Who’s Behind the Egyptian Revolt?
It’s spontaneous, yes, triggered by the explosion in Tunisia. But contrary to some media reports, which have portrayed the upsurge in Egypt as a leaderless rebellion, a fairly well organized movement is emerging to take charge, comprising students, labor activists, lawyers, a network of intellectuals, Egypt’s Islamists, a handful of political parties and miscellaneous advocates for “change.” And it’s possible, but not at all certain, that the nominal leadership of the revolution could fall to Mohammad ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who returned to Egypt last year to challenge President Mubarak and who founded the National Association for Change.
First, by all accounts, is the April 6 Youth Movement. Leftists, socialists and pro-labor people know that the movement takes its name from April 6, 2008, when a series of strikes and labor actions by textile workers in Mahalla led to a growing general strike by workers and residents and then, on April 6, faced a brutal crackdown by security forces. A second, allied movement of young Egyptians developed in response to the killing by police of Khaled Said, a university graduate, in Alexandria. Both the April 6 group and another group, called We Are All Khaled Said, built networks through Facebook, and according to one account the April 6 group has more than 80,000 members on Facebook. The two groups, which work together, are nearly entirely secular, pro-labor and support the overthrow of Mubarak and the creation of a democratic republic.
The leader of the April 6 movement is Ahmad Maher, a 28-year-old construction engineer who was profiled last week in the Los Angeles Times. Well-wired and Internet-connected, Maher told the paper: “After the revolution in Tunisia, we are able to market the idea of change in Egypt. People now want to seize something.” A year ago, when ElBaradei returned to Egypt, Maher was inspired to organize a movement of young, secular, and pro-labor Egyptians. “Maher began reaching out to secular grass-roots and student movements emerging to reform a nation they believed had substituted oppression for vision,” reported the LA Times. “Momentum was slow to build, particularly enlisting Egypt’s increasing band of labor activists representing millions of underpaid workers.”
Their self-description on Facebook reads:
We are a group of Egyptian Youth from different backgrounds, age and trends gathered for a whole year since the renewal of hope in 6 April 2008 in the probability of mass action in Egypt which allowed all kind of youth from different backgrounds, society classes all over Egypt to emerge from the crisis and reach for the democratic future that overcomes the case of occlusion of political and economic prospects that the society is suffering from these days. Most of us did not come from a political background, nor participated in political or public events before 6 April 2008 but we were able to control and determine our direction through a whole year of practice.
The April 6 movement wasn’t unknown to the United States and its embassy, we know from Wikileaks. In December, 2008, US Ambassador Margaret Scobey reported that the embassy was well aware the Egyptian dissidents, including April 6, had spoken of a plan to organize together to topple Mubarak, noting that “several opposition forces” had “agreed to support an unwritten plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy, involving a weakened presidency and an empowered prime minister and parliament, before the scheduled 2011 presidential elections.” Scobey wrote that the details were “so sensitive it cannot be written down,” though she called it “highly unrealistic,” she helped arrange for some activists to attend a youth meeting in New York from December 3–5, 2008, called the “Alliance of Youth Movements Summit,” organized by the State Department. A representative of April 6, presumably Maher, visited Washington and met with thinktanks and officials on Capitol Hill.
That’s not to say that the opposition to Mubarak has American support—far from it, though various ultra-conservatives are trying to portray the Wikileaks information as evidence that the Obama administration has engaged in a conspiratorial, anti-Mubarak covert operation. Instead, the April 6 and its allies are a genuine, grassroots resistance movement that has carefully cultivated ties to various parts of the anti-Mubarak spectrum. In addition, its members helped organize Egypt-based protests against the Israeli invasion of Gaza. A 2008 article in the Christian Science Monitor described the arrest and torture of Maher in July 2008, and it described his “Facebook Youth” movement, which, the Monitor noted, is “tied to its continued detention of dozens of textile factory workers and townspeople from Mahalla, a large city in the Nile Delta.” The April 6 movement’s use of Facebook also drew an admiring profile in Wired magazine in 2008.
According to the New York Times, the April 6 and Khaled Said groups have emerged as the organizers of the anti-Mubarak coalition. On Sunday, January 30, they helped bring together a committee of ten people, nominally led by ElBaradei, that emerged after a meeting of Egypt’s “shadow parliament,” including officials from the Muslim Brotherhood, dissident Ayman Nour, ElBaradei’s National Association for Change, and others. They coordinated with a meeting of several political parties, including the opposition Wafd Party. The April 6 movement also led the meetings held in Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square, where they brought ElBaradei yesterday to speak to the crowds who filled the square, just off the Nile in downtown Cairo.
ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize while serving at the IAEA, courageously fought the George W. Bush administration over its false charges that Iraq had a nuclear program along with stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in 2002, and in 2003 he revealed that the documents that the White House had touted about Iraq’s alleged purchase of uranium in Niger were fabricated. He also battled the Bush administration over the issue of Iran’s nuclear program too, leading one right-wing, pro-Israeli leader to denounce ElBaradei this week as an agent of Iran. Malcolm Hoenlein, who leaders the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of ElBaradei: “He is a stooge of Iran, and I don’t use the term lightly. He fronted for them, he distorted the reports.”
Despite Hoenlein’s absurd comments, ElBaradei is widely accepted and respected in the West, which is why he was acknowledged as the leader of the anti-Mubarak opposition by nearly everyone involved in the movement, from the April 6 organizers to the Muslim Brotherhood. He may or may not be a transition figure, but his forthright comments since emerging as spokesman for the opposition have been stellar. Yesterday, he lambasted Obama and Secretary of State Clinton for their lame calls for “reform” by Mubarak, saying: “To ask a dictator to implement democratic measures after thrity years in power is an oxymoron. It will not end until he leaves.” He’s also said that the United States risks opprobrium in Egypt if it fails to support the rebels.
The Wafd, which has a proud history, is a shell of its former self. It was founded in the years after World War I to represent the emerging, anti-British, nationalist movement. (Wafd means “delegation,” and it was named after the delegation to the post-World War I peace conference where the Egyptians argued, unsuccessfully, for an end to British control of Egypt.) During the period between 1919 and 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power and toppling the corrupt monarchy, the Wafd—highly factionalized, between more and less militant wings—tried to oppose the king, the British, and the ultra-reactionary and violent Muslim Brotherhood. The party was dissolved in 1952, when Nasser banned political parties, and though it has tried to reconstitute itself in recent decades, it is mostly a vehicle for old, moderate nationalists.