Internal April 6 Dynamics, Egyptian Politics, and Outlooks for the Future: An Interview with Ahmed Maher
[The following is an interview that Nancy Elshami conducted with Ahmed Maher on 16 November 2011 in New York, NY. The interview was conducted in English.]
Nancy Elshami (NE): The April 6 Youth Movement has played a crucial role in Egypt since 2008 in setting up opposition movements and organizing youth in non-violent protests. It was one of the major protagonists in the Egyptian revolution and has continued to play an important role as a social force since 25 January 2011. What I want to gain from this interview is a better idea from you about the internal politics of April 6, its place in Egypt’s political sphere, and the movement’s future vision.
I am going to start now by asking you some questions about the internal organization of April 6. Can you tell me a little more about the decision-making process within the movement? Who are the decision makers? How do you decide on when to protest and what positions to take?
Ahmed Maher (AM): I created the group in the beginning, and then tried to turn it into a real movement. There were people from the start who agreed with the idea of this movement and helped make it happen, and those are the co-founders. So our structure consists of a council group of co-founders and coordinators (co-activists who make decisions on daily matters).
NE: How many co-founders are there?
AM: Now there are about thirty-five or forty co-founders. Not all of them participate in all the events or are responsible for all decisions made, but they are co-founders. There is another group, that of coordinators, and those are responsible for organizing different governorates and organizational branches. For example, there is a media branch, student branch, street branch, campaign branch, funding branch, organization, etc. We have many branches and the coordinators are responsible for those. There are about twenty-eight coordinators and forty cofounders. The coordinators take decisions on daily problems and issues. There is a monthly meeting of co-founders and coordinators where we discuss ideas and strategies, and make important decisions, like deciding our role in the elections for example. So these monthly meetings are where we make our decisions, work on our strategic planning, and plan our schedules.
NE: So are decisions made by a majority vote?
AM: Yes, a majority vote within this group.
NE: Within the co-founders and coordinators?
AM: If we have an issue that needs a larger voice. For example, like deciding what role April 6 should play in the upcoming election—a fundamental issue not like a protest or any event—then we have a referendum, not just voting inside this group. So we have a referendum for all our members. We organize it by dividing members by geographic groups like Madinet Nasr, Maadi, then each group votes, and we judge by the majority within each group. So, for example, Cairo says yes, Alexandria said yes. We tally how many geographic locations agreed and disagreed and make our decision based upon that.
NE: So, what happened to the organization? Why did the split happen between the main April 6 organization and the splinter group that was created by Tarek El-Khouly? Why did this new group emerge?
AM: We have not split inside our group.
NE: You haven’t?
AM: No, because what is the meaning of splitting? Splitting is when a group of members who are effective within the organization, or maybe even a number of co-founders have another idea or point of view and so they split. It happens and has happened to many movements throughout history. That is what splitting means, and it is not bad. But what happened in this case, is that Tarek El-Khouly who founded this other April 6 was not a member and he tried to use…
NE: Tarek El-Khouly? But wasn’t he a spokesperson for April 6?
AM: No, no, no. He tried to say that to the media. And if you follow the history of April 6 since 2008, you will not find him in any newspaper or any media coverage.
NE: He wasn’t even a member of April 6?
AM: No, he tried to join the Movement during the period of revolution. That was a period when anyone could join the movement, before we set down a new, more selective structure. He tried to join among thousands of other members, but we do not know what his incentive was. Maybe he was trying to use our successful name. He had nothing to do with creating the structure or the name of our movement. He did not know anything about the history of the movement. He was not part of the co-founders from the beginning. He just saw a very famous name and tried to use that name and slogan. If you listen to his rhetoric, he talks about Maher travelling abroad, “I think Maher is taking foreign funding but I don’t have proof.” He talks about Maher having a foreign agenda and Maher this and Maher that. And, in many reports, he said that I was working for the United States. If you follow the history of April 6, before the revolution, you will not find anyone named Tarek El-Khouly. He only appeared after the revolution, in May 2011 to be exact, during our clash with the military. And he started to spread these rumors.
