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Egypt's April 6: Still a political force to be reckoned with?

After playing key role in 2011 uprising, internecine rifts and lack of clear vision appear to have taken their toll on Egypt's most celebrated youth group

Nada Hussein Rashwan, Tuesday 23 Apr 2013
6th April Youth
File photo from a demonstration by 6th of April Youth Movement(Photo: Ahram Online archive)
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Views: 1889

In the spring of 2008, the April 6 youth movement burst onto Egypt's political scene. Five years and a historic uprising later, political observers say the group no longer wields the same influence – due to a combination of political inexperience, internecine fissures, and an over-reliance on street mobilisation.

"April 6 remains an important force on Egypt's political stage, but street protests are only effective – in the current political context – if they can succeed in drawing hundreds of thousands," political science professor Tarek Fahmy told Ahram Online.

Notably, on the occasion of its five-year anniversary earlier this month, the group failed to stage a hoped-for million-man rally. "Taking this as an indication," Fahmy said, "April 6 should consider other means besides street protests to achieve their objectives."

April 6 first emerged as a Facebook group, established by a handful of young activists in the spring of 2008 as a means of voicing support for a massive labour strike in Egypt's industrial city of Mahalla. The strike would go down in history as the largest-ever labour action to take place under the Mubarak regime's security state.

The Facebook group quickly drew some 100,000 members to its cause. In the strike's aftermath, the online solidarity group – which took its name from the date of a seminal workers' protest – emerged as a political force to be reckoned with.

In the run-up to Egypt's 2011 Tahrir Square uprising, the Mubarak regime attempted to suppress and intimidate the group with the use of arrests and smear campaigns. Nevertheless, April 6 managed to be a primary organiser of the anti-regime demonstrations that erupted on 25 January and which ultimately culminated in Mubarak's departure.

In the wake of the 18-day uprising, the movement achieved international prominence as a primary factor in the revolution's success.

Post-revolution realpolitik

By the time the group celebrated its third anniversary – its first since the uprising – in the spring of 2011, rumours were circulating about its intention to transform itself into a registered political party or NGO.

The idea did not go down well among certain April 6 members. Several advised against the move, arguing that the group would be stifled if it put itself under government oversight by applying for official party or NGO licenses.

"When Ahmed Maher said he was considering turning the group into an NGO or party, several members strongly opposed the idea on grounds that it would defeat the purpose of the movement, which they thought should remain a protest group," former group member Diaa Hamdy told Ahram Online.

"What's more," he added, "Maher and his inner circle appeared to begin taking decisions unilaterally."

It was at this point that the first crack appeared, when members who opposed Maher's vision formed an 'opposition front' – later renamed the 'Democratic Front.' Despite the group's frequent denial of the existence of internal splits, the Democratic Front took to the media to prove its existence, prompting media skirmishes between the group's two rival camps.

Meanwhile, in the months following the uprising, protest groups escalated their opposition to Egypt's then-ruling Supreme Military Council. April 6 led opposition to military rule, organising rallies and campaigns against the longstanding practice of trying civilians before military courts, and taking part in pivotal clashes between protesters and security forces in late 2011.

This brought the group under the scrutiny of the military, which accused April 6 of trying to sow dissension between Egypt's armed forces and public. The following spring, the beleaguered group launched an awareness campaign in an effort to refute the military's claims.

Backing Morsi

April 6 was one of several politicised youth groups to declare its support for Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi in Egypt's first-ever free presidential election – at a time when many 'revolutionary' youth groups were calling for an electoral boycott. In a hotly-contested runoff vote, Morsi ended up narrowly defeating Ahmed Shafiq, the Mubarak era's last prime minister.

"It's either the former regime or the revolution; we have no third choice," Maher declared in advance of last summer's poll, when he announced the group's decision to back the Brotherhood candidate.

According to Hamdy, however, this decision precipitated the final split between the group's two camps.

