No rest for an Egypt revolutionary
Men arrive at an Islamic party’s headquarters on a hot Cairo night. They hug, laugh and whisper around trays of pistachio sweets. A door closes and the haggling over Egypt’s future begins. But the young revolutionary is missing. Thirty minutes tick by; the amiable mood is cracking.
Ahmed Maher hurries in, dabbing his forehead with a tissue. He sits across from Saied Abdul Azim, a cleric in an embroidered skullcap, who with a phone call can summon tens of thousands of Koran-wielding followers into the street. The old man begins: “Liberals see freedom as giving rights to homosexuals or for anybody to do and wear what they want, even if it’s against Islam. We’ve come out to tell them we will fight this.”
Maher twitches as if a fly has landed on him. He takes a breath and looks at Azim.
“If we liberals managed to find something in common with nationalists, communists and other sects, then surely we can find common ground with Islamists,” he says. Maher listens for another hour to a Coptic Christian leader, a newspaper publisher, a representative of a onetime terrorist organization involved in a president’s assassination and an envoy from the new Civilization Party, a name that evokes the splendor of Egypt’s ancient past but seems a mirage in the precarious present.
Maher slips out at 1:21 a.m. and orders a coffee in an open-air cafe down the street. The 30-year-old rebel jots notes and appointments in a little black book: Watch the generals. Unify the opposition. Connect with the poor.
The leader of the April 6 Youth Movement, Maher is one of the nation’s most strategically savvy activists. But he senses the young are losing the revolution they heralded. Islamists are pressing for power. Remnants of the old guard are running for office, bankrolled by the same tycoons who made their fortunes under toppled President Hosni Mubarak. The commanders of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are maneuvering behind closed doors and updating their own Facebook page — an irony Maher can only describe as irritating.
Maher believes April 6 must protect the country from religious extremists; the army, which days ago expanded martial law; and other forces more skilled at intrigue than politically inexperienced cyber-dissidents. He envisions Egypt as a representative democracy to inspire an Arab world that until just 10 months ago seemed doomed to despotic rule. Every day is a kaleidoscope of competing tactics. Maher plots protests, taps out demands to the military-controlled interim government, meets with foreign diplomats and contemplates how to write a constitution.
His cellphone flashes like a strobe light, alerting him to labor strikes in the provinces and stones hurled at police in the capital. The generals have accused April 6 of “igniting strife” between the army and the people. The group has responded by suing the military council for libel.
“What I wish for is a country with a strong constitution that guarantees social equality and personal freedom,” says Maher, a civil engineer with bristles of gray in his close-cropped hair. “But the question is, what’s doable now? The next three or four years will bring a lot of fighting. Parliamentary elections. Presidential elections. Will the military turn over power? The country needs someone to guard the revolution. April 6 is the watchdog.”
Maher finishes his coffee and vanishes. He often appears and then, suddenly, is gone, roaming the city as if on reconnaissance. His 3-year-old daughter knows her father through glimpses of him creaking through the door late at night and out again just after dawn. He seems solitary, adrift, even when he’s surrounded by people.
One night Maher is talking electoral reform, the next sleeping in his car, texting tactics on the eve of a demonstration. Unlike many Egyptian rebels, Maher prefers the trenches to the limelight. No detail is too small. At a recent demonstration against the military, he instructed young men not on the merits of civil disobedience, but on how to tie and hang a canopy of sewn-together sheets to shade protesters in the summer heat.
There is not one enemy anymore, but many in different guises and trappings. The “pure black-and-white struggle” against Mubarak, he says in a puff of smoke from one of his meticulously rolled cigarettes, has turned more unnerving and surreal: “I met with the minister of interior the other day. He kissed me on both cheeks and invited me into his office. He would have thrown me in jail a few months ago.”
The call to prayer pierces the breeze off the Nile. Tanks sit beyond the ring road and boys hawk Egyptian flags on street corners. Maher melts into a new night to keep the revolution alive.
He hurries past a young woman wearing a veil and chatting with bohemians in the courtyard of the El Sawy Culture Wheel, a theater wedged between an overpass and a mosque. The lights dim for a documentary on the Jan. 25 uprising. Maher watches from the first row; there he is on the screen, embedded in the nation’s new narrative. The audience cheers. It is still breathtaking to witness Mubarak, his face pale and his dyed hair as shiny as black ice, resisting until he can resist no more. The lights come up and Maher takes the stage in a panel discussion.
“The media covered the revolution,” a woman in the audience says into a microphone, “but why aren’t they covering the post-revolution?”
“Why hasn’t social justice been fulfilled?” asks a man.
“Has the military stolen our revolution?” asks another.
“Things haven’t been going the way many of us dreamed,” he tells the crowd. “But we are not going back to how it was.”
They feel what he does. It seems that every day someone claiming to have been a leader of the revolution forms a political party. There is a lot of noise at the fringes, Maher says, but young activists need to put aside their differences to balance the conservative Islamic agenda of the Salafis, who live by a literal interpretation of the Koran, and the better-organized Muslim Brotherhood and its 600,000 members. He knows the leaders of fledgling secular parties, who show up at corporate-sponsored events eating finger sandwiches off silver trays, don’t understand that slaughtering a cow in a poor village and doling out the meat like the Islamists do will get you more votes than a speech on human rights.
