How the margins became the center: On protest, politics and April 6

Was it inevitable for us to fall from such heights, and see our blood on our hands … for us to realize that we are no angels … as we used to think? Was it also necessary for us to expose our genitals to everyone, to make sure our reality is no longer a virgin?

Such liars were we when we said: We are exceptional!

Mahmoud Darwish

The following is my attempt to evaluate the April 6 Youth Movement, of which I remain a member. It’s a chance for self-criticism, though not unbiased, as it’s difficult to write impartially about an initiative that has allowed me to express my views, and the successes and failures of which I continue to bear. I am biased toward our collective hope and dream: “Let’s try again, no matter how much it seems like there’s no way forward.”

I will recount our vision and ideas, the way we organized and our various stances and contradictions.

Part 1: The vision

“Our generation has the right to try, and, when it does, it will either succeed, or it will give future generations the benefit of the experiment.” This was our founding statement in 2008. To try is a human right. The road was difficult, but we didn’t lack courage, and at times luck was on our side. We often lacked awareness though.

I cannot separate this experience from its historical, social, cultural and political contexts: We began in a political vacuum. Our identity crisis was a reflection of a wider identity crisis in society, and the movement was in some ways a microcosm of that society, with all its contradictions, crises and problems. It is natural that this would be reflected in the way we perceived the world, the organization and ourselves.

An existence that preceded purpose

(Or, “ask where we’re going after you get in the car” — in reference to the title of an article by Ahmed Maher.)

The April 6 Youth Movement originated in a political climate almost completely void of traditional political practices. Politics was represented by groups of people with similar ideas and a political project they then persuaded others to support — although, due to oppression and corruption, even this was not the reality at the time, despite the decorative presence of political parties and a parliament. The emergence of the Kifaya movement at the end of 2004 was a major development in Egyptian political life, and the dawn of a new era of protest movements at the forefront of politics.

“’What do you mean a movement of conscience? Whose conscience?’ So far, we have failed to answer this question.”

April 6 started as a protest movement dependent on youth participation. It wasn’t primarily concerned with specifying its main aims or purpose, except for a few sporadic attempts to establish a framework for bringing members together, including the “April ideology,” which was closer to a manifesto than a comprehensive vision. Greater importance was placed on being present as a protest movement than on ideology. We wanted to gather as many people as possible under one political umbrella and move beyond the traditional rifts and divisions we saw in other political parties. But this desire to bring everyone together is also what led to crises later on, when deciding who would take up positions or give speeches, and what our identity would be.

Our main concern was to present the movement as a protest cry and the voice of conscience. I recall veteran journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal’s sarcastic remark at one of our meetings: “What do you mean a movement of conscience? Whose conscience?” So far, we have failed to answer this question.

Although there are clear advantages to being on the margins of the political process, we began in a moment in which there was little space or means for expressing political opinion, making the act of protest the center or core of the political process. While this might appear to an outsider as a victory, it carried within it the seeds for a crisis that revealed itself later, as we realized the inadequacy of protest and its inability to deliver real results under normal circumstances.

The movement did not have the tools or capabilities for presenting a formal political project. Our full attention was focused on mobilizing on the ground, especially within the framework of the non-violent methodology we adopted. In fact, we used to perceive those who assumed political posts as traitors to “our ideals,” in a form of revolutionary idealism that was somewhat naïve.

As the movement in these early days was relatively successful, there were several attempts to emulate it in the years that followed — it’s fair to say that the cost of political activity was far less than it is today. Coalitions and million-people marches became trends, some of which were successful in capturing the popular imagination and some that were not.

After February 11, 2011

I remember asking “What next?” at a meeting after Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down. What would our role be in a moment where protests seemed less necessary?

One suggestion at the time was to disband the movement, leaving it up to those who wanted to participate in the political process, through a political party for example, to do so. In the end, Ahmed Maher suggested we develop the movement into a political organization. His vision was to bring political work, a pressure movement and a youth organization together in a way that was social, developmental, intellectual and cultural. It was always a dream of mine to establish an academy of some sort.

