Moment of youth: Egypt’s new activists

It was a moment of breathtaking audacity. During a protest in Cairo last month, activists used the concrete walls of the state television building – better known to them as the “fortress of lies” – to project footage showing police and military brutality against unarmed demonstrators. This unprecedented act of defiance came on the first anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 revolution and was the work of Askar Kazeboun, or Military Liars, a grassroots campaign that screens films in neighbourhoods with the aim of exposing violence committed by the security services in the past year under the rule of a military council.

“When I saw the images on the TV building, I felt we were getting closer to our goal [of ousting the military],” said Rasha Azab, the 29-year-old journalist who is the driving force behind Kazeboun. “Through persistence and determination we have been able to achieve something. It means that any dream starts out as a seemingly crazy notion and that sensible ideas lead nowhere.”

Azab’s exuberance typifies a new breed of activist that has emerged during the past year. These daring young Egyptians are breaking taboos, taking advantage of technology and finding creative ways to challenge the domination of a corrupt and deeply conservative political establishment.

Like elsewhere in the Arab world, the young in Egypt have traditionally been marginalised, even though more than 60 per cent of the population is under 30. Instead, political power has been the preserve of autocratic old men who are bolstered by deeply-entrenched social values that venerate age and punish youthful defiance as disrespect. The revolution has challenged not only the domination of a particular elite, but this entire value system. The youthful vanguard that launched the uprising mutinied against the notion promoted by the media of Hosni Mubarak, the president who stepped down a year ago today, that a political leader is “a father” who should be obeyed and respected.

Egypt’s chaotic transition to elected rule is now being steered by generals whom the activists see as an extension of the Mubarak regime. Under their stewardship the past year has been punctuated by eruptions of violence in which police and army have fired live ammunition at unarmed protesters and used armoured vehicles to crush Coptic Christian demonstrators – on the very doorstep of the state television. Along with Kazeboun, Mosireen, a collective of young filmmakers and “citizen journalists” who post footage of abuses on the internet, are working to wrest control of the message from the military and from self-censoring broadcasters. “Even in a democracy we will need citizen journalists,” says Salma Said, 26, a founder of Mosireen. “There will always be different degrees of objectivity. We are breaking conventions which determine who has the right to report.”

While this alternative media sets to work documenting violence, young volunteer doctors quickly scramble to treat the injured in makeshift clinics every time clashes erupt on the streets. Ahmed Hussein, 36, a neurologist and volunteer in the new Tahrir Doctors Association, says he was abducted by the security services and beaten up, probably because he has been helping those hit by police and army bullets to get proper medical reports that would stand up in court.

Another activist, Samira Ibrahim, 25, now one of the heroines of the protest movement, is taking the military to court and shattering all sorts of taboos in the process. She was arrested in March when the security services demolished a protest camp. The women were taken to military prison where they had to submit to degrading virginity tests, apparently because the generals feared that they might allege they had been raped after their release.

Ibrahim’s legal challenge would have been unthinkable before the revolution when no one dared puncture the aura of sanctity surrounding the military. Her decision to go public about sexual violation is also ground-breaking in this conservative society. “I decided while still in prison that ... I would seek retribution,” she said. “I don’t want this to happen to any other woman.”

Youth activism has triumphed over boundaries of gender or faith. Egypt’s young Christians have also chosen to break with the traditional quiescence of their community. Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination but have rarely challenged it publicly or demanded the end of informal practices that make them second-class citizens. Instead they have retreated behind their church walls and shunned public life, leaving their Pope to negotiate with the state on their behalf. In practice this has meant church support for whoever is in power, against minimal and increasingly frayed guarantees of Christian rights.

But over the past year the Maspero Youth Union has led protests and marches demanding retribution against Muslim zealots who attacked churches. It was on one such protest in October that military police drove heavy vehicles at a crowd of protesters and used live ammunition against them, killing at least 25. “We are a rights-based movement and we practise politics when necessary,” said Beshoy Tamry, a leader of the group. “Christians are tired of the church’s discourse which asks them to stay away from politics and let it speak for them.”

To all those activists and their colleagues, the revolution remains incomplete. But while their struggle has a long way to go, the youthful energy that has been unleashed over the past year is clear for all to see. “We now know how to get together and we know the way which leads to our dreams,” says Azab. “This is the moment, we are now on track.”

Heba Saleh is the FT’s Cairo correspondent. See Life & Arts for Roula Khalaf on Egypt.

Samira Ibrahim

Activist, 25

Samira Ibrahim was one of seven female protesters forced to submit to a virginity test in a military prison last year, but she is the only one to have taken the army to court. Originally from the conservative south, she has broken social taboos by speaking out about her ordeal.

Ibrahim is determined to prevent the violation of others. “I did not feel fear, only anger,” she says. “They did this to us in order to terrify. When you violate females, you are also breaking the males [in society]. There has to be a law against using the bodies of women to sow fear.”

She was in a protest camp in Tahrir Square when she and others were arrested last March. After hours of beatings and torture at the headquarters of the Egyptian Museum, the group were taken to military prison. There, they were forced to undress to be examined by a prison doctor “in a passageway” with male soldiers looking on.

Ibrahim claims she has come under pressure from political forces – which she will not name – to drop the case in order to “preserve the prestige of the military”. The ruling generals first denied the virginity tests took place at all, but after several months, the military prosecutor pressed charges against a junior army doctor.

