April 6’s Arab Spring Leaders Speak to the American Autumn

April 6s Arab Spring Leaders Speak to the American Autumn

A few organizers of the protests of Tahrir Square, Egypt, visited Occupy Wall Street on October 24. (Photo: NLNY)

“Its like a football game between Egypt and Tunisia, because when they started the revolution, the people in Egypt wanted to do the same,” says Ahmed Maher. Maher is a civil engineer by trade, but became a prominent democracy activist in Egypt, helping found the April 6th Youth Movement, one of the groups credited with sparking the January 25 revolution there.

Maher was joined by fellow April 6th leaders Esraa Abdel Fettah and Bassem Fathy at a teach-in with members of October 2011 in Washington, DC, on October 23. About a hundred activists at the encampment turned out to get a first-hand account of the revolution on the other side of the world that has inspired many in America and abroad. The first 18 days of the popular uprising stunned the world, as millions of Egyptians took to occupying Tahrir Square. More than 800 people were killed before Hosni Mubarak would step down as president. Mubarak, his sons and a number of his associates are currently on trial for a number of charges and could face the death penalty.

The April 6th activists cautioned that the revolution in Egypt could be a long and frustrating one and asked for support in keeping pressure on their military, which has appointed itself as an interim government until a new one is elected. Repeated postponements of the elections, imprisonment of journalists and bloggers critical of the military and an increasingly violent relationship between hard-line Christians and Muslims, have made for an uncertain future for Egyptians.

The activists shared stories about how they got involved in the democracy movement in Egypt.

Ahmed says his activist days began in 2003, when he attended a demonstration against the war in Iraq. There, he met others that felt the regime in Egypt should change, eventually becoming involved in the Kefaya (Arabic for “enough”) movement, one of the first to openly call for a change in leadership. Ahmed and the other activists were jailed at various times before the revolution, and took to the Internet for organizing their supporters.

Bassem says he used to read Ahmed Mattar, an outspoken Iraqi poet who was exiled from Iraq, then from Kuwait for his criticism of Arab governments. “I started thinking when I was very young about what freedom is and what democracy is and what the world should be like,” he explains.

Esraa admits her story is strange. When Mubarak agreed to hold open elections in 2005, she says she believed in him and it was “the first time I looked for my voting card. I felt we can change Egypt through this election, but when Mubarak deceived me, the world and showed that we have a game and not a democracy,” she began joining pro-democracy parties and blogging about it.

The three worked together in 2008 to put together a national general strike. Ahmed says a call for support was put out by workers in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra, an industrial town near Cairo, home to many textile workers. The workers were asking for better wages ahead of municipal elections, and Ahmed and other activists decided to transform it into a general strike on April 6. Although they garnered tens of thousands of supporters online, few showed up on the day of the strike. Critics say that the shops and businesses that were shuttered probably did so out of fear of violence between strikers and the police and not out of political support for the strike.

Esraa was detained for starting a Facebook page calling for the general strike, but released two weeks later after a public outcry and intense mediation by Egyptian leaders. Her release was conditional on her not being involved in politics any longer, a promise she seems to have kept until the January 25 revolution began to unfold.

Ahmed says April 6th has a decentralized, non-hierarchical structure, with groups in universities and each governate in Egypt. He says each group has its own structure and makes its own decisions, but a two-tier council coordinates general events. A coordinating council is composed of leaders of smaller groups that meet on a weekly basis and they, in turn, meet with the council of co-founders every month. The movement claims it had less than 3,000 members before the revolution and now has 20,000 members and many more supporters.

Activism and Legitimacy in a Global Village

April 6th is likely one of the most leftist, liberal movements in Egypt today, a fact which draws it criticism from many mainstream Egyptians and admiration from Western activists. Its leadership has, however, also been accused of being too close to the US State Department. The International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House – three American nonprofits that receive funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID and the State Department – have allegedly invited April 6th leaders in the past to their democracy trainings here in the United States and in other countries.

After the failed general strike in 2008, an April 6th activist was invited to the Alliance for Youth Movements summit in New York, which promised to teach activists how to use emerging technology to promote democracy. The meeting was sponsored by a number of American companies, including Facebook, YouTube, Google and MTV, as well as the Columbia Law School. Its founders include Jared Cohen, a former adviser to Secretaries Rice and Clinton and head of Google Ideas, the technology giant's “global technology think tank.” A 2008 cable from the US embassy in Cairo details the April 6th activist's visit to the US, but points out that his rejection of reform through the political system places him outside the “mainstream of opposition politicians and activists.”

Earlier this year, as some in the Egyptian press began saying the April 6th activists were being controlled by American interests, Ahmed and the other activists vehemently denied the charges, or that their movement ever received funding from the American groups. They said the person mentioned in the cable misrepresented himself as a spokesman for April 6th. Today, Ahmed says that some April 6th activists have received instruction on how to manage the finances of a nongovernmental organization (NGO), but balks at the suggestion that the revolution was orchestrated by Western interests, saying that “maybe 10 or a 100 people can be trained, but not 10 million.”

Pre-revolution Egypt saw regular protests calling for democracy, but these were often small and always quickly put down by the security forces. Hundreds of riot police backed by armored vehicles were a common sight in Cairo, especially on Fridays at major mosques such as Al Azhar. Codepink and other American groups occasionally traded lessons with youth activists in Egypt after the group's members were detained and beaten while attempting to deliver aid to Gaza several years ago.

