Egypt's Youthquake: At a Nerve Center of the Revolution

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Chris Hondros / Getty Images

Protesters watch Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek give a speech on a projected television screen in Tahrir Square February 1, 2011 in Cairo.

On the 4th floor of an old shadowy apartment building in the heart of downtown Cairo, the tech savvy leaders of the 6th of April Youth Movement, are busy planning the Revolution. "We're receiving calls and making calls to our members in the street," explains Mohammed Adil, the director of the groups media office and website. "Today is the million man march so we are calling the leaders of all of our groups. We have them everywhere — Maadi, Shubra, and Giza [large towns near Cairo]. We call our members in the street to tell them what to do."

It's 11:30 on Tuesday morning and the dusty office space around Adil is buzzing with the idealism of two-dozen young professionals, many of them juggling four cell phones at once. They're lawyers, accountants and web designers. They wear jeans and flip flops, colorful headscarves, and the black and white checkered keffiyahs associated with the Palestinian intifadeh. Today they are among the country's core activists who shoulder the responsibility for the largest Egyptian uprising in more than 50 years.

Welcome to the nerve center of the Arab world's latest rebels. The 6th of April is one of several youth activist groups who have helped to bring the nearly three decade regime of President Hosni Mubarak to its knees. It was formed in the wake of a massive labor strike on the 6th of April 2008, becoming since then the group that made Egyptians under 30 a force to be reckoned with.

In the streets below, a mass movement against an authoritarian regime is heading into its 8th day. For the Egyptians taking part, it had always seemd only a matter of time before Mubarak falls — and the vast majority of protesters remain dissatisfied with the president's decision on Tuesday night not to seek re-election in September. But as they work toward his ouster, the country has become a vast militarized zone and an estimated 300 people may have died in the past week as protesters clashed with police on the streets of Africa's largest capital. By Tuesday morning, foreigners fleeing the country had clogged the airport; and food and cash were quickly draining from the country's shelves and ATMs.

But for many Tuesday's March of millions signified that positive change is finally coming: that Egypt may soon see, if not the removal of a dictator, the formation of a democracy, an achievement that will be remembered as Egypt's youth revolution. "This is the revolution of the youth. The people of Facebook and the internet are the ones who launched it, " says Muhammed Abdel Rahman, a 56 year -old truck driver. Had Mubarak heeded their needs, he says, this all might have been avoided. But the youth are tired and so are the old so what's happening in Egypt was a long time coming.

Still most Egyptians like Abdel Rahman say it wasn't a single factor that pushed the Arab world's most populous country into turmoil. For years, they say, frustrations bubbled over rising prices and unemployment; bribes and deep-rooted corruption; and the political repression and systematic abuses laid on thick by Mubarak's state security forces. "I think it was building up, it was an incident pulling an incident," says Marwa Nasser, a 27 year old IT recruiter and activist, "It just kept boiling and boiling then boom."

The Egyptian opposition and many of its young activists say the infuriating results of the November parliamentary elections may have been what finally lit the fuse. But the inspiration of the Tunisian revolution then intersected with a well-wired youth to drive thousands into the street. "The Tunisian Revolution actually triggered the Egyptian revolution. I was following the statuses on Facebook and I was very jealous of Tunisia" says Nasser, "I was seeing women with their babies in the demonstrations and I thought why can't we have this here? Now we do."

Together members of 6th of April and the thousands-strong Facebook pages dedicated to Khaled Said — a young Egyptian businessman who was beaten to death by plainclothes police last summer — invited Egyptian web users to take to the streets on January 25, the annual police holiday. They were eventually joined by the country's opposition parties and popular reformist Mohamed ElBaradei. The groups passed out flyers, held meetings, and put out the word through al-Jazeera and local media. After thousands flooded Egyptian's main thoroughfares on that first day of protest, standing strong against the regime's riot police, many more found the inspiration to join them. "When the older people saw the younger people go out in the street they started to come out too," says Amer Ali, a lead organizer in 6th of April, "They saw the number of us and stopped being scared."

Mid-day on Tuesday, Feb. 1, a full week after the first protest march, the sun was shining brightly and Tahrir square is standing room only. Music was coming from a near-by speaker; parents hoisted flag carrying children on their shoulders and protestors passed out snacks.

Already the 6th of April organizers are hearing from their leaders across the country that the numbers at today's march have far exceeded any held last week. The movement's leader, Ahmed Maher, stands at the edge of the square surveying the crowd. "Still more to come," he says, before darting off to greet other activists. Maher is part of a loose committee of opposition leaders who have met several times over the past few days in anticipation of negotiating with the regime. On Sunday, Maher said, talks were already underway between Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's newly appointed Vice President, and the official opposition parties. But where they will go and whether the youth movements, like 6th of April will ultimately be included is unclear.

Many of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square say they won't be satisfied until Mubarak actually steps down — lame duck status is unacceptable. But some of the parties may be easier to appease. "Not one single minister is from the opposition," says Wahid Fawzy, the foreign minister of the opposition Wafd party, "But if [Mubarak] gets one minister in the cabinet from each opposition party, that would be a move in the right direction."

Meanwhile, the regime's military continues to occupy the country's major roads and cities. To the demonstrators this is largely viewed as a positive development, since the widely loathed police force withdrew most of their untis on Friday night, opening up a security vacuum. The army is highly esteemed. "We have not seen the army take any action against the demonstrators," says Amer Ali, "The army is sympathetic to the peaceful demonstrations."

Even so some worry that the troops could stick around forever. Some demonstrators have started chanting "Civilian not military," in reference to the government they desire. And others fear the tank units and camouflage ranks could even be provoked into using force against the protestors, much like the police did last week. "We're worried now that people who belong to the Mubarak regime are going to enter the demonstrations and try to attack the military so that the military shoots back," says Shadi Taha, a member of the opposition Tomorrow party, remembering a pro-Mubarak counter rally the night before.

In an effort to keep things peaceful, volunteers have created road blocks on the roads leading into Tahrir, checking ID's and padding people down as they head into the protest. "We talked to the soldiers," says 6th of April's Amer Ali, "and we asked them: will you fire on us? They said no we don't want to destroy our country. So we also asked them: what do you think of all this? And they said they support us but they can't participate because they have to protect the country."