Sunday, May 10, 2009

April 6 Youth: Just another Egyptian Grassroot Movement!

Hello!I just came back from a wonderful trip to Morocco with my organization (The American Islamic Congress) as we organized one of the best Interfaith Dialogue conferences ever. I will tell you more details about it in my next post.
This article, below, was published one week ago in the Civil Society Magazine of Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. I hope you will like it.

April 6 Youth: Just another Egyptian Grassroots Movement!

By: Dalia Ziada*

Last April 2008, Egyptian grassroots activists captured international attention with a daring strike calling for reform. Aided by a natural sandstorm, and citizens' fear from state security repression, thousands appeared to participate in a "stay-home" strike in Cairo, and thousands of workers in the industrial city of Mahala took to the streets. As the strike’s anniversary approached, Egyptian activists received a flood of Facebook messages and emails with the title: "April 6: Egypt's Day of Anger!"

A huge number of Egyptian young people joined the call for reviving the strike in the virtual world. The digital activists known as the "April 6 Youth” created a Facebook group that attracted thousands of members. They also formed local online groups for each governorate in Egypt: April 6 Youth Mansoura, April 6 Youth Minya, etc. The main group and the subgroups formed and operated online.

Yet when it came to the real world, the strike failed in a dramatic way. The number of American activists who protested outside the Egyptian embassy in Washington DC was bigger than the number of the local activists who participated in demonstrations outside the Egyptian Press Syndicate downtown Cairo. The number of international audience who cared for the issue was three or four times like the number of local citizens, including activists and human rights advocates, who showed interest in the strike at all. Only tens of the many thousands who joined the April 6 group on Facebook dared to express their anger --- online!

What changed this year? First, the security forces were more organized and prepared for the day than the April 6 Youth themselves. They made sure to arrest young activists from different affiliations and political backgrounds who are expected to participate in the strike. Then, on the April 6, they made sure to secure all the main streets in the capital city of Cairo as well as the industrial city of Mahala. Second, there was no sandstorm. Third, and perhaps most important, activists clearly need to develop better techniques for translating virtual organizing into real world action.

April 6 Youth, thus, is truly an "Egyptian" grassroots movement. Few months from now, if not few weeks, it will vanish away just like what happened with the other movements that appeared recently to confront the dictatorship and repression of the ruling regime. The most popular of them is "The Egyptian Movement for Change – Kefaya," founded in 2004, by veteran leftist activists and intellectuals. Kefaya, the movement which succeeded in attracting thousands of Islamist, leftist, Coptic, and liberal activists, as well as breaking the Egyptian taboo of criticizing the ruling regime and encouraging ordinary citizens to express their anger via demonstrations and other forms of protest, failed to last for three years. Now, the role of the movement does not exceed editing a defunct website which does not receive, in best cases, more than 200 visits per day!!

Other grassroots movements which appeared in parallel with Kefaya, such as Shayfenkom, March 9 for University Professors, Egyptians for Judiciary Independence, etc. stood up for only few months then collapsed suddenly. Kefaya, and the other grassroots movements including the newborn April 6 Youth failed to live up to citizen's aspirations. Their role was merely providing citizens with cyber and realistic spaces for shouting and complaining. They did nothing new to what Egyptians do all the time, which is cursing the darkness. Instead, these movements should have provided them with the candle they need to eliminate this darkness forever. There are no easy answers to this challenge, but striking on Facebook alone or shouting in very small demonstrations of maximum 10 or 20 participants, downtown Cairo, will not generate reform!


*Dalia Ziada is the Director of the American Islamic Congress; North Africa Office based in Cairo, Egypt