Wired and Shrewd, Young Egyptians Guide Revolt

CAIRO (Keydmedia) - They were born roughly around the time that President Hosni Mubarak first came to power, most earned degrees from their country’s top universities and all have spent their adult lives bridling at the restrictions of the Egyptian police state — some undergoing repeated arrests and torture for the cause.
Article Keydmedia Online
Wired and Shrewd, Young Egyptians Guide Revolt

They are the young professionals, mostly doctors and lawyers, who touched off and then guided the revolt shaking Egypt, members of the Facebook generation who have remained mostly faceless — very deliberately so, given the threat of arrest or abduction by the secret police.

Now, however, as the Egyptian government has sought to splinter their movement by claiming that officials were negotiating with some of its leaders, they have stepped forward publicly for the first time to describe their hidden role.

There were only about 15 of them, including Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who was detained for 12 days but emerged this week as the movement’s most potent spokesman.

Yet they brought a sophistication and professionalism to their cause — exploiting the anonymity of the Internet to elude the secret police, planting false rumors to fool police spies, staging “field tests” in Cairo slums before laying out their battle plans, then planning a weekly protest schedule to save their firepower — that helps explain the surprising resilience of the uprising they began.

In the process many have formed some unusual bonds that reflect the singularly nonideological character of the Egyptian youth revolt, which encompasses liberals, socialists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I like the Brotherhood most, and they like me,” said Sally Moore, a 32-year-old psychiatrist, a Coptic Christian and an avowed leftist and feminist of mixed Irish-Egyptian roots. “They always have a hidden agenda, we know, and you never know when power comes how they will behave. But they are very good with organizing, they are calling for a civil state just like everyone else, so let them have a political party just like everyone else — they will not win more than 10 percent, I think.”

Many in the circle, in fact, met during their university days. Islam Lotfi, a lawyer who is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth, said his group used to enlist others from the tiny leftist parties to stand with them in calling for civil liberties, to make their cause seem more universal. Many are now allies in the revolt, including Zyad el-Elaimy, a 30-year-old lawyer who was then the leader of a communist group.

Mr. Elaimy, who was imprisoned four times and suffered multiple broken limbs from torture for his political work, now works as an assistant to Mohamed ElBaradei, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the International Atomic Energy Agency. In turn, his group built ties to other young organizers like Ms. Moore.

The seeds of the revolt were planted around the time of the uprising in Tunisia, when Walid Rachid, 27, a liaison from an online group called the April 6 Movement, sent a note to the anonymous administrator of an anti-torture Facebook page asking for “marketing help” with a day of protest on Jan. 25, Mr. Rachid recalled. He wondered why the administrator would communicate only by Google instant message. In fact, it was someone he already knew: Mr. Ghonim, the Google executive.

The day of the protest, the group tried a feint to throw off the police. The organizers let it be known that they intended to gather at a mosque in an upscale neighborhood in central Cairo, and the police gathered there in force. But the organizers set out instead for a poor neighborhood nearby, Mr. Elaimy recalled.

Starting in a poor neighborhood was itself an experiment. “We always start from the elite, with the same faces,” Mr. Lotfi said. “So this time we thought, let’s try.”

They divided up into two teams — one coaxing people in cafes to join them, the other chanting to the tenements above. Instead of talking about democracy, Mr. Lotfi said, they focused on more immediate issues like the minimum wage. “They are eating pigeon and chicken and we are eating beans all the time,” they chanted. “Oh my, 10 pounds can only buy us cucumbers now, what a shame what a shame.”

Ms. Moore said: “Our group started when we were 50. When we left the neighborhood we were thousands.” As the protests broke up that day, she said, she saw a man shot to death by the police. She carried her medical bag to the next demonstration and set up a first-aid center.

By the time they occupied Tahrir Square, she and her friends had enlisted the Arab Doctors Union — many of whose members are also members of the Muslim Brotherhood — which set up a network of seven clinics. The night before the “Friday of anger” demonstration planned for Jan. 28, the group met at the home of Mr. Elaimy while Mr. Lotfi conducted what he called a “field test.” From 6 to 8 p.m., he and a small group of friends walked the narrow alleys of a working-class neighborhood calling out for residents to protest, mainly to gauge the level of participation and measure the pace of a march through the streets.

“And the funny thing is, when we finished up the people refused to leave,” he said. “They were 7,000 and they burned two police cars.”

When he called the information in to the group at Mr. Elaimy’s house, they drew up a detailed plan for protesters to gather at specified mosques, then march toward main arteries that led to Tahrir Square. They even told Mr. ElBaradei which mosque to attend. Then they informed the press where he would be, and pictures of a Nobel laureate drenched by water cannons flashed around the world.

In signs of a generation gap echoed across Egypt, the young people acknowledged some frustration with their elders in the opposition parties. “Simply, they are part of the system, part of the regime,” Mr. Lotfi said. “Mubarak was able to tame them.”

Even so, he said, having members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the square proved to be a strategic asset because as participants in an illegal, secret society, “they are by nature organized.”

That organization proved crucial a few days later when the protesters quickly formed a kind of assembly line to defend against an onslaught of rocks and firebombs from an army of Mubarak loyalists. One group used steel bars to break up pavement into stones, another relayed the rocks to the front and the third manned the barricades.

“When people have been killed, from time to time you feel guilty,” Mr. Lotfi said. “But after the war that night, we felt more and more that our country deserves our sacrifice.”

A few days later, seven members of the group were abducted by the police after leaving a meeting at Mr. ElBaradei’s house and detained for three days.

The organizers disseminated a weekly schedule, with the biggest protests set for Tuesday and Friday, to conserve their energy. And before each protest they leaked a new false lead to throw off the police, letting out that they would march on the state television headquarters, for example, when their real goal was to surround Parliament.

They formed a coalition to represent the youth revolt, with Mr. Ghonim on their executive committee. When the government began inviting them to meetings, they held a vote in Tahrir Square to decide. About a half-dozen representatives of youth groups participated, one person said, and they voted against negotiating by about 70 percent.

Most of the group are liberals or leftists, and all, including the Brotherhood members among them, say they aspire to a Western-style constitutional democracy where civic institutions are stronger than individuals.

But they also acknowledge deep divides, especially over the role of Islam in public life. Mr. Lotfi points to pluralistic Turkey. On the question of alcohol — forbidden by Islam — he suggested that drinking was a private matter but that perhaps it should be forbidden in public.

Asked if he could imagine an Egyptian president who was a Christian woman, he paused. “If it is a government of institutions,” he said, “I don’t care if the president is a monkey.”

Source: New York Times

Article 21 May 2021 10:14

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