Nine months ago, Egyptians poured out into the streets in an unprecedented display of democratic participation and social revolt. In a few weeks’ time, on November 28, 2011, Egyptians will have an opportunity to reap the benefits of these efforts in what will supposedly be the first fair and transparent elections of the post-Mubarak era.
Nevertheless, the unrest and confusion that have erupted since the revolution have led many to wonder whether Egypt can transition to a true democracy, or whether it will simply undergo shallow cosmetic reforms. In a poll conducted by the Egyptian paper AlMasry ALYoum, readers were asked whether the next parliament would be representative of all Egyptians. 81% of respondents said “No.”
Recent events in Egypt, as well as the concerns that have developed about the revolution’s current trajectory, underscore the many social forces shaping the political and social scene in the country. The April 6 Movement, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the Muslim Brotherhood, and others have been key players throughout this formative period. By examining each of these social and political forces, the contours of Egypt’s ambiguous future can be better understood. In this first installment of a three-part series on this subject, we will look at the role of the April 6 Movement in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Beginnings of the Movement
The April 6 Movement is a grassroots youth movement, which grew out of a Facebook group created on March 23, 2008 in support of the Mahalla textile workers’ strike. The Facebook group aimed to spread awareness about the workers’ strike, which was to take place on April 6, 2008. The group called upon its members to protest in solidarity with the thousands of workers demanding increases in the minimum wage and decrying rising food prices. Ultimately, the protests were violently crushed by security forces, leaving three people dead and over 400 arrested. Among those detained in the protests’ aftermath were Esraa AbdelFattah and Ahmed Maher, the creators of the April 6 Facebook group.
April 6, which continued to maintain its Facebook page, subsequently became one of the primary anti-regime organizations, staging several other, albeit less successful, demonstrations. It developed a politically and socio-economically diverse membership and ascribed to politically moderate views.
April 6 was but one of many political youth groups formed in the late 2000s, such as the We Are All Khaled Said Group and the opposition group lead by the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. These groups, which were not mutually exclusive, often had overlapping members.
While April 6 and Egypt’s other youth groups were not the only reason for the success of the January 25 revolution, their history of activism and non-violent protest served as a vehicle for Egyptians to express their dissent. As the April 6 Movement’s Facebook page states: “Change and reform in Egypt won’t be accomplished through verbal demands, but through real action and through presenting well-studied alternative solutions to achieve a political, economic and social renaissance for Egypt.” However, as the curtain came down on the extraordinary display of social mobilization at Tahrir, April 6 became increasingly sidelined by the SCAF, which grew increasingly impatient with both its ‘verbal demands’ and actions.
Navigating Post Mubarak-Egypt
After Mubarak’s fall on February 11, 2011, April 6 decided to leave Tahrir Square and to give the SCAF an opportunity to respond to the Revolutionary Youth Council’s demands (a coalition formed by the different youth groups in Tahrir). By late March/early April protests had resumed in response to the military’s perceived reluctance to bring Mubarak’s family to justice.
As the months passed and SCAF continued to disregard the youth’s demands, April 6 took action and organized another occupation of Tahrir Square on July 8, under the banner “The Revolution First.” In response, the SCAF issued a statement chiding the protestors, and accusing April 6 of receiving foreign funding. Although SCAF was not able to produce evidence to support these claims, with the help of the mainstream media, it continued to undermine the Movement, blaming it for the lack of stability plaguing the country.
Since then, relations between SCAF and April 6 have been tense, especially as more members of the Movement have been detained by SCAF and tried before military tribunals. The Movement’s opposition efforts are now squarely directed against the SCAF, which is perceived to be little more than a continuation of the Mubarak regime.
As a result of SCAF’s propaganda, the Movement’s popularity has dropped considerably over the past several months. From those who believe April 6 is controlled by foreign agents to those who have grown weary of the protests, the once perceived victors of the revolution are beginning to find themselves on the political fringes.
Internal disagreements among the leaders of the April 6 Movement have only contributed to its problems. Although the Movement has not effectively split in two, there is a de facto division within April 6. The original faction, formally called The 6th of April Youth Movement, is headed by Ahmed Maher, while the second group is headed by Tarek El-Khouly and goes by the name The April 6 Youth Movement. The splinter group has created a second “official” Facebook page for the Movement that has close to 40,000 members.
