In this interview, ICNC speaks with Egyptian activist, Ahmed Salah - one of the co-founders of the 6th of April Youth Movement, a key organizer of nonviolent action, and a FSI 2009 alum. Salah talks about the various strategies that were learned, developed, and implemented by activists and civil society groups in the years leading up to the Jan 25 protests, which after 18 days of nonviolent mass action, led to the ouster of Egypt's former President, Hosni Mubarak.
Ahmed Salah (AS): I’ve been an activist for a very long time, but being an activist that is trying to make change in the regime in the country using nonviolence started in 2004, with the creation of a movement that was called the “Egyptian Movement for Change” or “Kifaya,” (enough). Also I was co-founder of the 6 of April Youth Movement and I was a strategist for quite some time until a few months ago.
What tactics and strategies did you and other organizers use during the Egyptian uprising?
AS: We’ve been trying for a long time; to build up sentiment, to choose the right moments, and come out for demonstrations, but the maximum number of people that would attend was only a few thousand. If you asked any Egyptian, “are you happy with this regime?” they would say no, since everyone was suffering and everyone was complaining. So, if you were to ask, “would you ever go to a demonstration or a protest that can get you back your rights?” they would say “Are you crazy? This is too much risk, I have family, I have this, and I have that.” The only thing that would make people go to a protest is if they see other people in the street that they could join.
So, this brought the idea to me to make an unconventional way of building the 25th of January. The point was to start these small rallies in densely populated areas, and to come out from the back streets and into the main central points in every city. This way the security could not mass their troops in one particular area, because whatever is happening is happening everywhere. By the time the numbers reach the central designated areas where the dense police presence is, you already have large numbers of people that can get through these police numbers, and you can take that ground.
The result was far beyond my expectations; on the 25th we ended up not with tens of thousands as I expected, but with hundreds of thousands all over the country. We had millions on the streets on that very first day, and these numbers doubled and tripled, and it was incredible afterwards. You could see in Cairo alone between five and seven million protesting in the streets of just this city. Maybe in Alexandria a million or two, and all over the country hundreds of thousands in every city, so it was really a success beyond anything I could imagine.
How did the movement respond to the violence by the police against it?
AS: On the 25th there were lots of clashes with security, as many people have seen. There was a real massive attack; teargas was used in a way that made even vision difficult because of the clouds of teargas. It was completely foggy with teargas. When we went to Tahrir, of course we were prepared. I had onions, I had vinegar, which is good advice to carry with you when you go to a protest. If you put them by your nose and eyes they interact with the effects of the teargas and make it possible to see and breathe. I had a little bottle of vinegar until maybe a week ago, always in my pocket! I ran to the police and tried to talk some sense, saying that it they had gotten us out of Tahrir, this is a peaceful rally, and we aren’t doing anything harmful. Instead of responding or negotiating, they were rough. The chief of police in the area, who I had negotiated with before for the release of activists, saw me and told his big guys to attack me. They broke my nose, which was bad, but also good because I didn’t feel all of the other beating. It stunned me, and although I knew that they were hitting and kicking me, I didn’t feel much. Then I was arrested for three days and was released.
I joined the protests the next morning, that’s when I got this rubber bullet here [points to head] because they were still using snipers. The rubber bullet I got here was aimed at my eye. There was the use of live ammunition, and many people died because of this. But no-one used violence in conducting the revolution – on the contrary. People would even sacrifice their own lives to serve others, help others, and save them. I’ve seen incredible scenes of bravery and heroism that were very spontaneous. When I was shot, I saw someone shot with a live ammunition bullet that blew his head maybe two or three meters away from me. I was shot with the rubber bullet which made me fall on the ground, and I could hear the sound of bullets as they were hitting the walls. I was a little out of balance with all this, because this extreme violence stuns you. And someone came through this and he was dragging me on the floor to get me out of the line of fire. I don’t think I would even know him if I were to see him again, because after he dragged me he left me, and I only had a glance at him but I was still stunned. So, there were incredible scenes of heroism, as I said.
How did you use the internet and social media while organizing?
AS: In repressive countries that belong to the so-called “soft dictatorships,” or dictatorships that are very harsh but still want to portray themselves as democrats (like in Egypt), there is a possibility to use the internet but there is no possibility to convene. The rights of assembly and free speech do not exist, so the internet was extremely important. You had to have a platform for convening, deciding, voting, and sharing ideas, since you cannot have real meetings on the ground. That’s why the internet played a very important role in spreading around certain ideas. The call itself for the 25th of January came from a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said.” Khaled Said was a victim of public police brutality that ended with him dead, because he managed to spread a video that shows police corruption as officers were sharing their cuts of a drug bust and money.
What are the next steps for the future of Egypt?
AS: We are still on the path – the revolution isn’t finished. We managed to stage a huge victory in one important battle, but we still have several other battles to win this war, to reach complete liberation. We have lots of other challenges, and the most important thing that has to be understood is to try always to keep your people on track. Many of my colleagues do not belong to any particular movement, because they either belong to several or are independent.
What I am personally trying to do with them is to build geographical representation; everyone everywhere in the country can be represented in the way of creating committees or groups for every neighborhood or small town. Each one of these groups would be open for registration to everyone who participated in the revolution, and would have elections, and then more elections when the numbers doubled (and so on) so that you are always able to have democracy from the bases that can choose someone who can represent the people. These people from all around the country could decide what is right and what is wrong to do.
What is your advice for other movements?
AS: It is very important that no matter how hard, or difficult things get, you must always have faith that the impossible is possible. Everything is possible. Who would have believed that the Egyptian police, which is maybe the third largest police force in the world after China and India with over two and a half million people, would be defeated in a day or two. This is beyond the belief of anyone that this is possible and could happen. It did happen, and look what is happening all over the Middle East with Arabs trying to gain their freedom in the same way. Everyone wants freedom, so once there is hope, once you never give up, you keep fighting, and you’ll get there.
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