"Up until then, the Democratic Front was still just an opposition front within 6 April," said Hamdy, who himself joined the breakaway faction. "It was at this point that we announced our rejection of the group's decision [to support Morsi] and declared our intention to boycott elections."

Soon after, he said, disaffected group members began promoting their alternative stance "in the name of the April 6 Democratic Front."

April 6's fragmentation into smaller groups – which continue to bear the movement's original name – have since caused confusion as to what the group stands for.

"Looking back, I'm saddened by these divisions," said Hamdy. "They have harmed our image on the street, but our views are too divergent to reconcile now."

The Democratic Front has adopted a more radical tone than its parent group, going so far as to challenge the legitimacy of the presidential elections.

Breaking with Morsi

The group's initial declaration of support for Morsi, however, had been conditional. In advance of the runoff, it signed a 'National Consensus Agreement' laying down several demands that Morsi was expected to fulfil should he win the presidential race.

These included retrials for Mubarak regime figures acquitted of charges of killing protesters; reformation of the Constituent Assembly, tasked with drafting a new constitution; and the establishment of a national minimum wage.

In the months that followed, major rifts emerged between Islamist and secular Constituent Assembly members, culminating in a mass walkout by the latter (who accounted for roughly one quarter of the assembly).

Maher, however, a member of the assembly, did not join the walkout until November, when he said that he saw no chance of reaching consensus on Egypt's draft constitution. At that point the group began stepping up its criticism of both President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from which he hails.

"When Morsi took office, we communicated with the presidency," April 6 co-founder Mohamed Adel told Ahram Online. "We submitted project proposals in the fields of economy and development, but they were never considered."

The group's mounting criticism of the presidency, with Maher now calling Morsi an "extension" of Mubarak, has been met with accusations by the Muslim Brotherhood that Maher's celebrated youth group is now overstepping the popular will.

"We haven't turned against the popular choice, we've turned against Morsi's mismanagement of the country," said Adel. "Just because he's the elected president doesn't mean we don't have the right to protest the [proposed $4.8 billion] IMF loan, or new legislation restricting demonstrations, or ongoing police abuse."

And then there were three

By the group's fifth anniversary earlier this month, there were three different entities calling themselves April 6.

Tarek El-Kholy, who was dismissed from the Democratic Front last year after attempting to turn it into a political party, is still trying to formally establish an April 6 Party.

"Tarek believes it's an opportunity the group should take," said Hamdy. "He believes that, while a real opposition party couldn't exist under Mubarak, we now have a real chance to join the political contest, to have a backbone."

Hamdy, for his part, still disapproves of the idea of launching an official political party, something he has in common with Adel.

"The group was first established with the purpose of bringing down the Mubarak regime – an idea that seemed impossible at the time, but it happened," said Adel. "It's an outmoded, old-guard mentality that cleaves to the notion that we must be politically institutionalised to achieve anything."

Fahmy, however, believes the group must evolve further to become effective.

"The only chance the group has at becoming the pressure group that it wants to be is to establish a solid structure," he said. "April 6 needs to build political experience. Their inexperience is the reason they stagger back and forth between allies."

"They lost the support of other protest groups when they backed Morsi in the elections," he added. "And now that they've turned against Morsi, they can't win back the opposition. This was reflected in the weak show of support by other opposition groups for April 6's fifth anniversary rallies."

Those rallies, the turnout for which could be counted in the thousands, were billed as a protest against the presidency and police. The group's main demonstration outside Egypt's High Court in downtown Cairo ended – like so many other recent protests – in clashes with police.

"We have no other means at our disposal but to protest and the police know this; they sabotage our protests because of it," said Adel.

But Fahmy believes it is no longer effective – or beneficial – to place so much emphasis on street mobilisation alone.

"Because it is politically inexperienced, April 6 isn't taking the development of Egypt's post-revolution political scene into account," he said. "They can't go on living in their pre-revolution form. By having no organisation or clear, unified vision, they risk going from a potent political force to a merely symbolic movement."

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