Even Maher’s April 6 movement of young, educated Egyptians is struggling with factions and egos. The group, founded in 2008, tapped into the bloody labor unrest then sweeping Egypt, its name commemorating the date police killed three people, including a 15-year-old boy, during a textile workers strike. April 6 set up a Facebook group — it quickly grew to 70,000 members — and a network of bloggers.
The movement spent two years blending Internet activism with the more important strategy of drawing scared and complacent Egyptians into the streets. Maher studied the Solidarity union in Poland that brought down communism there in the 1980s and the youth revolt that helped topple Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. April 6 set up branches across Egypt and staged quick-hit acts of street disobedience, such as spray-painting “The regime is over” on city walls. Copycat movements began and in the early weeks of 2011, the rebellion was born.
Two nights before demonstrators marched toward Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, Maher discussed strategies at an outdoor cafe. Young men and women roamed the chilly streets as activists cut plastic shields out of water barrels. He didn’t want to predict what would happen in the days ahead, but by then April 6 was at the forefront of a surge that would energize millions, unite secularists and Islamists and force Mubarak to flee his palace.
That euphoria has faded. Tarek Khouly, who joined April 6 last year, led a breakaway faction after complaining that Maher was dictatorial. Members in branches in Alexandria and other cities quit over similar concerns and worries that the group’s maverick mystique was being jeopardized as its profile rose and Maher’s tactics, including contacts with outside organizations, were questioned.
The moment of truth, says Khouly, came when a member of Maher’s inner circle told Khouly that April 6 “has to stay autocratic in order for Egypt to achieve democracy. That was the end for us.”
Maher dismisses the former members as opportunists: “This is part of a plan to defame us,” he says. “Many of these people were not true members of April 6 but started claiming they were after the revolution. We didn’t even know them before.”
Maher has more immediate concerns as he paces the buffed floors of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Cairo. Minutes earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Selmi, sitting a few feet from Maher in a meeting with activists, warned protesters to stay out of Tahrir Square. It was a slap to Maher and a sign the government was taking advantage of growing public weariness with demonstrations. Maher believes capitulation would endanger the stirrings of democracy and strengthen the grip of the ruling military council, which has been rounding up activists and in April sentenced a blogger to three years in jail for exposing military torture.
Selmi wasn’t done. In another veiled threat to Maher, with cameras rolling and journalists scribbling, he said: “Investigations are possible regarding the foreign funding of a number of movements and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. The government rejects any outside funding for Egyptian movements under the guise of supporting democracy.”
Maher has met with foreign pro-democracy organizations but denies he has accepted international contributions; still, the military keeps floating the idea in a country growing increasingly conspiratorial.
“If I wasn’t fasting I would have cursed,” Maher says moments after Selmi finished speaking. Like most Muslims, Maher does not eat or drink from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan, which recently ended. “The revolution’s home is the square. We don’t accept anyone telling us now that we can’t enter Tahrir.”
He and an entourage of April 6 members, including Amr Ali, a thin, wiry man with a matching beard who has been collaborating with Maher since 2008, huddle around a couch.
“The government doesn’t want us around anymore,” says Ali. Maher’s confidants urge him to quickly post a response on Facebook. Maher sits quietly, listening and studying the glare of TV lights and gesticulating activists, remembering how Mubarak’s police tried to break him years ago, and how he stood half naked before a mirror, his skin a strange map of welts and bruises.
“You think you can run from us? We can get you any time,” the men in black sunglasses told him, kicking, slapping and whipping him with cables. They demanded he become an informant. “This is for your own good.”
“I make no deals,” he told them.
Selmi leaves the hotel. Maher gathers his men. He has a meeting later with a Japanese delegation to discuss pro-democracy movements but wants to be home by dusk to break the fast with his family.
Maher’s father worked for a state-owned car company and his mother was headmistress of a private Islamic school. During his childhood, Egypt was at war with radical Islam. Maher, enrolled in his mother’s school, saw firsthand the insidious reach of repression.
“Some of my male teachers just vanished,” he says. “After I did my homework, I’d sit down and watch TV and read newspapers and then I started reading political novels.... I saw the film ‘A Man in Our House’ about activists being chased by the king before the 1952 Egyptian revolution. It starred Omar Sharif. I was inspired by those men who acted against the king, and by the time I went to university I was thinking, why aren’t we today doing something like this?”
He enrolled at Zagazig University and brushed up against communists, socialists, nationalists and the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group. He joined the youth wing of the secular Enough movement, which called for Mubarak’s removal. “But nobody protested and Mubarak was reelected.”
