided to citizens, and studying innovative mechanisms of protesting which aimed to overcome the methods that the state security services always use to pre-empt demonstrations and protests."

Two days before planned protest, Maher said the group organized cells of 30-50 activists; each cell was to regroup in a pre-selected spot in Cairo, but only one person in each cell would direct the cell to the "main rendezvous point." Around the same time, Asmaa Mahfouz, an April 6 Youth Movement founder, galvanized youth with a viral video in which she tells them: "Don't be afraid of the government."

Their Demands

As the Tahrir Square protests gained momentum through late January/early February 2011, the April 6 Youth Movement issued specfic demands on Feb. 6, 2011:

  • Mubarak must immediately resign
  • The national assembly and senate must be dissolved
  • A "national salvation group" must be established that includes all public and political personalities, intellectuals, constitutional and legal experts, and representatives of youth groups who called for the demonstrations on Jan. 25 and 28. This group would form a transitional coalition government for a transitional period. The group would also form a transitional presidential council until the next presidential elections.
  • A new constitution must be written to guarantee the principles of freedom and social justice.
  • Those responsible for killing of hundreds of "martyrs" in Tahrir Square must be prosecuted
  • Detainees must be released immediately

Other Youth Movements

In addition to the April 6 Youth Movement, bloggers and activists representing a range of political and religious views -- including labor advocates and the Muslim Brotherhood -- played leading roles in the protests.

A large movement coalesced around the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page, a memorial to blogger Khaled Said. Said had posted a video of police allegedly splitting up drugs confiscated in a bust on June 6, 2010; the police tracked him down at a café and beat him to death on the street. Google executive Wael Ghonim started the page anonymously in early June; by mid-month, the page had 130,000 members, and as of Jan. 22, 2011, the number hit 380,000 members, making it Egypt's "largest and most active online human-rights activist group." Ghonim was detained during the protests and, upon his release, gave an emotional and widely seen televised interview to Dream TV, a private Egyptian channel.

During the revolution, these youth movements often worked together, displaying a shrewdness in their tactics against the regime. FRONTLINE's team in Cairo followed one group of youth organizers in Tahrir Square that included representatives from the April 6 group, the Muslim Brotherhood Youth, Mohamed ElBaradei's opposition movement and others. They called themselves the Revolutionary Youth Council, and shortly after Mubarak's resignation on Feb. 11, they issued a "birth certificate for a free Egypt".

AUDIO

(1:31) "We announce we are on the brink of the new Egypt we have always dreamt of" --A communiqué from a young coalition group FRONTLINE followed as part of this report.

But not all the young protestors were part of an organized movement. On Feb. 7, 2011, as Hosni Mubarak still clung to power and questions circulated about whether to negotiate with the regime, Slate reporter Sarah A. Topol asked a young protestor if he had heard of Tahrir Square's Revolutionary Youth Council. "Which one?" he responded.

Saba Mahmood, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, outlines the Egyptian blogosphere and argues why the revolution was successful: "precisely because there was no central and singuar political authority that called or orchestrated this rebellion." At the same time, she suggests that "many of the young men and women who have participated in this rebellion are not simply naive and idealistic individuals who do not know what they are doing or talking about."

The Challenges Ahead

In a Feb. 14, 2011 interview with NPR, April 6 founder Ahmed Maher talked about his message to followers about continuing the protest: "Those who are demonstrating have their own issues. We made the decision not to demonstrate while we wait for a response to our demands [for reform]. We can always go back to the street."

Yet activist Hossam el-Hamalawy sees the fight as far from over: "'Activists can take some rest from the protest and go back to their well-paying jobs for six months, waiting for the military to give us salvation. But the worker can't go back to his factory and still get paid 250 pounds. … [T]he mission is not accomplished.'"

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Posted Feburary 22, 2011

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