Video Duration 25 minutes 30 seconds

Seeds of Change: Revisiting Egypt’s April 6 activists

A core group of young activists coordinated protests that rocked the country in the earliest days of the Arab Spring.

It all started on April 6, 2008, when young activists planned the first mass strike which marked the beginning of the end of Hosni Mubarak‘s government.

The movement that started with black shirts, social media posts and a lot of courage to face the onslaught of the regime, grew bigger every year until it hit its peak in 2011.

In the earliest days of the Arab Spring, People & Power gained exclusive access to the group behind Egypt’s unprecedented political protests as they coordinated their supporters to ensure the protests they had started on January 25, 2011, would continue.

The key event was the Friday Day of Rage.

The organisers, Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel, were trying to get a million people out on to Tahrir Square.

The events are seen from inside the movement’s headquarters, and we witness all the excitement, worry and planning entailed in this campaign to change the course of Egypt’s political history.

REWIND spoke to Elizabeth Jones about what she learned from filming this core group of young activists from the April 6 opposition movement.

Today, more than 10 years later, the April 6 movement activists are calling for the same things they called for back then: “Freedom, democracy, and social justice”.

Translation of tweet from the April 6 Movement:

“Statement on the 11th launch: Tolerance, peaceful coexistence, return to the democratic path, and the removal of injustice from the oppressed is the only way forward.”

FILMMAKER’S VIEW (January 24, 2017)

By Elizabeth Jones

Two colleagues of mine, Caroline Pare and Eva Dadrian, had been trying to make a film in Egypt about the April 6 movement for a few months. But it was after the events in Tunisia in December 2010 – and the growing sense that Egypt might be next – that the proposal gained real traction with Al Jazeera’s People & Power.

 Full interview with Elizabeth Jones

April 6 had called for people to take to the streets on January 25 – Police Day, which is traditionally a day of appreciation for the police services. But the movement decided to give this Police Day an ironic take and used Facebook to encourage people to protest against the brutality of the police instead. This seemed like an event that might spark something more and unleash a general sense of frustration with the authorities.

As the day neared, it turned out that Caroline was tied up on another project, so she asked me to step in at the last minute. I hadn’t been to Egypt before, and so my first experience of the country turned out to be an extraordinary one.

Police Day did happen on the 25th, which was a Tuesday. Eva had already hired a cameraman to film it for us, and once it was clear that this event had succeeded in bringing people to the streets, I got the go-ahead to fly. I arrived the following evening and was almost immediately taken by Eva, our field producer and translator, to the headquarters of April 6 to meet Ahmed Maher.

He was sitting at a long table in a large room. There was no one else there. My first impression was that he was a pretty ordinary guy, very friendly, just an exceptionally busy one. He showed us the April 6 Facebook page he was working on. We did a first short interview, and I went back to the hotel.

The following day, I returned to the headquarters and found many more people. It was a real hive of activity. Plans were afoot to send volunteers to mosques to encourage people to march to Tahrir Square after midday prayers.

The mood was one of great excitement but also of concern because one of Ahmed’s colleagues, Mohammed Adel, had just been arrested and no one was sure what was happening to him. He was released overnight, looking the worse for wear and quite exhausted, but he went straight to work.

By now it was Friday, January 28, the first day that people came out to protest. I concentrated all my energy on filming inside the April 6 HQ. It was tempting to go out on to the streets, to explore the square and its many stories, but I knew I had something very exclusive by being with the leaders inside the HQ and I wanted to take full advantage of that.

Riot police force protesters back across the Kasr Al Nile Bridge as they attempt to get into Tahrir Square on January 28, 2011, in downtown Cairo, Egypt [Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images] 
Riot police force protesters back across the Kasr Al Nile Bridge as they attempt to get into Tahrir Square on January 28, 2011, in downtown Cairo, Egypt [Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images] 

It was very hard to get information. The phone network was cut, and the internet was down.

Someone cleverly donated a satellite TV to get news from other areas of Egypt, and it was incredibly stirring when the leadership realised that protests were taking place throughout the country. There was so much happening, so much coming and going, that by the evening of Friday 28 I probably had half the film already.

On the eighth day of my stay – February 2 – I left my hotel in the morning and tried to get to the movement’s offices, but while my taxi was crossing the bridge, we were stopped by a mob of Hosni Mubarak’s supporters.

They jumped on the hood of the car and screamed at us through the windscreen to stop. Three guys jumped in – one in the front and two on either side of me in the back. The guy on my left had a panga [machete] and was shouting at me in Arabic, but I had no translator and found it hard to follow what he was saying. All I could gather was that they were accusing me of being a Zionist.

The men forced the car to pull off the bridge and then drive under it. The situation quickly grew threatening until, as though from nowhere, a woman appeared and forced one of the men out of the car before getting in beside me. She spoke directly to the man with the panga and was clearly arguing on my behalf. She somehow managed to convince them to let us drive around the corner where an army tank was positioned. Once there, the soldiers put me in another taxi back to my hotel.