She is now a full-time activist, having lost her job as a marketing manager after her case became public. Ibrahim is angry that no one else is being held accountable for ordering the test, despite the presence of senior officers when the test was carried out. Another setback has been the reduction of the charge from sexual violation to the less serious one of breaching modesty. Even so, she says, she will fight on.

Dr Ahmed Hussein

Medic, 36

Ahmed Hussein was one of a group of volunteer doctors who accompanied the first demonstrations against Mubarak last year. Aware that the injured during anti-regime protests are often arrested at hospitals, they came prepared with medical supplies to provide treatment on the spot. Since then, doctors have set up emergency clinics in streets, mosques and churches to attend to those wounded in clashes. The Tahrir Doctors Association, and their stocks of donated medicines, deploy wherever violence erupts.

The volunteer medics have treated thousands of injured in their makeshift hospitals, despite multiple attacks from the security services. The wounded often arrive on motorcycles driven by youths, forming what is now known as the “people’s ambulance service”.

Hussein says he was detained twice. “I was taken in November off a side street. I was blindfolded and driven to a building where I walked up stairs and was interrogated in a room in which I could hear the sound of people being tortured nearby.” He was kept blindfolded and deposited a day later at the main Cairo cemetery.

He believes this is because he has been helping to obtain medical reports from government hospitals documenting injuries such as gun shots. He says reports are often not provided, and if they are, they bear a disclaimer saying they cannot be used in courts.

“The martyrs who died in front of my eyes have increased my determination,” he says. “There is no adequate payment for the loss of life short of reforming this country. Retribution is part of this reform.”

Salma Said

Citizen journalist, 26

Salma Said is one of the founders of Mosireen, a group of filmmakers and “citizen journalists” who post footage and testimonies documenting the turmoil on Egypt’s streets online. The aim is to “correct” the image projected by state media and private TV channels.

Born to a family of left-wing activists, Said has been politically active since she was 15. During the uprising last year, she and her colleagues manned a drop-off point in a tent in Tahrir Square. There they collected pictures and videos shot by protesters and found ways to upload them at a time when the regime had cut off the internet. Just last week, Said received multiple birdshot injuries after being fired at as she was taking pictures of clashes outside the interior ministry.

Established just four months ago, Mosireen says its YouTube channel received more than 2.6 million hits in January, making it the most viewed non-profit channel in the world that month.

“Even if we had a less biased media, we would still want to empower citizen journalists” says Said. “The era of [state] control over the message in Egypt is over. But we need to do a lot of work to compete with the fortress of lies [state television]. Its reach extends to far more people than the internet.”

In recent weeks Mosireen has trained more than 100 activists in live streaming, filming and editing in preparation for the surge in protests on the first anniversary. The next step is to hold workshops outside Cairo. The group makes its borrowed office in downtown Cairo available to all citizen journalists. “Soon we will be all over Egypt,” says Said.

Beshoy Tamry

Protester, 24

During Christmas Eve mass at the main Cairo cathedral, a shout of “Down, down with military rule!” disrupted the service. Among the protesters was Beshoy Tamry. He and his friends were hustled out by security, but their voices reached a wide audience of Egyptians watching on TV, as well as a delegation of senior generals from the ruling military council who were in attendance.

Tamry is one of the founders of the Maspero Youth Union, an activist group born last year that has organised sit-ins to decry sectarian attacks against Christians and their churches.

For the activists, the presence of the generals at the cathedral that night was an affront; military police had killed some 25 Christian protesters in October. The victims were shot dead and crushed by armoured vehicles. “It was the worst day in my life,” says Tamry. “The soldiers were hurling insults and calling us infidels. It felt like the wars in Gaza and Lebanon ... I saw a lot of people dying.”

Until the revolution, such defiance against both church and military leaders was unusual from Coptic Christians. Traditionally the community has stayed out of politics but many Copts now feel that this has deprived them of political rights and not brought adequate protection from discrimination.

Tamry, who says that it was only after the revolution that he even entered a Muslim home, argues that it is time Christians became fully involved in democratic politics alongside Muslims. One of the aims of Maspero Youth Union, he says, is to encourage Christian youths to break out of their isolation.

Rasha Azab

Journalist, 29

Rasha Azab is a force of nature. Her voice is loud, her language spicy and she is usually to be found in the thick of clashes between activists and police. But recently the journalist has channelled her rage against Egypt’s ruling generals into Askar Kazeboun, or Military Liars, a campaign launched to expose violence by the security services against unarmed demonstrators.

Kazeboun, as it is known, relies on volunteers who set up screens, often on the street, on which they project footage of brutal attacks against protesters. The aim is to counteract the message carried by state television, which often tars activist groups as violent hooligans.

“We have already held hundreds of showings,” says Azab. “We are a de-centralised movement, so we coordinate, helping provide projectors or filmed material to whoever needs it.”

Most showings have gone peacefully, but in some places Kazeboun teams have been attacked. “They can’t shut us down by arresting us. There are now far too many people involved. If they arrest me, someone will come and stage a Kazeboun showing on the street in front of my house.”

An activist since university, Azab is the veteran of several brief arrests and beatings by police. Last year, she was accused by the military prosecution of “spreading false news.” They did not pursue the case, but the charges remain. Undaunted, she says, “Repression in this country will not have as easy a time in the future as it did in the past. They have used everything against the people – bullets, crushing them with armoured vehicles. They have no more ways at their disposal, but we do.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.