April 6 Youth Movement: Non-violence in Egypt

First published on VICE UK on April 9th

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On Saturday, the Egyptian activist group, April 6 Youth Movement (A6YM), marked their fifth anniversary with a “Day of Rage” against President Mohamed Morsi. The non-violent grassroots movement officially formed two months after helping to orchestrate a general strike in the industrial city of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra in the spring of 2008, when – in search of better pay and working conditions – the group implored workers to stay at home on April the 6th instead of go to work. I’m sure you’ll know that’s generally how strikes work, but there was a specific reasoning behind the A6YM’s method.

Mohamed Adel is one of the four founders of the A6YM and was one of the more prominent voices in the lead up to the general strike five years ago. “People were afraid of protesting at the time – it’s dangerous and the thought was, ‘What could it possibly achieve?'” Mohamed told me. “Our message was to just stay at home, as it’s a simple and safe act [of civil disobedience].”

Since its inception, the A6YM has made extensive use of social media and pamphleteering to spread awareness among what, to begin with, was a mostly apathetic, apolitical youth. In an A6YM YouTube video, co-founder Ahmed Maher explains, “We were continuously trying to reach people in university, in cafes and in social clubs – the youth who weren’t interested in politics.”

During the revolution two years ago, the A6YM were an instrumental force in organising and rallying people to help swell numbers into the critical mass that eventually toppled Mubarak. Today, according to Adel, they have around 15,000 “direct members” and command a base of over 100,000 supporters, with around half a million people following both their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

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The group’s strictly non-violent role in the revolution was rewarded with a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. And the date of the sixth of April was chosen in homage to the day in 1930 that Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March started to achieve what it had set out to do: bring a peaceful end to British rule in India. So their dedication to peace is clearly pretty important. The group’s symbol, a raised fist, is “shared with non-violent movements in Russia, Georgia, Serbia, South Africa and so on”, explains Adel. “Our message is ‘We will have revolutionary change without the use of violence.’ It shows that we’re united and strong.”

During the most recent Egyptian presidential elections, the A6YM threw their weight behind Mohamed Morsi, if only to avoid the appointment of Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s Prime Minister and a man considered to be a stale remnant of his rule. Now, after not even a year in office, the group consider Morsi to be their primary focus. “We asked the people to vote for Morsi, but if this first few months were an exam, he has failed – nothing has changed,” says Adel. “He’s not working to the goals of the revolution, but to the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The idea that the Muslim Brotherhood controls the Presidency, who in turn control the police and courtrooms, is deemed a poorly kept secret to most Egyptians, while the separation of powers in Egypt is considered a farce that few continue to entertain.

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For their fifth anniversary, the A6YM organised four marches to set off from four separate suburbs of Cairo, which would all end up meeting outside Cairo’s High Court. A number of other parties and movements joined the marches, including the parties of opposition leaders Hamdeen Sabahi (the National Salvation Front) and Mohamed ElBaradei (the Constitution Party).

The turnout for the marches was smaller than anticipated, but those present remained in good voice. Chants of, “Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide” (the Muslim Brotherhood) rang out all around the march, backed up by the constant banging of drums. The demonstrators also chanted for Gaber “Jika” Salah, an A6YM member considered to be the first martyr of Morsi’s tenure after he was killed in November last year.

Men and women handed out flyers that read, “There is no bread, there is no freedom, there is no justice, there is no dignity. The people want the downfall of the regime.” They mocked the Ministry of Interior and the current government, referring to them as “sheep” while holding aloft handfuls of Egyptian berseem clover, a plant used to feed cattle.

The marches passed by potentially incendiary places without incident, and police presence throughout the march was surprisingly low. By early evening, the separate marches converged on the High Court – by now numbering in the thousands – and continued their chanting. Protesters called for the release of detained activists, including several A6YM members, and chanted against the General Prosecutor, who they accused of politically charged rulings.

A few people set off flares and the drums began to beat louder, but there was never the slightest sense that it would escalate into a riot. Then, at around 7PM, police from inside the High Court turned up, ostensibly worried the protesters would storm the building, and fired birdshot and tear gas into the crowds. The crowd dispersed and Central Security Force armoured personnel carriers (APCs) arrived, bringing with them many more paramilitaries ready to help the police goad the peaceful protesters.

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The clashes that ensued followed the now customary back and forth between protesters and police, with the sirens of the APCs one again providing the soundtrack.

Fady, an 18-year-old medical student, said, “Do you see this? This is what happens when you protest peacefully.” Below us, men in civil attire suddenly started to attack the protesters, firing Roman candles directly at them, the fireworks exploding at head height. “Plain clothes policemen,” explained Fady, shaking his head.

The official Ministry of Health figures put the number of injured by 10PM at 18, but it’s pretty safe to assume that the actual figure was somewhat higher by the time the fighting stopped several hours later.

The A6YM released a statement late on Saturday on their official Facebook page that chastised the Ministry of Interior, which they accused of “prostituting” itself out for every regime. Stating their intention to carry on fighting for a better Egypt, they wrote, “We completely reject these unjustified and repressive attacks on peaceful demonstrations… and we insist that we will continue with our non-violent methods in overthrowing this oppressive regime.”

 

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