Last month, the leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement spent the 8th anniversary of the Egyptian group behind bars. Crucial to the 2011 revolution, their experiences since then show how Egypt has fallen back to the ‘deep state’.
The April 6 movement was crucial to the 2011 revolution.
The April 6 Youth Movement began in 2008, when a small group of young, progressive Egyptian activists made a Facebook page in solidarity with a workers’ strike in the city of Malla al-Kobra. Within a few weeks, the group had 70,000 supporters, and on 6 April 2008 thousands of workers rioted, with the Egyptian state retaliating by arresting around 400 protesters and killing four.
From that point onwards, the group was integral to the anti-Mubarak protests and sentiment that grew in the late 2000s. In January 2011, spurred by the contemporaneous Tunisian revolution, the group chose 25 January (a public holiday in Egypt under Mubarak, known as ‘Police Day’, and a date activists had previously used to mock and protest the Mubarak state) to organise a Tunisia-style protest. Asmaa Mahfouz, a founder of the movement, posted a now-famous YouTube video that went viral across the region, in which she tells viewers to gather in Tahrir Square and to not “be afraid of the government.”
Five years on from the events of 2011, a historiography of the crucial period of the protests that overthrew Mubarak is emerging. And as the agreed-upon narratives emerge of ‘who sparked the revolution’ it is, of course, important not to overstate the importance of any one group. Mohamed Elbaradei’s opposition movement, the youth wing of the Islamist-identifying Muslim Brotherhood that opposed and were targeted by the Mubarak regime, and the famous ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ Facebook group started anonymously by Google executive Wael Ghonim after the brutal killing of a young man by Egyptian police were crucial in galvanising support for the protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, as was the longstanding work of anti-authoritarian civil society activists and academics.
But the April 6 movement was a key component in this opposition landscape, and Asmaa Mahfouz’s YouTube call for protests sits alongside Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia as a trigger for the protests that became the 2011 so-called ‘Arab Spring’. The group was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 2011 for its contribution to the Egyptian revolution. Five years later, under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s presidency, the group is banned and its leaders are in prison, most of them convicted for violating Egypt’s repressive Sisi-era ‘protest law’.
The group is sometimes accused of being comprised of ‘foreign agents’. This is not the case (but it is complicated).
There’s little point in discussing the April 6 movement without discussing criticism of it – including criticism by those self-identifying as ‘left wing’ (since it’s easy enough to dismiss criticism of the group by Mubarak supporters).
A 2012 New Statesman article by Jenny O’Connor seemed to downplay the targeting of NGOs and civil society groups by the first (short-lived) post-Mubarak regime with the kinds of arguments I’ve grown used to hearing from left-wing activists who’ve lived in the Middle East: these groups receive money from US organisations seeking to meddle in the region, like the National Endowment for Democracy, and Wikileaks cables from 2008 show that the US government made contact with an April 6 Youth Movement member when he attended an ‘anti-authoritarian’ training workshop.
This criticism of facets of civil society under the pre-2011 authoritarian regimes of the Middle East has some validity: the ‘third space’ in the region was frequently congested with GONGOs (government-organised NGOs, basically posing as ‘human rights organisations’ which issue reports with little substantial criticism and provide soft power for the state by acting as a pressure-valve that neuters genuine dissent and criticism), organisations receiving funding from USAID and other bodies seeking to ‘promote US foreign policy’ (a difficult dilemma for any civil society or NGO group that needs funding), and Islamist groups that stepped up to fill the gaps left by the state in terms of provisions of social services (which partly accounts for the way in which the Muslim Brotherhood was able to gain support in the first elections after Mubarak was overthrown).
Some left-wing critics have pointed to the ‘training’ members of the April 6 movement received by members of Otpor, the civil society movement that pushed to bring down Slobodan Milošević in Serbia in the late 1990s. The controversy of the extent to which Otpor members were trained by and supported by the US government is a source of continual debate amongst Balkan activists, and has been transplanted to criticisms of the April 6 movement.
I think this criticism of the movement isn’t valid, and denies the agency and risks taken by young Egyptian activists both before and after 2011 in their struggle for freedom, equality and social justice. Claims that the April 6 movement is ‘marked by association’ with Otpor deny the complex nature of networks formed between activists on the global scale (for instance, I’ve attended training courses on ‘anti-authoritarian’ civil resistance and this doesn’t mean I subscribe to US State Department-sponsored ‘regime change’).
This criticism of the April 6 Youth Movement is, rather, deploying the rhetoric of the state itself – akin to Vladmir Putin’s Russia, in which many dissenting organisations are labelled as ‘spies’ and ‘foreign agents’ as a convenient way to control civil society. Of course western commentators should be mindful of this internal rhetoric and not inadvertently make situations harder for grassroots activists through association, but Jenny O’Connor’s 2012 criticism of the ‘shadowy world’ of anti-Mubarak groups denies the agency – and the tragedy – of young Egyptians who have struggled against myriad forces seeking to oppress them, with no ‘backing’ from anyone with power.
The fate of the April 6 Youth Movement explains a lot about Egypt since 2011.
One reason why anyone interested in the contemporary Middle East should know about the April 6 movement is because it is a prism through which to read the tumult of the last five years.
As someone who has researched the 2011 revolution and its aftermath, the twists and turns of the post-Mubarak era – with three constitutions and three presidents in almost as many years – have made it difficult to keep sight of who, at which moment, is abusing power over others. Yet the fate of the April 6 Youth Movement since 2011 demonstrates clearly: it is the young progressive voices of Egypt that have been drowned out again and again, as first the Muslim Brotherhood and then the military seized the revolutionary moment to consolidate their own power – and young, progressive activists became collateral in the old, antagonistic dynamic between Islamists and the military state.
Strikingly, the April 6 movement did support the removal of Mohamed Morsi in 2013 – as many progressive groups central to the 2011 revolution did, feeling that Morsi – particularly during the period of the December 2012 constitutional crisis – had ‘hijacked’ the revolution for his own ideological ends. Yet the April 6 movement soon came to condemn the military-backed regime that took Morsi’s place, first under interim president Adly Mansour and now under Sisi, with its notorious protest law, mass incarcerations and mass death sentences, and widespread use of military courts to try civilians. Amidst the unprecedented crackdown on dissent under Sisi, the group’s founding members, Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, were arrested for staging protests without the approval of the Ministry of Interior.
Ultimately, the fact that a progressive, anti-repression youth movement which spearheaded a revolution against a dictator is now, in 2016, banned and its leaders behind bars, tells us much about the way in which the 2011 Egyptian revolution was hijacked, and how the ‘deep state’ consolidated its power by returning under Sisi and crushing dissent with renewed vigour.
Sisi’s recent deals with the UK and ‘welcoming’ by the west obscure the fact that, five years after a revolution that called for ‘bread, freedom and justice’, his presidency is committing all the same abuses of power as the overthrown Mubarak regime.
The April 6 Youth Movement should be a familiar name to those who care about social justice and freedom from repression – not because they were the only group involved in the 2011 revolution (they obviously weren’t), nor because they are beyond criticism (they obviously aren’t), but because their fate is a reminder of how quickly the power of the state can regroup and crush those who dare to criticise its brutality.
Photo: Lilian Wagdy/Wikimedia
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