President Obama's visit to Cairo in 2009 was greeted by many in the world with optimism that the rift between the West and Islam might finally be narrowing. The Muslim Brotherhood welcomed the visit, sending a number of its members in Parliament to observe. Hard-line members of Egyptian democratic movements such as Kefayah, however, were less excited. Millions of dollars were spent on sprucing up Cairo for the visit and hundreds of people were rounded up in raids by security forces leading up to the speech.

Fear of a New Egypt

The Tunisian revolution sparked a new hope for many Arabs, including those in neighboring Egypt. Ties to American nonprofits aside, the Egyptian revolution ended up enjoying the popular support of a broad segment of society.

After the revolution, Esraa says Egyptians were disappointed in the continued American support for the military regime. “We hoped the US policy will change and they will believe in people rather than the leaders, the dictators, but unfortunately, they still support the regime.”

Bassem is also critical of the US, saying their policy is dictated by a fear of an Islamist Egypt. He says the situation is “a bit complicated, because of those who participated in the revolution, some believe in an Islamic country and others like me are completely secular. I believe that [in order to ensure] equal rights for all, it [Egypt] should be secular.” He understands the American dilemma, saying “the real problem is the US supporting the military to be a guarantee of protection from the Islamists … but at the same time this influences democracy itself and there shouldn't be somebody over our democracy to protect democracy.”

American concerns tend to center on security for Israel and a continuation of free trade with countries in the region. Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, arguably its most famous recent leader, had a reputation for leading the Middle East as a leftist pan-Arab body during the cold war. This drew the ire of the anti-Soviet bloc, which finally became friendly after Anwar Sadat and his peace accord with Israel in 1979. That agreement paved the way for similar normalization between Israel and Jordan, but was hugely unpopular at home, much as the current Egyptian blockade of Gaza is.

American activists have concerns about the Egyptian revolution paving the way for a more capitalist nation, which is ironic given April 6th's beginnings rooted in labor struggles. Bassem says the revolution was a “revival for the left in Egypt,” but cautions that “Egyptian liberals are on the left because the regime before the revolution was very neo-liberal … in the interest of less than 1 percent.” Low salaries, skyrocketing inflation and a lack of affordable housing in Egypt leaves youth in particular without much hope for a prosperous future. Bassem says that despite the apparent plethora of factions in post-revolutionary Egypt, they share a common sense for social justice.

The plight of Palestinians is implicated in this, Bassem points out. “[Just] like we have a general sense among the revolutions, a common mood among [them] for social justice; we want to have at least the two states and to have Palestine within its [1967] borders. I really wish to have one country like South Africa, one country for all people, but it seems like a dream.”

An Increasingly Uncertain Future

Ahmed expressed support for the Tunisian elections, that country's first free elections in decades, and is optimistic about Libya now that Qaddafi has been removed. He believes the Assad regime in Syria will fall, but it might take “a few days, weeks, or months.”

Bassem worries that there is no united front in Egypt now. In the beginning of the revolution “being leaderless was very strong because you are non-negotiable, but after this stage we are suffering [because of it].”

Indeed, internal splits in the April 6th movement emerged soon after Mubarak's departure. At a time when it seems like every other Egyptian is forming their own political party (there are more than 50 registered now), April 6th's decision to remain an NGO has cost it many supporters.

Bassem says he is worried that the state media is being used for the first time to incite violence by the military, which cannot understand the tolerance displayed by Egyptians earlier in the revolution.

On October 9, 27 Coptic Christians and one soldier were killed in a demonstration in Maspero, an area in Cairo home to many of its TV stations. Thousands of Copts and some Muslim allies were protesting what they perceived as discrimination after the destruction of a building used for worship by Christians in Upper Egypt. The local government there claimed the building was an unlicensed church and the Copts claimed they were being stifled by Islamic hardliners, who would like to see Egypt free of Christians. As the demonstration turned into a violent confrontation between the Army – presumably there to protect a building – and protesters, soldiers forced other TV stations to stop broadcasting live, some of them at gunpoint. Meanwhile, the official state channel continued reporting and its anchor began referring to the protesters as “Copts,” even claiming they were foreign agents at one point and asking other Egyptians to come help quell them.

The incident has sparked an uproar in Egypt, and the military regime is coming under increased scrutiny to prove it is not taking sides in the revolution. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about the safety of ordinary Egyptians, as police take a back seat and the military is reluctant to appear to be cracking down on criminals. Bassem says “the security problem is manufactured.” He claims the police and military are punishing Egyptians by refusing to provide security, in hopes that they will agree to continued delays in implementing reforms.

Meanwhile, Egyptians and other Arabs are watching Tunisia, the nation that sparked the Arab Spring and which has just held its first free elections in decades. Up to 90 percent of the 4.1 million registered voters there went to cast ballots on October 23. They will elect 217 representatives to a body with the authority to appoint a government and rewrite the Constitution. More than 80 political parties ran more than 11,000 candidates in the election. The Annahda Party, led by a moderate Islamic leader returning from exile, appears to have won a plurality in the elections.

Egyptians will go to the polls on November 28 to elect representatives to the Majilis Asha'ab, the larger, more powerful body of Egypt's bicameral Parliament. The future remains uncertain though, as smaller parties try to gain a foothold against established groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Bassem, Ahmed and Esraa say they are happy with April 6th's decision not to run any candidates, and hope to use the next term for building their base and pressuring the new government for more reforms.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear how widespread or sustainable the revolution's optimism might be, as ordinary Egyptians continue to grapple with deteriorating security and unpredictable inflation.