It is almost 11 p.m., and the April 6 Youth Movement’s Giza office is bustling. It is the night before a protest in front of the prosecutor-general’s office demanding the release of three April 6 members being held in solitary confinement. They were arrested during a March protest outside Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim’s residence and are accused of insulting the minister and attacking security forces.
Voices rise as members engage in a heated discussion as Egyptian pop music blares in the background. The office is a small apartment in one of Giza’s popular neighborhoods. Vibrant paintings of the revolution’s martyrs and slogans adorn the walls: “Bread, freedom and social justice.” Located next to the entrance is a floor-to-ceiling portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s non-violent independence movement.
Non-violent resistance forms the heart of the April 6 movement’s philosophy. The movement formed in solidarity with workers who were planning to strike on April 6, 2008, in the industrial town of al-Mahalla al-Kubra. Much to everyone’s surprise, thousands of Facebook users responded to the call for a national general strike in support of the Mahalla workers. From 2008 until the Egyptian revolution overthrowing former president Hosni Mubarak, April 6 continued to mobilize not only at the grassroots level via lively political discussions on social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, but also through peaceful street protests, though usually with low turnout.
In the wake of the Tunisian revolution ousting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the April 6 movement coordinated with other youth groups to organize a Day of Revolt on January 25, 2011, sparking the protests that would lead to the downfall of the repressive Mubarak.
More than two years after Mubarak’s departure, co-founders Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel continue to champion the official platform of the April 6 movement: «The revolution continues.» Adel explained, “During the revolution, I was telling our members in the 18 days in Tahrir Square, it’s easy to get Mubarak out, but everything that will follow will not be easy. You need unity between groups to make a national project, and this is not easy. Everyone is searching for what he will win, not what the country will win.”
Both Maher and Adel acknowledge that the political situation in Egypt has improved following the revolution. Said Maher, “You have some freedom better than before the revolution; you have some dignity more than before the revolution. We have many points to make us optimistic about the revolution, but until now we can’t say that we won. We are still struggling to achieve our dreams.”
However, they also fear that President Mohammed Morsi is retracting any political gains made. According to Adel, “Morsi is trying to use the same tools, the same ideas and the same reasons as Mubarak. He is still using the police and Ministry of Interior against the opposition.”
As Maher explains, the current regime is “finding small ways to take away freedom, but they want to make us silent slowly, step by step, without resistance.” Referencing what he considers the most recent attacks of freedom of speech, Maher said, “They consider freedom of speech as chaos, or as making noise, so they try to find any tools or laws or behaviors to control this freedom, like what happened with [satirical comedian] Bassem Youssef, with many journalists, and also with April 6.”
It is this concern over the deteriorating political conditions that led April 6 to celebrate its recent anniversary by calling for another Day of Rage with peaceful demonstrations organized throughout Cairo. The movement’s demands, articulated on its Facebook page, were the release of detained activists, the removal of the country’s prosecutor-general, dignity for citizens and the downfall of the regime.
Like many Egyptians, the April 6 Youth Movement also found itself in a difficult position during the last presidential election, torn between the two choices: Morsi of the Mulism Brotherhood or Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s prime minister.
When asked if he regrets the movement’s decision to support Morsi, Maher answered, “Not exactly. [Morsi and Shafiq] were two choices of how to die.” His smile fading, he tempers his answers. “We must try the Muslim Brotherhood, to know who the Muslim Brotherhood is. If they care about Egypt, we will support them. We’re not against them ideologically, but because they cannot govern Egypt as good governors.”
How they view achieving the downfall of the regime is closely linked to the movement’s decision not to transform itself into a political party. Maher justifies the movement’s decision to engage with political processes while also protesting, saying, “Sometimes, the new guys after the revolution said, ‘politics is against revolution’ — but it’s not against it, no. Sometimes you need political ways, and sometimes you use radical ways. We want to be flexible.”
And thus, the downfall of Morsi’s regime may come through protest, elections or any combination of the two. However, the movement’s leaders are careful to explain that while they will support other political parties in parliamentary elections, notably Mohammad El Baradei’s Constitution Party and maybe a few of their own members as independents, they will not participate in the elections as April 6.
Maher, who won a seat in the last parliamentary election but then resigned over the constitutional drafting process in October 2012, explained, “We are not searching for authority. We are young people from different backgrounds who want Egypt to be a civilian state. Equality, social justice, freedom and tolerance — these are our main goals. A lobby group will be a good model for us.”
Adel, who used to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood but left in 2007, said, “We’re talking about a pressure group. How can we make an organization like the Muslim Brotherhood? A pressure group can work with poor people, provide services for people and also have a think tank. We can work in the street, we can work in the government, and we can make a campaign against the government by supporting or being against a law. The party is classic politics, but a lobby is new for Egypt. We’re talking about a youth pressure group working for social and political rights. This is our goal.”
How to implement their agenda, often dubbed “the youth agenda,” through parliament still presents a conundrum as they have no authority. Maher is optimistic that the broad opposition could win 60% of the parliamentary seats in the upcoming election, possibly to be held in October. He believes that the opposition parties will include many youths on their party lists, even if not necessarily members of April 6. He is also aware, however, that frustration with the current political situation has dampened youths’ interest and hopes that mobilizing for the election will help raise morale and participation again.
The movement’s success in Egypt has raised its international standing, and it is now training youth movements from other Middle Eastern countries to learn from their experience. Most notably, it has hosted and visited Sudan’s Girifna Movement, which translates as “We Are Fed Up.” Sudan experienced protests against Omar al-Bashir’s regime beginning in January 2011. Though protests have been sporadic, anti-austerity demonstrations, which lasted through the summer of 2012, were the high point of collective dissent, with diverse and widespread participation throughout Khartoum.
As April 6 continues, so does the struggle to achieve the Egyptian revolution’s goals of political reform and social justice. Adel described what he envisions as victory: “When we see the youth are leading, when they are in government — in power and not just leading projects — then I think we can talk about succeeding.” Jovial and candid, he added, “We are tired of old people.”
Zenobia Azeem is a Cairo-based freelance writer. She has worked in the field of international election observation for the past five years, primarily in the Middle East. Follow her on twitter @elbowsymmetry.