El-Khouly, who was the original group’s former spokesperson, argues that the split resulted from the lack of internal democracy within the Movement, which is headed by Maher and a small group of ruling members. The two groups also split over disagreements regarding the Movement’s role in the coming months. Under Maher’s leadership, the original group has sought to build its political legitimacy, without creating a formal political party; the idea of becoming an NGO was also entertained, but ruled out because of the need for foreign funding. The splinter group led by El-Khouly, on the other hand, has been focusing more on protests and political mobilization..
In a conference at New York University on October 26, 2011, Ahmed Maher responded to audience questions about the Movement and discussed the Movement’s plans for the coming months. According to Maher, the Movement has over 20,000 official members who have received political training and who pay membership dues. Aside from these official members, Maher claims that there are hundreds of thousands more who support the Movement.
Throughout the discussion, Maher described the Movement’s decision-making as calculated and pragmatic, and expressed optimism for the future. He drew many parallels between April 6’s current position and the position/organization of the Muslim Brotherhood before the revolution. When audience members asked why the Movement did not form a political party, Maher responded that April 6 would rather maintain its position as the revolution’s watchdog by supporting favorable candidates, denouncing unfavorable candidates, and holding the authorities accountable for their actions. As the Movement’s Facebook page states:
We are not calling for a new group or party, we are calling all Egyptians (individuals, groups, parties, all those dedicated in any sector) to participate in one project: awakening the people of Egypt and preventing the government from oppressing them and eradicating the gang of corrupt and exploitative [officials/businessmen etc.]. We are trying to become a movement that will act as our dear Egypt’s conscience.
Maher’s vision of how he expects the Movement to achieve this vision is unclear. He expressed admiration for the unofficial political status held by the Muslim Brotherhood before the revolution, and its ability to remain politically effective without having a political party. At the same time, Maher mentioned the possibility of creating a lobbying group, or establishing a political party once things have stabilized.
While he readily denounced the SCAF as an obstacle to democracy and expressed doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood would sweep the upcoming parliamentary elections, Maher seemed unresponsive to questions concerning mobilization efforts on the ground and disagreements within the Movement. When asked to delineate the Movement’s plans for spreading political awareness and ensuring government accountability, Maher skipped around issues with the natural evasiveness of a politician, frequently stating that the Movement has its “tools.”
Will April 6 succumb to the pitfalls of transitional democracy, or will it recover its position as a beacon of political integrity? Ultimately, the Movement’s decisions in these next months will considerably affect the answer to this question. The mainstream media and SCAF have pointed fingers at April 6, as well as other youth groups, and accused them of causing persistent instability and uncertainty in the country. As things currently stand, April 6 has seen its popularity weaken, primarily as a result of this defamation campaign.
Nevertheless, April 6 retains the capacity to play a positive role in Egypt’s political and social future. Instead of being consumed by its internal conflicts, April 6 must unite around its shared goals. However, in order to develop a loyal and involved membership, the Movement must nurture intragroup democracy. After all, it cannot credibly advocate democracy on the national level if it cannot practice it internally.
The Movement’s legitimacy will also depend on how it prioritizes its actions. For example, while April 6’s support for Occupy Wall Street attracted international attention, it also raised eyebrows at home. Why are the leaders of the Movement spending time supporting activists in the United States when they are so needed in Egypt, especially during this critical time before the November 28 parliamentary elections?
Finally, the Movement must be more transparent about its objectives and the “tools” it uses in its work, especially during this period of distrust. For example, the Movement has taken the controversial step of hiring the Levine Communications Office (LCO), a Beverly Hills based public relations firm. Although Maher and the firm have both stated that its services are provided pro bono, Stephen Cook from the Council on Foreign Relations argues that “the April 6th Movement’s relationship with LCO is curious given the group’s history and role in the Egyptian uprising. Perhaps they don’t understand how their engagement of an American public relations firm might look to their fellow Egyptians, though that seems hard to believe.”
At a time where so much in Egypt is uncertain, there must be more clarity in April 6’s direction. As the Movement’s Facebook page states, “It is our generation’s right to try. For we will either succeed, or we will present an experience for other generations to learn from.” April 6 has thus far presented an “experience” that has helped shape the contours of Egypt’s opposition and revolution. Whether the Movement will be able to succeed in its stated goals is yet to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the failure of April 6 and similar youth groups will have dangerous implications for the future of Egypt’s popular revolution.
*Nancy Elshami is a staff writer at Muftah.