He spent nine weeks in jail in Cairo in 2006, charged with — he still smiles at this — insulting the president. The security forces back then were omnipresent, fanning from the Nile Delta to the southern desert, peeking into lives and whisking suspects away. But they also existed in a world of dark comedy, where despite its power the state was a model of inefficiency. They once chased Maher and other protesters across the streets and alleys of Alexandria, where police knew of Maher’s reputation but had no pictures of him.
“They were searching for me. But this was Alexandria, not Cairo, so they didn’t know what I looked like. They questioned everyone, ‘Are you Ahmed Maher?’ I was arrested a day later. I told them who I was and showed them my identity card. They called the authorities in Cairo: ‘We have a guy who says he’s Ahmed Maher.’ They held me for two weeks. I wasn’t beaten this time.”
Maher laughs. His dusty sedan winds through a Cairo morning of crowded bridges and fishermen casting nets upon the Nile. He parks and walks to his engineering office in an ivory-colored villa. It is strange, Maher’s other life: professional family man, a sliver of serenity balanced against his rebellious nature. His work schedule is flexible. His boss, Mamdouh Hamza, a prominent 64-year-old civil engineer who has been battling the government since before Maher was born, understands that rebels keep strange hours. Hamza is a mentor, a man who believes that the rebellion is as much about car designs and solar energy as it is about political transformation.
“This is the real revolution,” Hamza says, pointing to the young mathematicians and designers. “It’s not only slogans and signs in Tahrir Square.”
Mohamed Khaled, a thin man leaning over a laptop, is perfecting the aerodynamics of a Formula One racing car that he and other university students have built for an engineering competition in Britain. It’s the first time in 50 years that Egypt has entered the contest.
Maher does not want this ingenuity to evaporate.
He leaves the villa hours later and drives across town toward the minarets beyond the cemetery district known as the City of the Dead. A boy tosses firecrackers and Ramadan streamers flicker in a dirt alley. Men wash their feet and step into a white mosque, holding up their hands as if gathering grace. Maher climbs the mosque’s back stairs to a meeting room, where Sufis, more mystical and less temporal than fundamentalist Salafis, want help planning a protest.
A week earlier, tens of thousands of bearded Salafis had surged into Tahrir Square, holding up Korans and demanding that a strict interpretation of Islamic law rule the land. Sufis and other groups, novices in the art of street tactics, want to respond with a pluralistic demonstration stressing tolerance. Maher listens. He has heard many strategies over the years, but Ezz Eldin Hawari suggests something unique in the annals of Egyptian rebellion.
“We have contacted the Guinness book of world records,” he says. The planned protest calls for thousands of people sharing iftar (the breaking of the fast) in Tahrir Square. “We could set a new record for having the most people eating a meal in one place.”
Some men shake their heads. Others rush past the idea. Voices rise.
“What will our banners say? We don’t have a lot of time,” says one man.
“The march against the military headquarters two weeks ago was a bad idea,” says Khaled Seoudi, a member of the new Future party.
“The Muslim Brotherhood will try to exploit whatever we do anyway,” says Mohamed Shalabi, representing the Protect Egypt movement. “If it’s a success, the Brotherhood will want to capitalize on it.”
“Whatever you do,” says Maher, “agree on goals so you don’t look divided.”
There should be no divisions in Tahrir Square. It is where Maher feels most at home. He knows its contours, its scents, how it has become a touchstone of rebellion for North Africa and the Middle East.
The civil engineer in him is fascinated by the boulevards converging at the square’s central garden; the revolutionary in him knows how to fill those streets with footsteps and chants of protest. They seem never to end.
Weeks ago, angry over the slow pace of trials for Mubarak-era officials, Maher and other activists called for demonstrations against the military. The night before the rally, he slept in his car a few blocks from Tahrir Square. Tens of thousands of people gathered the next morning. It looked like a scene from last winter, only it was 100 degrees and there were no police in sight.
“The Interior Ministry is a bunch of thugs!” yelled young men and boys marching toward the ministry.
“We don’t need that,” said Maher, looking to another activist. “We don’t want any problems today.”
The night and the next morning were quiet. Maher gathered with activists near an April 6 tent, which flew a flag depicting a fist. April 6 members chanted an Egyptian proverb: “Keep the gun awake,” a message not for violence but vigilance.
Maher and seven confidants retreated to a white brick wall in the square and posted a list of their demands on the Web. Minimum wages must be set. Government ministries must be purged of old regime officials. Military courts must stop and emergency law must be lifted. A man appeared and took Maher’s hand.
“I’m an Egyptian living in Spain but I’ve come home. I’ve been following what you are doing. How can I help?”
Another night in the square. A cool breeze blew off the Nile. The National Museum glowed against the burned shell of Mubarak’s party headquarters. Egypt cannot stumble, said Maher. Too much of the world is watching. A man walked out of the darkness in a white T-shirt that read, “1/25/2011 — My new birthday.”
“Revolutions fail if you relax,” Maher said. “I’ll be protesting for the next six or seven years. Officials have to know they’re being watched.... You have to adapt and change tactics. If you don’t, you vanish as a movement.”
It was nearly midnight. The square was alive with laptops and speeches. Maher slipped between tents and into the crowd.
Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.
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