NE: So do you think this could be some sort of conspiracy to weaken April 6 and question your loyalty?
AM: I am sure of it. Anyone who has a new idea within the organization is encouraged to share it with us. Anyone who wants to criticize any decision is free to do so. But for someone from outside the movement to try to become a new member, and then to use the same name of the organization…[He pauses, insinuating that the use of the movement’s name suggests bad intentions] If he wants to do something good he can use any name. There are now thousands of movements in Egypt.
NE: There are now two official April 6 Facebook pages and twitter accounts…
AM: Since the revolution, people do not know who the real April 6 is and who the fake April 6 is. Our group has about 250,000 members; the other has about twenty or thirty thousand.
NE: So why haven’t you been more adamant about making that clear in the media?
AM: We said that in the media. But you will find that media sources will try to spread the same rumors about April 6, and they will invite Tarek el-Khouly: channels like El Nehwar, El Nas, and of course National Television. They invite Tarek EL-Khouly because of this rhetoric: “Ahmed Maher did this, Ahmed Maher takes money from the United States, Ahmed Maher travels abroad.” That is all he says, he has nothing else to say.
NE: Well one of the other claims that were made by Tarek El-Khouly was that there was a lack of democracy within April 6 in the decision-making process. So what would you say to that?
AM: What is the meaning of democracy? Democracy as in elections? Or that the people lead the movement?
NE: Could there be elections to have people run for this decision making group of co-founders and coordinators, for example?
AM: Yes we have elections like any other group. We have elections for leadership of governorates, and we will have elections for the whole movement starting 25 January 2012. Because it would be strange if right after rebuilding our structure post-revolution we have elections right away. Elections are a tool not a goal. Our goal is not to have elections inside. Our goal is to change Egypt.
NE: But how can you effectively advocate for democracy on a national level without having democracy internally?
AM: We do have democracy. And we have elections. And we will have elections for the whole structure—from the head to the base—after 25 January 2012.
NE: How would you characterize April 6 ideologically?
AM: I think we are social democratic, social liberal. We are concerned with freedom of speech, equality, transparency, dignity, social justice, and national services. We want the government to play a larger social service role, like many examples in Europe and South America of social democratic parties. We want the government to ban monopolies and to prevent…
NE: So you want more government regulation for the economy?
AM: Yes, we are against the free spread of capitalism. It needs borders and regulations in order to ensure social justice and prevent people from accumulating exorbitant wealth and monopolies. And of course, we are concerned with labor laws. This is the economic side of our ideology. In terms of freedoms, we support freedom of speech, we support citizenship, and we support equality. Anything to do with labor and freedom, we support that. And also anything supporting justice, we support it.
NE: Now I am going to start asking you more political questions. The parliamentary elections are in a couple of weeks. What steps has April 6 taken to raise political awareness and what parties or candidates is it backing?
AM: We created a campaign called white circle/black circle. The fake April 6 has members running for the elections and using April 6’s name. We do not have any candidates in the elections and we see that these elections will be insufficient elections. They will have many mistakes because they are happening with the same rules and the same regime. White circle/black circle is a campaign that defines the criteria of good parliamentary candidates and bad people/criteria so people can avoid electing them. We are not talking about people in the white circle but rather about criteria. And we mention former members of the NDP in the black circle to prevent people from electing them.
NE: And where can ordinary citizens have access to these? Are there conferences or is this an online database?
AM: Many things. There are conferences, and we also have websites that mention all the former NDP members. We also have a poster campaign that exposes former NDP candidates that we have tried to spread throughout the streets. During the election process we will have a network of supervisors at voting points. So we will supervise the process and after elections we have a project to put pressure on the parliament. That is very important.
NE: In what way? Through protest?
AM: No, many things. We have many new ideas. Like press releases, for example. Another idea is to have a street campaign advocating against corrupt parliament members in their municipalities so that they cannot exercise their authority, or to keep them accountable for their promises.
NE: Last time when you were speaking at New York University, you drew a couple of interesting similarities between the April 6 Movement and the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood before the revolution (working as a non-official political party, but still a very potent social and political force). Can you elaborate a little more on that?
