An activist in a police state should know when to sprint.
Mohamed Abdel Aziz has bolted from trouble a number of times, including dashing from security forces closing in on a demonstration in the port city of Alexandria. His less mercurial moments have three times landed him in police stations, but upon each release he has returned to his computer, opened his blog and conspired in cyberspace to end President Hosni Mubarak’s 27-year rule of Egypt.
That’s an unlikely prospect. But Aziz, a thin man in black clothes with a wristwatch shimmying up and down his arm, is a founder of the 6th of April, a protest movement that draws from a Facebook group of nearly 76,000 people, mostly high school and university students. The movement opines, plots and Twitters, though it has yet to generate feet in the street: Three of its calls for nationwide strikes drew more police than protesters.
“No one knows when the trigger of revolution will be pulled. The state is oppressive, but ordinary Egyptians from all over sympathize with us,” said Aziz, who likes to recall the passions that roused his countrymen’s 1919 revolution against the British.
“When we started using Facebook it was a novelty,” he said. “Calling for a national strike was a novelty. It was like lighting a candle in a dark room. But this is still an oppressive state, and people are scared.”
Human rights groups say the public’s fear is a testament to mass arrests, torture and other violations of civil liberties against political opponents in a nation that has been under a state of emergency for nearly three decades. The Mubarak government, which receives about $1.2 billion in U.S. military and economic aid annually, is blamed for inflation and corruption and for allowing public services such as schools and hospitals to deteriorate into brittle artifices. Young Egyptians see a nation scoured of opportunity and run by patronage and connections.
“The generation born since 1981 came into the world during the worst period of Egyptian history,” said Aziz, 23, an aviation engineer. “We can see how dynamic the rest of the world is, but we feel alienated, as if we are living outside of time. We’ve spent years in schools and learned nothing. We have diplomas that are useless.”
Mubarak’s opposition hums with disparate voices -- nationalists, unionists, leftists and the Muslim Brotherhood -- that have been unable to unify around a single message. The Muslim Brotherhood is the strongest movement, but despite Egypt’s increasing religious tilt, the Brotherhood’s Islamist ideals are viewed by many as too radical to form strong alliances with secular parties and organizations.
The 6th of April speaks to an anxious, rebellious youth, but at times the movement has been tugged in too many directions, including demonstrating for better wages for textile workers and protesting discrimination against the minority Nubian community. Such efforts have won it a measure of universal appeal, but have not seriously challenged the Mubarak government.
Aziz’s organization and other bloggers and Facebook activists, however, have expanded the debate into cyberspace, a new challenge for security forces that at times have been outflanked by organizing tactics and videos of protests and police brutality appearing on the Internet. Police have detained nearly 500 bloggers nationwide. But within five days of its founding last year, the Facebook group aligned with the 6th of April had registered 40,000 members.
“No one expected it to spread so quickly,” Aziz said.
He sat the other day in an office along the Nile, where fishermen glided past and the sounds of traffic filled open windows. He tweaked his words, fine-tuned his phrases, striking the pose of many young activists, a blend of intensity and laid-back aloofness. Aziz is a returnee, the son of teachers who left Egypt years ago to raise their son amid the prosperity of the United Arab Emirates.
It is a common trek on a shared map. For generations, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have moved to the Persian Gulf, sending money home every month and growing accustomed to -- if not accepting of -- a more rigid form of Islam than is practiced in Egypt. It was this environment, Aziz said, that stirred a self-reflection that would later inspire his political awareness.
“I was raised in the religious conservatism and tribal tradition of the Persian Gulf,” he said. “I read a lot and I began writing essays on freedom and political poetry. Then I turned to Egypt. Egyptians. Who was I? I started to read about our history. I was fascinated by the revolution against the British and our independence. But I wanted to know: Why have we retreated? Why have we gone backward?”
His parents stayed in the Emirates, but Aziz came home to Cairo to live with his grandfather and attend school. His first major demonstration was in 2003, joining tens of thousands of Egyptians in the streets to protest the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Aziz walked home from the rally an activist. He later took a job in information technologies and began a blog called the Free Egyptians, describing himself as “a young man who got fed up with what’s happening in his country.” He found like-minded blogs, scrolled through similar manifestoes and discovered the Internet could be used for more than visiting chat rooms, watching YouTube and downloading music.
“We’ve broke the silence and we’ve started stuff,” he said. “We’ve motivated the youth and we’re spreading the culture of disobedience and strikes.”
The police have yet to budge.
Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.