Then They Came for the Revolutionaries

Egypt's April 6 movement, which sparked the protests that toppled Mubarak and Morsi, now finds itself in the cross-hairs of the new government.

Photo by MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images

CAIRO — Every night when Egyptian activist Mohamed Kamel goes home, there is a man outside his building who follows him until he enters the doorway. The figure doesn’t speak; he doesn’t leave his post. He just keeps watch.

"I smile at him and tell him, ‘Please do come up and have dinner with me,’" said the 38-year-old, Cairo-based high school manager. "What else can I do?"

Kamel is part of April 6 Youth Movement, a revolutionary group founded in 2008 to support striking industrial workers. Its members, estimated by the organization to number in the tens of thousands, were also a driving force behind the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. But now, despite having supported the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, the group finds itself under fire from the military-backed government in Cairo. Last week, an Egyptian court outlawed the movement after a lawsuit accused it of espionage and tainting the image of the state.

The group’s most prominent voices, meanwhile, have been thrown in jail. In December, founder Ahmed Maher, 32, and Mohamed Adel, 25, were sentenced to three years in prison for participating in an illegal rally and allegedly assaulting a police officer.

Caught in the brutal seesaw of Egyptian politics, the April 6 movement has made few friends in Cairo’s corridors of power. Last summer, the group collected millions of signatures as part of a nationwide campaign organized by the Tamarod ("Rebel") movement, which is now supporting the presidential bid of ex-Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But unlike Tamarod, the April 6 movement has become intensely critical of the new authorities’ flagrant human rights abuses. Two weeks ago, the movement joined with similar revolutionary groups by marching on the capital’s main presidential palace in defiance of the authorities, to demand the removal of the protest law. The group says that it will boycott the upcoming presidential election, scheduled to take place on May 26 and 27.

The April 28 ruling by the Court of Urgent Matters, which outlawed the April 6 movement and called for the seizure of its headquarters, came as a shock to the movement. The group’s legal team did not even know about the hearing, so it was unable to attend or mount a defense, the group’s political office told Foreign Policy.

Ashraf Saeed, the lawyer who raised the complaint, relied on leaks of private phone calls aired last year on a local TV channel, Cairo and the People, to make his case. In one taped call, April 6’s Adel discussed funding and training camps in Egypt and Gaza with a foreigner. The group does not deny the authenticity of the calls but maintains that these were private phone conversations that were taken out of context and illegally broadcast to damage their reputation.

The Interior Ministry confirmed to Foreign Policy that it is waiting until it gets the green light from the court to enforce the ban. But Kamal said that the group’s members already feel like they are in the "eye of the storm."

Members of the April 6 Youth Movement’s political office, a decision-making body that sets the group’s strategy, say they are being tailed and their phones tapped. Meetings, protests, even waving the movement’s flag — a white fist against a black backdrop that it borrowed from the Serbian Otpor! movement, which helped topple Slobodan Milosevic — are now illegal.

Meanwhile, a campaign by both public and private media to slander the anti-Mubarak group has turned the April 6 movement into as much a pariah as the Muslim Brotherhood. The membership has been accused in the media of being funded by Qatari princesses, of spying for the United States, and of being infiltrated by the Brotherhoodaccusations they both laugh about and vehemently deny.

Members of the group risked jail to meet in a trendy cafe in central Cairo to speak for this article. The interview was intermittently broken off when waiters approached the conversation. Nonetheless, members said they remain determined not to be silenced.

"We haven’t slept for three days since the verdict," said Amal Sharaf, 38, a former English teacher and co-founder of the movement.

The current crackdown, she said, exceeds anything the group endured under the Mubarak regime.

"Before they would just beat us and we would go home, or arrest us for a couple of days and release us," Sharaf said. "Now they file cases against us. It is not even just worse — it is dangerous."

Sharaf visited Maher in prison a few weeks before we met. The movement’s founder is being held in solitary confinement in Cairo’s notorious Tora prison complex. The day before she visited, the guards raided Maher’s cell and smashed up the walls, searching for contraband: letters he smuggles out of jail.

Sharaf said that the veteran activist, who was first detained in July 2005 and has seen the inside of numerous Egyptian jail cells, was in a terrible state. "When I saw him I thought, ‘This is not Ahmed Maher,’" she said. "[Maher and Adel] were so depressed. They know they have no hope of getting out."

The irony of having supported the anti-Morsi rallies, which brought the current government into power, is not lost on the movement’s members. But they are mostly unapologetic for their previous choices.

"Of course we don’t regret June 30 — I went down on the streets against a regime that strategized against the revolution," said Amer Makhrous, another senior April 6 member, who is jobless after being fired for his political affiliation with the group.

Makhrous, however, distinguishes between June 30 — the first day of massive anti-Morsi protests — and the military coup that followed. He said nobody from the movement celebrated on July 3, when the tanks rolled in and Morsi and his presidential team were abducted by the security forces. The group’s members watched in horror as the government unleashed a deadly crackdown on the Islamist protests in August, which left nearly 1,000 people dead.

The April 6 movement’s next fear is being labeled a terrorist organization — a step Kamel thinks is a very real possibility. That would give the security forces carte blanche to hunt down its members, like they have done with the Islamists.

The prospect of a widening crackdown, however, is not stopping the April 6 Youth Movement from continuing its work. On April 30, outside the Journalists’ Syndicate in downtown Cairo, it staged a protest against the ruling banning the group. It was largely left alone by security forces. For now.

"We have friends in prison paying for our struggle," said Makhrous. "We cannot abandon them."

Bel Trew is broadcast and print journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @beltrew.