AM: I am using that example to say that political parties are tools to deal with politics. And there are many different tools that can also engage politics. For example, lobbying, pressure groups, watchdog groups, these are neither Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) nor political parties but they influence politics. Like here in the United States, for example, there is the Tea Party. They have the capacity to choose and support Republican candidates but they are not a party themselves. There are also many examples in England and in Turkey on how lobby groups can affect politics without being part of the political system. Like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) also, they are Jewish-Zionists and they try to control politics…
NE: But they also have a lot of money.
AM: Well money is one tool, we have other tools.
NE: Has April 6 considered becoming an NGO?
AM: April 6 is something between an NGO and a political party. As with the example of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood is a “jamaa” they are not a political party and they are not an NGO, but they are “jamaa.” They have one party and thousands of NGOs. Those are the “jamaa” tools, and they can affect politics using those tools. A political party is a tool.
NE: The Muslim Brotherhood has succeeded as an extra governmental force not just through political pressure but also through social welfare programs. Do you think April 6 will take this kind of route?
NE: Have you started working on programs like that, or are they still under way?
AM: We do not have the money for that but we are planning for it.
NE: April 6 initially started in support of a labor strike. Why doesn’t the movement focus more on labor groups and work more with them to strengthen its support base?
AM: April 6 was created in support of the workers’ strike in 2008, and to make the connection between their economic demands and political demands. Our message was that that democracy= bread, democracy= good salaries, democracy= a good education. This was our message in 2008 and 2009, but April 6 also fights on many fronts. We have to deal with policy-makers and respond to any decision by the government or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). So we are like an all-encompassing group dealing with different issues. We still work with workers and support many strikes and unions. We support any free unions or syndicates in Egypt and we have candidates in many of them, like the Engineers’ syndicate, the Doctors’ syndicate, the Journalists’ syndicate, and we support free elections in any unions. Free unions and free syndicates are very important for building a new country. Without free unions we will have injustice. Free unions and syndicates can help put pressure during negotiations with the government in gaining rights for different sectors. But as I mentioned before and I will mention again, our role with labor movements is not professional like leftist groups and NGOs, they are more specific on the issue of the labor and the unions.
NE: Do you think April 6 will associate itself more with labor groups or would promoting labor groups put your movement in too much of a leftist light where it excludes more conservative…
AM: No we do not care about that. We support issues if we see they are right and we do not support them if they are not.
NE: I know that April 6 has received a lot of support and backing from Mamdouh Hamza. Rumors say that he might potentially run for the presidency. If so would April 6 back him? And what do you think of him as a potential presidential candidate?
AM: I work at Mamdouh Hamza’s office. Did you know that?
NE: I saw at the bottom of your email that you worked for Hamza Inc., but I had initially learned of his support for you through interviews with him in the media.
AM: I am a civil engineer, and I have been fired from my job several times. In 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, every time they arrested me I was fired from my job. I was very sad until finally I found a job with Mamdouh Hamza, and he said that my activism would not affect my job. He is interested in politics and has tried to help youth groups. He was not a politician before the revolution. When we were organizing the January 25 Revolution, I told him and he helped by buying tents and food for the protestors in Tahrir square. After the revolution became a politician. The dynamic between us is that I am working in his company, but he cannot affect the decisions of April 6, and no one can. If he wants to support us, it has to be without any conditions. And also, Hamza has supported many youth groups, not only April 6.
NE: So what do you think of him as a potential presidential candidate?
AM: That is the first time I hear that.
NE: I heard information that he was trying to get his affairs in order to run for presidency. Maybe not in these elections, but the next?
AM: If he wants to be a candidate, OK. But until now April 6 did not decide who they will support in the next presidential elections.
NE: Which potential candidates who have been prominent in the political arena is April 6 most leaning towards? What is your opinion of the different presidential candidates or your reservations about them?
AM: Is this a report for the university, or where will this be published?
NE: We are going to try to get this published in a high-profile source that would take it. Why?
