As it Marks its Anniversary, April 6 Struggles to Find its Voice

As the April 6 Youth Movement debated how to mark its seven year anniversary, its members eventually settled on a press conference at the Lawyer’s Syndicate, followed by a rally on the steps of the nearby Journalists’ Syndicate. Avoiding clashes with the police was crucial. The main objective of the anniversary press conference and protest was to call for the release of over twenty April 6 members currently detained. This time, there was no march, as there has been in the preceding years.

As the rally began, two police vehicles parked on the same street as the syndicates moved away. The anticipated confrontation was averted. Tony Wagdy, a member of the movement and a high school student, was disappointed earlier when he learned there would be no march. “This is what we’ve been doing for the past three years, why would we be afraid now?” he said. He understood the possible consequences of clashes, which he said they were not seeking, but were ready for. “They are suppressing our voice,” he said. And marching towards a confrontation was his way of being heard.

Born out of a call for a 2008 nationwide strike in solidarity with al-Mahallah al-Kubra’s worker strikes and famous for rallying support for Egypt’s 2011 revolution, the April 6 Youth Movement is now a refuge for young activists looking for a venue to voice frustrations. Six years since its founding, members in Wadgy’s age bracket, as well as the movement’s older generation, struggle to formulate a strategy and identity within a restrictive political climate, and in the face of a fierce defamation campaign. Its co-founder Ahmed Maher was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of violating a restrictive protest law passed last November, which renders most of the group’s street action strategies near impossible.

Spokesman Monzer Eliwa says there is a need to devise smarter strategies to cope with changing times. The group’s declared objectives are now reduced to maintaining a civil, pro-democracy voice within the polarizing fight between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement, consisting mainly of university students and 20-somethings, wants to see a civilian president and the social justice articles in the constitution translated into reality, according to General Coordinator Amr Ali. Beyond a few campaigns aiming to embarrass the government by holding it to its promises (including an army claim to have found a cure to AIDS and Hepatitis C), the group has no clear strategy to achieve these goals. It has yet to decide whether to boycott the upcoming presidential elections or support a candidate against former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who resigned from his post to run.

Even before the restrictions that came with the military removal of president Mohamed Morsi last July, the group seemed lost. Under Morsi’s rule, their flash mobs and stunts—such as brandishing underwear near the minister of interior’s home to protest his practices—bewildered the general public, rather than garnering sympathy.

A lack of sympathy has been compounded by defamation campaigns targeting the group since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which came to power in 2011, accused April 6, and other revolutionary groups, of being foreign agents paid to instigate chaos, an accusation that was quickly picked up by Egypt’s mainstream media. The group claimed at the time that this led to a surge in membership applications.

The state’s attitude toward April 6 didn’t change under the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, only to intensify after Morsi’s removal to a level difficult to withstand. April 6 is currently facing a lawsuit aiming to ban the group on the grounds that it is “spying for foreign countries. A verdict is expected on April 28.

Co-founder Israa Abdel Fattah can’t shake the stigma despite leaving the group. A vocal supporter of the military takeover in July, she was attacked at a polling station by voters during the January referendum on Egypt’s post-Morsi constitution. She was accused of being a foreign agent.

The bigger burden is shouldered by the group, staggering between a legacy of speaking on behalf of a younger generation and the inability to channel this into effective organization. Many members have lost jobs due to their affiliation with the group and political activism, according to Eliwa. A small age gap between younger members and the older founders now in their thirties is visible in any room they share and could further complicate the task of formulating an effective strategy. “It’s not just about age,” Ali says, explaining how younger members have grown up in a more politically vibrant environment than his generation who suffered from restrictions at home and in public domains.

Today’s polarization and defamation campaigns have taken a toll on members’ relationships with their families. Following an argument and a growing rift over politics, a mother reported her son to the police as a member of April 6 and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was arrested but eventually released. “It’s not about their membership in April 6, but their opposition to a regime supported by their parents,” Ali told EgyptSource.

Wagdy used to sneak to Tahrir in 2011 without his parents’ consent, and now he disagrees with their support of Sisi. “Even Sisi admitted that he doesn’t have a magic wand to solve our problems,” he said. Despite these disagreements, he is part of a generation going through its formative years in an era of political upheaval, and is consequently more confrontational, less concerned about authorities, and has bigger aspirations. As we talked on the syndicate steps Sunday evening, he left me to join his friends, energetically chanting against the police.

Ali, representing a generation riddled by concerns and worries, says he has to be more cautious in addressing these members and incorporating their demands in a strategy. He sees the group as a social movement aimed at raising political awareness, rather than as a political party in the making. The only venue for work now, he says, is connecting with Egypt’s citizens. They march in lower-income neighborhoods protesting increasing prices and inflation. The reputation doesn’t matter when it comes to social issues, argues Ali. “People appreciate your support during their ordeals and recognize that you have no ulterior motives.” 

Sarah El Sirgany is a Cairo-based independent journalist and a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Sarah El Sirgany

Image: Photo: Mohamed El Dahshan/Flickr