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When we won the odyssey but lost the battle: On April 6 (part 2) The organization of organization-haters: Swimming against the current

Organized peaceful political movements in modern Egypt are an anomaly, particularly Leftist movements, which have largely ended in failure in recent years. So instead of comparing the April 6 Youth Movement to these movements’ history and efficacy, I would like to ask how April 6 managed to exist and have the influence that it did.

The movement was a courageous attempt to organize in a political void, with almost no points of reference. When it began in 2008, political and social affiliations were considered an affront to the spirit of nationalism. This was reflected in the movement’s structure and goals, as we wanted to build an umbrella organization that would oppose Hosni Mubarak’s regime, with a focus on recruiting as many members as possible. We didn’t necessarily want to be perceived as a political organization, but as a movement that organized events, protests and marches.

“To those who don’t act and feel hurt by people’s actions” (Taha Hussein, Together with Abi El Alaa in his Prison, 1914)

April 6 was born out of the Kefaya Movement (“Enough”) — which emerged in 2004 in opposition to Mubarak’s stated intention to hand the presidency to his son Gamal — and the Egyptian Youth for Change movement, established in 2006. We used the same terminology as Kefaya, referring to the head of the movement as a “coordinator” rather than “leader” or “president,” as other groups commonly did at the time.

Yet we didn’t exert much effort in setting standards for ongoing recruitment, training or evaluation. Any training we undertook was focused on tactics of peaceful resistance, without much criticality. This was partially due to our use of technology, social media in particular, as a recruitment tool, and also to the amount of publicity April 6 got in the early days. It was possible for almost anyone to become a member just by announcing an affiliation, even on Facebook, or attending the events we coordinated.

The April 6 Youth Movement was born into a context in which political affiliation was perceived as unnationalistic.

We distanced ourselves from the older generation. The political scene had few ideological stances for outreach or mobilization aside from the Muslim Brotherhood. Most organizations or movements are built around the coalescing of members around a founding concept, giving them a reason for joining and sustained involvement, and forming a bond between members. April 6 was different: We bonded over a shared emotional and psychological state, rather than an ideological conviction.

We each longed for a dream, resistance, a sacrifice that was worthwhile. We belonged to the revolution, or “the saga” as I now refer to it — not so much involved in writing stories as being entrapped by them. This bond created a certain fanaticism among members, but remains one reason the movement held together for as long as it did.

Membership: Aspiring to reap without sowing

Emerging just as Facebook was becoming popular in Egypt as a means of organization, April 6 provided a glimmer of hope for young Egyptians. Many of those attracted to the movement hadn’t experienced any forms of organizing or mobilizing before Kefaya. We rushed to social networks with high hopes of rebellion and revolution. Ours was a youth movement that used nontraditional tools to break into a scene monopolized by aging politicians for years.

“And so, having polished his armor and closed his helmet, and having given himself and his horse a name, he naturally found but one thing still lacking: he must seek out a lady with whom he could become enamored; for a knight’s-errant without a lady-love is like a tree without leaves or fruit, a body without a soul” (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote).

The movement lacked hierarchy, and we had a difficult job enrolling everyone who wanted to join. There was continual tension between maintaining members’ personal freedoms and maximizing their commitment to the cause. Over time this threatened April 6, as members were skeptical about the need to have a central vision and ideas.

Our eyes were glued to the odyssey. Only a few of us managed to adopt a more strategic approach and consider our abilities in relation to our enemy’s. We failed to prioritize and set specific goals. We were fueled by passion and craved success, heroism and a sense of self-worth after years of oppression and frustration. It became an obsession that provided us with drama but limited our capacity for victory. We lost the battle to the odyssey, or at least this round.

It wasn’t until July 30, 2013, that we realized how far we had retreated in the face of the counter-revolution. The odyssey had become a Karbala. But instead of assessing our performance and the reasons for defeat, we blamed others. We bandied around expressions like “the ferocious regime,” “the opportunistic Muslim Brotherhood,” and “people of ignorance who sacrificed democracy and freedom” as reasons for the cocooning of the revolutionary remnants.

We eulogized our defeat to compensate for the heavy sense of failure. This can be seen in our annual celebrations of big or bloody events, such as Maspero (October 9, 2011), Mohamed Mahmoud (November 2011) and the Cabinet events (December 2011). We wrote epitaphs about great battles we failed to get over and never really reflected on. There is still a segment of the movement today that refuses to admit that many of these battles were pointless or absurd, that they killed our aspirations and resulted in huge bloodshed.