AM: Because I will choose the answer depending on that.
NE: I do not want you to choose an answer. Why do you feel like you have to choose an answer?
AM: No, until now we did not decide. We supported ElBaradei before the revolution. Not as a candidate, but as a political figure calling for change. But until now, we have not decided. If the process of elections starts, we will have a referendum inside the movement to decide. We have met with many candidates, however: Baradei, Abu-Ismail, Alawwa, Nour, Sabbahy, and others. Until now none of them has a real program or schedule for anything. So we do not know how each of them thinks.
NE: What was your other answer?
AM: The same.
NE: What other groups is April 6 coordinating with during this stage?
AM: We cooperate with many youth political parties, like al-Adl and al-Wa'y as well as the National Organization for Change. We also cooperate with Islamic candidates, like Hazem Abu Ismail. They will support us tomorrow in the demonstrations, because the majority of the political parties do not have the time. So it really depends on the issue. On some issues we find allies from among liberals, on some issues we find allies from the left, and on some issues we find allies from among the Islamists. With different issues we find different allies. We do not have problems with any of them.
NE: Why isn’t April 6 forming a political party?
AM: Well, think about it. What is our mission? Political parties, or NGOs or lobbying groups are all tools. Our mission is to push for real change Egypt. This was our mission before the revolution and that is our mission now. Before the revolution we tried to organize protests and demonstrations. We organized conferences online and offline, music parties, flash mob, anything that would push for change. Until now, however, there is no real change, so we will continue this mission. We expect that it will take five or six years, so we have made the decision not to form a political party now. When we are certain that there is a new political regime, new rules and a new mentality, then we can think of becoming a party. Today, our role is to change this mentality and spread awareness in the street. Democracy cannot be applied with illiterate people or people who do not have a culture of democracy. So that needs to be changed first.
NE: But why can’t you do both. Don’t you think you can have more power to affect these kinds of changes if you are in the position to do so?
AM: We do not believe in that idea. This is the idea of many political parties, like al-Wa'y or al-Aadl. Some of our colleagues left April 6 and joined political parties because they believed in that idea. Any member of April 6 who has joined a political party has been fired.
NE: Are you supporting these former members in the elections?
AM: Maybe supporting by heart but not effectively.
NE: Well you are trying to raise awareness about who are the good and who are the bad candidates, so…
AM: Well maybe something like that, but not officially. It is not among our major efforts. We need to be neutral and be outside the process. We cannot campaign against someone if we are campaigning as well, that would be bias. We are neutral so we can support the good things and stand against the bad things. This is more effective and increases credibility in the street.
NE: If April 6 forms a political party and runs in the elections, how do you think you would do at this stage?
NE: Do you thing you would get a lot of votes?
NE: Is that part of the reason why you are not running?
AM: No, we made the decision not to run before the new election conditions were set in order to maintain credibility, since February 2011.
NE: What new conditions?
AM: The terms of elections. In July the SCAF put down the rules of the elections and they did not ban former NDP members from running by enacting isolation laws. The next parliamentary elections will be very bad, and youth candidates from our organization will probably fair badly.
NE: Has operating in post-Mubarak Egypt been very different from operating under Mubarak?
AM: It is very difficult now, more difficult than before. Before the revolution we had one enemy and one goal and we were united. Now there are thousands of parties and movements. No one can know who is with whom. Some parties are from former NDP members, some parties are from former intelligence officers; now there is chaos. But this is not strange; it has happened in many countries and as time passes things will be clearer. We will wait until that clarity of the new Egypt.
NE: What about your freedom to organize and to function within the country?
AM: Before the revolution we were an illegal organization, and now also we are an illegal organization. But we have many tools, some of which are not effective anymore.
NE: Like what?
AM: Before the revolution any small demonstration had an impact. And day-by-day that does not work anymore, so we try to think about new things that can have an effect. After the revolution, million-people demonstrations on Fridays were very effective, but since numbers have decreased and they have lost their effectiveness. So we need to think of new tools to exert pressure
NE: So what are some of the ideas moving ahead for these new tools?
