Draped in a scarf and smoking a water pipe, Ahmed Maher sat in an outdoor cafe, looking too relaxed to be an often-jailed dissident and the leader of a youth movement that has shaken the Egyptian government by rallying thousands of protesters into the streets this week.
“It never stops,” Maher said, looking down at his cellphone, muted but flashing incessantly. “After the revolution in Tunisia, we are able to market the idea of change in Egypt. People now want to seize something.”
A 28-year-old construction engineer, Maher, who says he has been beaten while imprisoned, heads the April 6 youth movement, which has organized protests and plotted strategies through Facebook to outmaneuver the police. The social network technology symbolizes why a young generation of Egyptians, not beholden to ideologies or religion, but driven by the belief that the country owes them opportunity, is so dangerous to longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
Maher’s movement has called for another round of demonstrations Friday, a direct challenge to a government that has said it will no longer tolerate public dissent. Security forces have blocked activists’ Twitter accounts, but they have not been able to counter the venom that has protesters ripping the president’s pictures from walls while cursing his son, who many Egyptians expect will someday succeed him.
The 82-year-old Mubarak has for decades been skilled at dividing, arresting and weakening an opposition of socialist and nationalist parties and the more powerful religiously oriented Muslim Brotherhood, which stated Thursday that it was encouraging its young members to join Friday’s protests.
But this week’s unrest, inspired by the recent Tunisian uprising that toppled another autocratic longtime ruler, is moving beyond traditional opposition voices.
“There is a generational gap in Egypt,” Maher said, watching waiters and the twentysomething men and women likely to join him in the protests. “The opposition is looking to preserve themselves and their parties. They’ve become too hesitant. But young activists are fired up, and they have no allegiances to anything but change.”
He stirred his yogurt drink, checked the number on the glowing cellphone. With closely cropped hair and wearing a black leather coat, Maher said, “My inspiration comes from experiences, not personalities. I admired the ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine and the [Serbs] who overthrew Slobodan Milosevic.”
Although unemployment for college graduates is high, it wasn’t easy to gather together the young and mobilize the passions of youthful Egyptians, who previously have shifted from moments of rebellious fervor to detached complacency. Even now, with more than 90,000 “friends” plugged into the April 6 Facebook group to receive information over the Internet on their computers or hand-held devices, there’s no singular force that represents all protesters, a dilemma for both the government and demonstration organizers.
Many young Egyptians seek to leave the country. Others join the conservative Muslim Brotherhood or follow popular TV preachers who espouse a hip, moderate Islam. Some take jobs paying as little as $60 a month; they get dressed up at night and sit in cafes, nursing cups of tea, too poor to marry. Their frustration has accumulated against a president who came to power before they were born.
“I was never interested in politics before,” said Islam Hashem, an Arabic literature major at Ain Shams University in Cairo. “But now that I’m about to graduate, I see that many people I know don’t have jobs. I realize now our government is not doing its job. The poverty and corruption are all related to the failure of the regime. I don’t know what will happen with these protests, but at least it’s a step.”
April 6 was founded in 2008 to back striking textile mill workers in the city of El Mahalla el Kubra, about 65 miles north of Cairo. The group, named to commemorate a bloody clash with police preventing the strike at a state-owned plant, honed its cyberspace activism, but early attempts to mobilize protests were disorganized and crushed by police.
Maher began reaching out to secular grass-roots and student movements emerging to reform a nation they believed had substituted oppression for vision.
Momentum was slow to build, particularly enlisting Egypt’s increasing band of labor activists representing millions of underpaid workers. Disgruntled middle-class and blue-collar workers potentially present the biggest threat to the government, but they have seldom aligned with the opposition organizations. Hundreds of strikes have erupted in recent years, most of them put down by force and promises of government concessions.
“The problem is,” said Maher, who has been fired from jobs because of his activism, “workers still don’t understand how the corruption in the political system relates to them. They don’t see the connection. The government quickly separates the troublemakers and offers to appease the rest.”
One year ago, when activists questioned whether Egyptians possessed the courage to rebel, the political opposition was energized by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who returned home to lead the National Front for Change. Maher and others, at the time, said the opposition had found its galvanizing presence.
But for months, ElBaradei was unwilling to engage in sustained street protests and was often out of the country. That may change with the return here of the former chief United Nations nuclear inspector, who said he would join demonstrations Friday.
“There’s still a lot of potential around ElBaradei, Maher said. “He’s a symbol. Maybe it’s making people think we can’t rely on someone else, we have to do it ourselves.”
Other hopes for rebellion, including protests against human rights abuses and police torture, flared for a few days but disappeared. Last year, many thought demonstrations in Cairo and Alexandria over a blogger allegedly beaten to death while in police custody would trigger a national revolt. They didn’t.
Then Tunisia exploded and the rhythms of the Arab world were broken.
The Egyptian protest that brought more than 10,000 people into downtown Cairo on Tuesday had been planned before the electrifying events in Tunisia. But activists regrouped and marketed the spirit of Tunisia, startling both themselves and their government with the rage and turnout against Mubarak.
“I think people are now more willing to sacrifice their own lives,” Maher said. “They finally see that even if they die, it’s for a larger cause. That’s the climate here now.”
Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.