Cyber ignition: The key role of the uprising's youth movements

Mohamed Abdel-Baky , Thursday 10 Feb 2011

Youth movements played an essential part in kick-starting the 25 January uprising, and their role continues to evolve

Cyber ignition
Anti-government protesters sit next to a "Facebook" graffiti sign during demonstrations inside Tahrir Square in Cairo, the social website that ignited the uprising that erupted across Egypt two weeks ago. REUTERS photo/Dylan Martinez

"Egypt deserves a better future. On 25 January we will change our country. Nobody will stop us if we are united. Young people must speak now." Such were the words on Facebook that ignited the uprising that erupted across Egypt two weeks ago.

On the same Facebook page on which the invitation to protest appeared were links to where and when demonstrations would take place and the number of coordinators, lawyers and doctors.

By 21 January membership of the page had grown to more than 100,000, with many volunteering to lead demonstrations in their home towns.

"Everything was online and everybody was participating in organising the protests," said activist Abdallah Helmi.

Two days before the protests, youth movements, including 6 April and HASHD, offered online training courses for those organising demonstrations on how to avoid clashes with the security forces.

"Be ready with masks for the tear gas. Do not insult, talk to or provoke any soldiers or policemen. This is not personal. They have orders to stop you but we are all Egyptians and one day the security forces will know that we are right," said one online guide sent to hundreds of thousands of protesters.

While the ensuing demonstrations quickly developed a dynamic of their own the role of youth movements in kick-starting the process was essential. The 6 April youth movement, created in 2008 to support striking textile workers in the industrial town of Mahala Al-Kobra, took the lead, focusing on technical assistance, coordination and creating an online communication channel between protesters through social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Ustream.

Protests appear to have been first mooted by Asmaa Mahfouz, 25, who wrote on her Facebook page on 18 January that she would not remain silent in the face of security abuses and government policies that were impoverishing the majority of Egyptians.

"I am going to Tahrir Square on 25 January. I am going to demand the rights of people tortured to death by their own security forces," wrote Mahfouz. She was inspired to do so following the death of Sayed Belal, allegedly killed during interrogations following the Two Saints Church bombing on the New Year's Eve in Alexandria that killed 23.

Many of Mahfouz's friends told her that they were ready to join her, at which point the 6 April movement began, calling for nationwide protests on 25 January, Police Day.

In Cairo the 6 April movement was joined by Youth for Justice and Freedom (YJFM), HASHD, the Popular Front for Freedom and the ElBaradei campaign in organising the demonstrations.

The groups espouse similar ideologies. They have all demanded democratic transition under a national unity government and a new constitution, and in recent months have actively canvassed among students in Cairo, the Delta towns and Alexandria.

"We did not imagine that hundreds of thousands of people would turn out on 25 January. We had expected around 20,000 people," says Mohamed Awad, YJFM's executive coordinator.

In Alexandria, Mansoura and Suez protests were organised by activists belonging to the El-Baradei Campaign, the Ghad Party, the Democratic Front and HASHD. In Sharqiya and Ismailia they were organised by the National Association of Change (NAC), the 6 April movement and, later, involved many members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Kollena Khaled Said (We are all Khaled Said), the Facebook page dedicated to the young Alexandrian beaten to death by the police late last year, was instrumental in attracting protesters. By 24 January 300,000 members had agreed to participate in the following day's protests.

An online situation room on Facebook was created to publish updates every few minutes about protests across Egypt, and lawyers provided legal assistance in case any of the protesters were arrested by the police.

"Our role was to coordinate the protests and create a network of movements and activists across the country to spread the protests. The real credit goes to the young Egyptians who are making change happen," says 6 April coordinator Ahmed Maher.

Following the initial day's protests the dynamic became more fluid. Most of the demonstrations on 27 and 28 January were organised locally, by people with no affiliation to youth movements or other political groups.

"The challenge now for us is to be resilient and forge a unanimous position among the protesters in Tahrir Square," says Awad.

Two weeks into occupying Tahrir square the role of the youth movements is evolving.

On Sunday the four movements, along with the ElBaradei Campaign, the Democratic Front's youth group and the Muslim Brotherhood's youth group, agreed to form a coalition comprising representatives from each mandated to act as spokespeople, mediating between the protesters and the media.

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