AM: We are still thinking. [Laughter]
NE: Confidential information?
NE: What did April 6 do about the accusations that SCAF directed towards the movement about foreign funding?
AM: We filed a lawsuit against the SCAF asking to investigate these claims and investigate the SCAF itself in the Egyptian court system. Their claims were lies and they did not have proof. Neither of us were investigated. We have come out in the media and called for an investigation with both sides. These generals are liars, they take money and support from the United States and they accuse us of taking money. We do not take money from anyone; we have our membership and our monthly fees so that we do not need funding from anyone. So who is the liar?
NE: I have heard a lot of concerns about April 6 hiring a Public Relations (PR) firm in the United States, the LCO in Beverly Hills. Do you know what I am talking about?
AM: I have also heard about that.
NE: So is it true?
NE: They have you quoted in a couple of articles explaining that it is pro bono…
AM: We do not have anything like that. There are many activists and bloggers who try to help April 6. I have many friends who are American journalists who try to connect April 6 with the media, and especially with Occupy Wall Street. This idea of us hiring a PR company from the United States is a false accusation. You might try to help April 6, or anyone might try to help. It is not like what you said. Someone is trying to invent a strange narrative of April 6.
NE: What we are trying to do now is to address all these issues on your end so we can settle these concerns for readers. What do you think of the obligatory principles that the SCAF put down for the constitution?
AM: We have been saying for many months that the SCAF is trying to control the new regime, and no one believed us then. Now, it is clear that the military wants to control the new regime according to the Turkish model. This is very dangerous; more dangerous than the Islamic forces. If Islamic forces take power by elections, we can do many things to pressure them. That is democracy. But if the military tries to control the authority, what can we do?
NE: So what is April 6 planning on doing about this, are these principles set in stone? Are they still negotiable? Are you going to apply pressure against them?
AM: When they first appeared we opposed them and there were demonstrations in many places. A lot of the terms were changed and we will discuss the rest. They are trying to play down the terms concerning the army and now they are talking about having a civil country.
NE: So were those taken out?
AM: There is no final list yet. Until now it is under discussion.
NE: How many April 6 members are currently in SCAF custody or have been tried through military tribunals?
AM: None. They arrested many in March, April, and July, and they have all been released since last month.
NE: I am going to move to more general questions now and talk about the future. There is a concern that I have heard many express…what are you doing here? Why are you and other prominent members of April 6 spending so much time in the United States now when you are needed at home during this critical time before elections?
AM: It is not so much time. In Egypt, the movement has many groups and members working every day and I supervise them closely through the Internet. It is very important for me to make my voice heard outside Egypt, and it is very important to understand the relationship between the SCAF and the United States. This is why I came to the United States then and now. Each trip lasted only five or six days each. I came upon receiving invitations from universities: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, American University, and Harvard University; there are many universities that want to hear our story. In the American University in Washington, D.C., there were many students studying non-violence and they were very happy that they met us. And at the conference I attended at Harvard, there were many other prominent Egyptians like Amr Moussa. I also attended the Egyptian American conference, visited the Arab American Institute. There are many organizations that invite us to send our message.
NE: You discussed a lot of the internal issues within Egypt that you feel need change. Can you tell me a little more about the foreign policy issues within Egypt that you perceive need to be changed or that you think need to be addressed in these five years.
AM: Two things: the relationship between countries in the Middle East, and Egypt’s relationship with the United States and Europe. The relationship between Egypt and Middle Eastern countries must be stronger, and Egypt has to have good relations with Turkey and try to form a coalition of Arab countries.
NE: Other than the Arab league?
AM: Yes, the Arab league is dead.
NE: Are you talking about a coalition on a state level or on a grassroots level?
AM: Maybe both, youth and formal. On the formal level I think it is much harder because there are those who have conflicting interests and will try to destroy any cooperation. For the youth it is very important, and we can accomplish that. We also need to take into consideration the non-Arab countries in the Middle East, like Turkey, Iran..
