Soccer, Cabs and Revolution: The Egyptian Youth Movement Comes to NYC

To hear Ahmed Maher tell it, the Egyptian revolution was as much about sports as anything else.

Maher, 30, is one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, a group of Egyptian dissidents that has used new media to organize strikes and demonstrations since 2008. The bespectacled Maher speaks just loudly enough for his interlocutors to hear, when he speaks at all. His frequent silence is attributed partly to his mitigated facility with English and partly to the excitability and loquacity of his comrade, Waleed Rashed, 27.

The two are in New York doing a press junket and making speeches at top universities. (“That is not important,” confesses Maher. “What really matters is meeting with young American bloggers and activists.”) A young American blogger and activist myself, I helped to organize the dinner where Maher first mentioned sports.

It seems there exists a long-standing soccer-based rivalry between Egypt and Tunisia. Embarrassment that Tunisians had ousted their dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, first, Maher explains, fortified Egyptians’ determination to depose Hosni Mubarak even more thrillingly. Maher’s smiles are rare but shining, and he let one loose as he made this point. The man has been arrested too many times, has sustained too much torture, to fool anyone for long: this was not about sports but justice.

The scene at the restaurant moved to The Brecht Forum in downtown New York City, where I had the pleasure of introducing Maher and Rashed to the 30-odd activists who had shown up on short notice for a Q&A event. Several in attendance were members of US Uncut NYC, a tax justice group of which I am a part. We wanted to know how we could duplicate the success achieved by Maher and his organization.

The April 6 Youth Movement claims inspiration from by Serbia’s Otpor! movement and similar student groups in Ukraine and Georgia. Its non-violent principle, rigorous knowledge of dissident movements the world over and fearlessness under threat of official backlash helped the group accumulate such credibility that Maher was in a position to reject then-Vice President Omer Suleiman’s offer of Mubarak’s resignation in September and his promise that his son would not stand for election then.

September was too late for Maher. As he put it, “We were organizing, educating and preparing for revolution for years, and suddenly, on January 25th, the people joined us. We knew it was our only chance.”

Refusal is an avenue the April 6 Youth Movement has often tread, declining, for instance to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the days after the Egyptian revolution. Rashed: “When I was getting teargas sprayed in my face, I knew it was paid for by Americans. America supported Mubarak for decades, and we would not meet with Hillary Clinton until we got an apology for that.”

Asked to elaborate on his attitudes toward American political culture, Maher flashed his smile again. “You want us to go to jail in America too?”

As the laughter in the room subsided, Rashed strode right on ahead, emphasizing that the Obama Administration extended no help at all to the April 6 Youth Movement and was in no way responsible for the Egyptian revolution. A New York Times’ report to the contrary had infuriated Rashed, who takes vigorous exception to US foreign policy, especially the apparent double standard regarding which democratic revolutions it will support.

“You cannot say, ‘I am with the Iranian opposition because Ahmadinejad is my enemy’ but also say, ‘Mubarak is a man of democracy,’ as George Bush did,” says Rashed, echoing the words of the man he and Maher support to lead Egypt, Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei. (Said ElBaradei during the revolution, “You are losing credibility by the day. On one hand you’re talking about democracy, rule of law and human rights, and on the other hand you’re lending still your support to a dictator that continues to oppress his people.”)

Bush is not the only presidential recipient of Rashed’s skepticism. “When Obama was running, he kept promising to leave Iraq. Why hasn’t he? Until Iraq is not occupied and Palestinians have rights, Americans are paying taxes for people around the world to hate them more. And now they’re starting in Libya.”

The Q&A session returned frequently to the Muslim Brotherhood and anxieties about a theocratic Egypt. Maher and Rashed worked hard to put these fears to rest. “What party is Angela Merkel from?” asked Rashed. “The Christian Democratic Union. That is a religious party. As long as there is a strong enough Constitution, there is room for religious parties without fear of theocracy.”

Apart from a multi-religious, secular state, Maher assured the crowd that women’s rights are on the rise too in Egypt. “We work with many opposition groups led by women,” he said. Indeed, the April 6 Youth Movement itself was co-founded by Maher and Israa Abdel Fattah, also known as “Facebook Girl.”

But while questioners justifiably wanted to know about the ideological programs of prospective leadership factions in Egypt, Maher and Rashed aimed to talk about what they know best: revolutionary tactics in the digital age.

Rashed depicted revolution as a product that salesmen must market to a target demographic. “If a person can’t read, I won’t sell the revolution on a brochure. If a person doesn’t know politics, I won’t sell the revolution as political. If a person isn’t religious, I won’t sell the revolution as sacred.” He went on to advise his audience to conduct market research and to learn the minds, desires and intentions of the people they hope to mobilize.

The success manufacturers have at selling products can be replicated, Maher holds, but activists have to start thinking like ad agencies if it’s going to work. “After April 6, 2008, we knew people were excited because of how many people joined us on Facebook. But we also knew we had to go out and talk to the people in the streets, the cabdrivers, the civil servants. We knew we had to read many books and study many countries. And we knew we had to keep organizing and mobilizing.”

Rashed interrupted there, to no protest from Maher. “Don’t worry if the revolution doesn’t come tomorrow. It will come. It is only a matter of time. Just keep working.”

He continued, “If anyone has been to Egypt before, you’ll know that cabdrivers there cannot stop talking. I saw a movie in which a man asks a cabdriver please to stop talking or else drop him off. So the cabdriver drops the man off. Well, every time I was in a cab, I would call Ahmed on my cell phone and talk loudly about planning a big protest in Tahrir Square for January 25th, because I knew that they couldn’t stop themselves talking about what they’d overheard. Eventually, on January 23rd, a cabbie asked if I’d heard about this big demonstration that was happening in two days. I told him it sounded crazy and to stay away from Tahrir Square that day. I knew that would make him spread the news even more.”

Sarah Jaffe, a journalist in attendance, was impressed by the story and later remarked, “‘Social’ media is all sorts of things. Taxi drivers were as important as Facebook in Egypt.” This expanded perspective on what social media can mean will be fruitful in America, thinks Jaffe.

And indeed, the lesson here was that revolutions are not spontaneous. They are the products of years of disciplined organizing and preparation. The only thing about them that is spontaneous is the spark that sets the powder-keg ablaze.

Meantime, the point is to build the powder-keg.