Many of those who were attracted to the movement hadn’t experienced any form of organizing before Kefaya.

Ideological differences existed from the beginning, but began to form rifts as time progressed. Some members propagated images of political activists as heroes, attracting members to join in pursuit of personal glory. Others viewed the pursuit of power as shamefully opportunistic.

More leadership during the January 25 revolution may have reduced personal desires for recognized positions of power, but most revolutionaries wanted a larger slice of the cake, regardless of experience or competence. This reminds me of a quote from the movie The Devil Preaches: “You all want to be thugs? So, who will get beaten up?”

Glued to the odyssey, only a few of us managed to keep our eyes on the bigger picture.

Over time, more and more activists turned political action into a job description, particularly during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency (2012-13), growing increasingly attached to particular attributes and rituals.

Any organized structures we had were increasingly replaced by groups lacking responsibility and dedication, who were isolated from society and the people at large. This was encouraged by the regime and the media, who attempted to stigmatize the movement and the revolution.

We eulogized our defeat to compensate for a heavy sense of failure.

Many of us adopted a hollow Kardashian model of fame, depending on TV appearances and online PR. This became obvious during the mass retreat from the public eye following June 30, when the stakes had become too high.

Leadership: When fighting monsters makes you one of them

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” (George Orwell, Animal Farm)

We had a grim perception of political leadership, largely because of how it had been presented to us, either as part of state mechanisms or as “cartoon opposition,” a term long-used for pre-2011 oppositional forces that were permitted to exist by the government. Leadership was misused at every opportunity and in every possible way, leading to tyranny and unilateral power plays, but this also gave the movement a great deal of flexibility before Mubarak’s ouster.

It wasn’t long, however, before Ahmed Maher and other natural leaders within the movement started a discussion about organizational structure inspired by the Brotherhood, Egypt’s one successful opposition organization, regardless of what we thought of their politics and where it took them. We opted for a pyramid hierarchy, counter to the flat structure of the movement so far. I would rather not evaluate this decision, given the turbulent circumstances of the last few years.

The chosen leaders were given executive and administrative powers and a permanent place at the main offices, as well as veto rights to any decisions made. But the wheels of power had started turning and were already running out of control. With a lack of clear roles and responsibilities, these leadership positions became ends in themselves, rather than a means of organization. Several leaders, myself included perhaps, misused their positions of power — however unintentionally. Many of us weren’t qualified for the roles we took on. Although one might not expect an exceptionally skilled or experienced membership base, the leaders of such a movement should at least have a minimum level of awareness and certain capabilities. These were scarce among founding members and board members at the time.

Vicious conflicting leagues formed, the type of which we had long criticized other movements for.

The leadership sabotaged any innovate attempts to get out of this rut, including moves to bring fresh blood into the ranks. By this point, promotion within the movement generally occurred through personal connections. Maher, contrary to popular rumors, assigned and promoted members to leadership positions through a process that lacked formal structure or evaluation, and drove many people out of the movement. Over time, and through cronyism and fear of losing more members, the leadership dismissed many of the issues and power struggles we were facing and eliminated internal opposition by presenting it as malicious accusations motivated by treason and opportunism. Tasks were assigned based on favoritism rather than competence, and the attempted introduction of a veto council of founding members backfired, leading to vicious conflicting leagues, the type of which we had long criticized other movements and organizations for.

After Maher was imprisoned, we failed to use our diverse membership to our advantage, and the movement descended into fierce infighting. The leadership decided to freeze any attempts to implement change until after Maher’s release, as though he were the savior, a stance that did him a strong disservice and disregarded his personal life, such that he paid dearly for his convictions.

The sense of defeat was very apparent and it ran deep, making me think of the prophet Haroun’s warning to the people of Israel, according to the Quran: “I feared that you would say, ‘You caused division among the Children of Israel, and you did not observe my word.’” This accumulation of errors led to an even deeper crisis, which I will discuss in the last part of this series.

Editors note: The author would like to note that the opinions expressed in this article are his own, and represent an attempt to critically evaluate the successes and mistakes of the April 6 Youth Movement, including his own, with the goal of opening up a space for useful discussion and reflection.

Translated by Mustafa Sakr.

Walid Shawky