AM: Turkey, and Iran…the Israelis are something different because there is also Palestine. If there is a country called Palestine: an independent country with borders and a government, then we can think about Israel. Before there is a country called Palestine, we do not think about Israel.
NE: So what in Egyptian-Israeli relations do you think need to be changed?
AM: In terms of the relationship with the United States and Israel, there are two issues the US government thinks about: the security of Israel, and also how to secure companies and benefits in Egypt. What we need is equality between the two countries. When the president of the United States speaks to the president of Egypt it is on an unequal basis. Mubarak was like a slave to the United States, but the next president will be more respected. And that goes for Israeli-Egyptian relations as well. Israel killed more than twenty Egyptian soldiers over the years without apology. But now, after the revolution in Egypt, Israel apologized about what happened to the five soldiers last summer. We need more respect for Egypt in the future.
NE: So you are not against having peace with Israel but you want it to be done on a more equal and fair basis?
AM: We all need peace. No one wants war with anyone. But also anyone who wants to deal with Egypt must do so with respect, Israel, the United States, or anyone else. Second, with Israel, there can be no peace without the rights of the Palestinians; that is not negotiable.
NE: So let us say you are the president of Egypt at this point. Are there no Egyptian-Israeli relations without a just solution to the Palestinian question?
AM: Yes. I admire what happened with Turkish-Israeli relations. It depends on respect, civil rights, and many things.
NE: But Egypt is the second recipient of aid from the United States and this aid is given for a purpose. Do you think there could be some navigation within that framework?
AM: I think so, yes. We cannot let anyone control our decisions. We need to think about getting other allies in the Middle East.
NE: You said you are interested in learning more about the relationship between SCAF and the United States. Have you had any meetings with policymakers to that effect?
AM: No, I learn from Egyptian activists living here. They may hear from politicians at the Congress or from the State Department that the SCAF has daily trips to the United States. Not like us, five days every four months. They have daily trips to the United States to discuss the budget. They do not want congress to exert control over the budget or put conditions on aid to Egypt. There are many groups here who try to pressure the military and many authorities like the Pentagon and conservatives that try to support the military, arguing that it provides stability for the Middle East. [Referring to lobby groups and members of congress who support military aid to Egypt]
NE: After the military’s campaign against you, the popularity of April 6 has definitely been affected. During this time of distrust, or even at a level or prioritization, don’t you think these visits to the U.S. might affect April 6’s legitimacy?
AM: But let us say I do not attend any event here or in any other country. Will the people who criticize April 6 stop? No. They criticize us because we have different points of view. Leftist groups, Islamic groups, or even the fake April 6 group may criticize us. But if I say I will not go to the United States, will they be helpful? Will they support April 6? No. I know that I have not made any mistakes. I believe in the benefits of my travel, so I am not afraid of anything. I came here to attend formal events in respected universities, so I did not make any mistakes. No one gave me a foreign agenda.
NE: What is April 6’s strategy for the future? What is your outlook for the next six months and for the next five years? Do you think the presidential elections will take place on time?
AM: No, the military will try to postpone the elections. There will be many important issues to tackle, like the constitution and presidential elections. During these five years after the parliamentary and presidential elections, there will be a lot of unrest in many sectors. Day by day it will stabilize and after five years I think we will start to gain benefits from change.
NE: What do you have to say to those people who think that the times for protest and strikes must end for this stability to be seen and for production to resume?
AM: There is no negative relationship between production and demonstrations. Demonstrations happen and so does production. All developed countries have protests.
NE: How do you feel about Occupy Wall Street and this international flourishing movement of activism that has gained its inspiration from the Egyptian revolution?
AM: It is a new generation that has risen up in many countries all over the world: in Europe, the Arab countries, and in the United States. This generation is trying to effect real change in the world and connect across the globe using new media. These are very great events, these youth groups are trying to help each other and change the world. I do not think anything like that has ever happened in history. The new generation is trying to affect politics and influence decision-makers. With Occupy Wall Street, it is just starting. They need more: they need time, they need study, and they need organizing. It is a good start, and I think in the future they will make a real difference in American politics.