Amr Taha, 24, doesn't come from a political family or belong to a political party. Before late January, he'd never attended a demonstration. But in the past eight days, the dental graduate along with millions of formerly apolitical young people just like him has been at the forefront of a burgeoning, largely youth-organized Egyptian antigovernment movement determined to bring down its longtime dictator.
Taha, who was born and raised in Cairo but attended high school in the U.S. state of Virginia, is one of the roughly 250 youth volunteers helping the 25 main youth organizers of the daily protests in Tahrir Square, the focal point of antigovernment protests in central Cairo. He's responsible for the "lost and found" department.
But that's just his assigned duty. The uprising has given him a daily vocation. He spends every day in the square and has spent several recent nights defying a government curfew to sleep in Tahrir, either in a tent or on the floor of a nearby mosque. He is just one of thousands in what is a proudly leaderless youth movement that may coordinate with, but is not answerable to, other opposition groups like the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood or the secular Kifaya (Enough) organization.
"Most of us here don't belong to any other group. Everyone has been exposed to some sort of oppression, police brutality or lack of freedom of expression," says Taha, a lanky, bespectacled young man with a wispy black beard. As an English-speaking, private-school-educated medical professional, Taha is not as downtrodden as many of his fellow countrymen, but he says he's protesting a system in which "you're good" if you have political connections, and if you don't, you're "going to stay poor and powerless." Of the unconnected, he adds, "And they don't deserve that."
It's 5 p.m., two hours past curfew on Tuesday, Feb. 1, and Tahrir Square is full of hundreds of thousands of people, standing shoulder to shoulder. Taha is helping secure the foot of a ladder as a friend and colleague hoists a banner in the square. "The people demand the removal of the regime," it says in English. The ladder starts to sink in the mud of the square. Hundreds of mainly young men are sleeping on bits of cardboard or placing their heads against one another's shoulders, waists or legs in a bid to avoid the mud in the center of the square.
Dressed in indigo jeans, a black T-shirt and a gray hoodie, Taha looks like any other 20-something anywhere in the world. But he's not. He's engaged in a political battle of wills that is the revolution of his generation. His political awakening began after he joined a Facebook group, Kollona Khaled Said ("We are all Khaled Said"), whose page was set up to commemorate the death of an 28-year-old Alexandria, Va., resident allegedly at the hands of the Egyptian police. The page became a lightning rod for young, frustrated Egyptians looking for a venue to vent against President Hosni Mubarak's three-decade long regime and its treatment of dissent.
The group soon collaborated with other antigovernment groups on the Web, which culminated in calls for a protest "day of rage" on Jan. 25. "I guess the government thought we were just kids, that we couldn't organize anything," Taha says. "To be honest, even I thought, 'This isn't going to work.' "
Taha's parents begged him not to attend the demonstration. "My mom said, 'Please don't go,' because we all know that at demonstrations, people get hurt, they get arrested. But I was determined. Tunis showed us that it can be done," he says, referring to the antigovernment movement in Tunisia that toppled the country's longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali less than two weeks earlier.
It was Taha's first taste of street activism. "It was like a dream," he says. "When I saw all of my fellow Egyptians on the street, I cried."
After the success of the massive demonstrations on Jan. 25, the Twittersphere and Facebook activists called for a repeat performance after prayers that Friday. This time, however, the government abruptly cut its 80 million citizens off from the rest of the world, pulling the plugs on cell-phone networks and the Internet in a bid to paralyze the mobilizing power of social media, preventing the world from seeing what was happening on the ground.
Taha set out to attend Friday prayers at the Ramses Mosque before participating in the demonstrations. He never made it to either. He and several of his friends were arrested by police outside the mosque and detained overnight at the station along with hundreds of others. His arrest both angered and inspired his parents. "After I was released, my parents said, 'Go back down to the protests on Saturday.' We all felt that this was enough. We weren't scared anymore. My mom even came down with me," Taha says.
Taha says he is determined to stay in the square until Mubarak's regime falls. The President's decision not to seek re-election is, to almost all protesters, an unacceptable half measure. "I'm here today, and I'm hoping that he will go today. Yesterday I was hoping that he'd leave yesterday. And tomorrow I'll still be here, hoping he'll leave then. We can't live under this system anymore. It insults our intelligence."