Of course, this was just the start of an incredible day. I found another taxi and tried again. We got across the bridge this time and to within a few streets of the HQ but were again stopped by pro-Mubarak men. I was hassled and accused, but they let me pass when I told them that my hotel was just a few blocks away.

I managed to work my way back around them to the HQ, only to find that it was completely deserted. I dropped off my camera bag and went back downstairs to get an orange juice from a kiosk. In the few moments that I was there, a large mob of pro-Mubarak supporters swept down the street. Someone from the security services, who was clearly with them, grabbed me and pulled me into a tea shop. He forced me to sit and stayed with me to ensure that I did exactly as I was ordered. I watched as the mob entered the building where April 6 was based. I didn’t have a chance to go back in to see what had happened or to reclaim my camera gear, which I never saw again.

Having lost my kit, I decided to leave Cairo as soon as I could. I got a flight within a couple of days and headed back to London where the film was being edited. It was turned around quickly and aired on February 9. Mubarak fell two days later.

A woman cheers in Tahrir Square after it was announced that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was giving up power February 11, 2011, in Cairo, Egypt [Chris Hondros/Getty Images]
A woman cheers in Tahrir Square after it was announced that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was giving up power February 11, 2011, in Cairo, Egypt [Chris Hondros/Getty Images]

What Happened to April 6?

April 6 split in the spring of 2011 because some of its members were unhappy about Ahmed Maher’s decision-making process. The breakaway section called itself the April 6 Youth Movement Democratic Front.

Ahmed Maher continued as coordinator of the main April 6 group, organising and leading protests from the front. Its focus continued to be on issues of freedom and social justice and pushing for democratic elections.

Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, was elected president in June 2012. April 6 then protested against Morsi’s perceived ambitions to constrain the very democratic process that had brought him to power. However, as everyone now knows, his tenure in office lasted just one very turbulent year, at which point the army mounted a coup – led by the man who would become Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

This return to military rule brought with it new, draconian laws. In November 2013, an anti-protest decree meant that demonstrations had henceforth to be pre-approved by the Ministry of Interior and could be cancelled at any time.

Ahmed Maher was temporarily detained as one of the organisers of a protest against this controversial new law. A full arrest warrant followed, and he was ordered to give himself up to the courts. He went, surrounded by his supporters, and was taken into custody. The following month he and two other young activists – Mohammed Adel (who appears in Seeds of Change) and Ahmed Douma – were sentenced to three years of hard labour plus a monetary fine.

Earlier this month, Ahmed was released. His sentence was served, but he’ll be on probation for three more years and must sleep at a police station between 6pm and 6am. Co-detainee Mohammed Adel was freed on January 22 on similar conditions.

After Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel’s imprisonment, the April 6 membership elected Amr Ali as their new coordinator. Amr was a leading member through the anti-Mubarak demonstrations of early 2011 and has a small part in Seeds of Change, but viewers may remember him appearing as a more prominent character in subsequent films made for People & Power in the months after Mubarak’s ousting.

Amr Ali knew he was taking on a difficult job, trying to keep the organisation alive when most of its leadership and many of its members were in prison, underground or simply dispersed and in exile. What’s more, April 6 was among many organisations banned in April 2014.

Nevertheless, he and other activists managed to carry on for another year. Then, in September 2015, Amr too was arrested. For a few days, no one knew where he was, but he was eventually seen in Egypt’s notorious Tora prison. He was sentenced to three years for threatening to overthrow the regime, but that was later reduced to two years.

April 6 continues to exist, but with almost no public space left in the country for open debate, it may be some time, if at all, before it can be fully effective again.

Meanwhile, the government arbitrarily restricts the right to free expression, free assembly and protest. Under draconian anti-terrorism laws, thousands of political opponents and government critics have been detained and routinely face torture and ill-treatment. Courts have handed down lengthy sentences and even the death penalty after mass trials that have paid no heed to legal process. There has also been an alarming rise in forced disappearances, numbering in the thousands, perhaps, but certainly in the hundreds. Some are eventually found in prison. Others turn up dead.

Mubarak’s critics used to say that the space for civil society was highly restricted under his regime, but there was at least a very thin margin of freedom. It seems el-Sisi’s government is trying to close even that tiny window. Consider, for example, a law that was passed last November. It essentially criminalises any research or public works that are deemed to harm national security, national unity, public order or public morals, but without clearly defining what these are. In practice, it has heavily restricted work that can be done by charities, development organisations or NGOs – more evidence, if any were needed, that every facet of civil society is being taken over by government and security agencies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Note from editors:

Mahmoud Hussein, an Egyptian national and Al Jazeera journalist, was arrested upon arrival at Cairo airport on December 20, 2016, without charge. Five days later, Egypt’s interior ministry accused Hussein of “incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos”.

Al Jazeera rejected the charges and said Hussein was in Egypt on holiday to see his family and not for work. It said in a statement: “Al Jazeera deems all accusations against Hussein, including those which might be added later to the current allegations, to be a result of practices which violate international norms and conventions, and which, unfortunately, prevail in Egypt as exposed by human rights organisations.”