“Our focus was no longer on opposing the government, and we hadn’t though much about the alternatives.”

It seemed obvious to us that the time for protesting was over and the opportunity for building real participation had arrived. We had to think of alternatives to speeches and demonstrations. Our focus was no longer on opposing the government, and we hadn’t though much about the alternatives. Although we differed politically, we managed to agree that the focus must be on freedom, justice and democracy.

The period following February 11, 2011, cannot be considered outside the social and political context of the time. A huge change knocked everyone off balance for a while. The stars of protests, of the margins, were suddenly propelled to the front of the scene after such brilliant “success.” People gathered around television screens to listen to “the youth of the revolution.” These young people became a phenomenon that attracted more young people to become ready-made revolutionaries, angry at everyone and everything.

The vast majority of the “revolutionary youth” did not have any political channels for their ideas. Ours was one of the few movements they could join. Of course, the counter-revolution was aware of this and started to place obstacles before us in an attempt to delay our presentation of a real political project. But we should also take some responsibility for this period of uncertainty ourselves. Although we knew exactly what it was we didn’t want, and there wasn’t an absence of ideas, we were unable to translate the slogans for freedom, justice and dignity into a political program.

Despite continued protests until June 30, 2013, the movement did eventually develop a vision and strategy. I had the honor of assisting in the preparation of the first strategy for re-structuring in 2012, which was closer to a general framework concerning our expectations of the state, constitution and citizens’  rights and duties, in addition to a modest attempt on our part to establish a center for study and research affiliated with the movement.

The opening up of the public domain in the period after Mubarak stepped down until June 2013 was relatively new for Egyptian society. People talked about conceptions of the state, revolution, democracy, liberalism, secularism and socialism, among others. Against the backdrop of continued protests and demonstrations, this unfortunately meant people connected protests, April 6 and the “youth of the revolution” in a way that pigeonholed us as “the kids who did protests,” while the reality was that most of these young people weren’t members of organizations. Most of the newcomers to organizations such as April 6 during that time were audience members or demonstrators, which increased the confusion over our “increasing numbers.” I realized this was a problem, and asked a number of “newcomers” what their visions were. I was surprised with the answers I got, many of which were completely different to one another.

“The stars of protests, of the margins, were suddenly propelled to the front of the scene.”

It’s interesting to note that the counter-revolution used the same tools as the revolution during this period — that of organizing protests — for it was the intelligence services that supervised the founding of the Tamarod (Rebel) movement that became the front for bringing Mohamed Morsi down.

After June 30, 2013

Moments of defeat are usually an opportunity for thinking critically, revising and assessing mistakes. It is humanly understandable that, at times of power and victory, one doesn’t usually care much to review one’s steps. I witnessed how the euphoria of victory turned us into arrogant, narrow-minded personalities, but the bitterness of defeat broke us and drove many of us to withdraw in self-doubt. A few of us, however, wanted to hold the “revolutionaries” to account.

This reminds me of the 2008 television film God on Trial, which tells the story of a group of Jews putting God on trial in Adolf Hitler’s prisons the same evening they’re due to be taken to the gas chambers. They question why God is allowing them to be gassed despite their being “God’s chosen people,” inevitably also questioning themselves. Likewise, it is unfair to trial the “revolution” without questioning ourselves and our actions.

The polarization at the time, and the mobilization against the Muslim Brotherhood — which was skillfully used to turn people against the January 2011 revolution itself — made the climate for action very difficult. The margin for action after Mubarak narrowed under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The cost of political action under Mubarak was arrest, beatings or dismissal from one’s job, but the cost of such activity under Sisi has surpassed this to include disappearances and murder. Two of the founders of the April 6 movement, Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, were arrested and detained, followed by Amr Ali and Ramy al-Sayed, which led to many members leaving and the decline of the organization.

Still, in this weakened state, the movement held a workshop to reassess. We produced a paper on April 6, 2015, which, to me, remains one of our best attempts at a vision to date.

Translated by Assmaa Naguib

Walid Shawky 

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