As Egyptians continue to demonstrate their anger in the streets of Cairo over their nation's slow progression toward democracy, a leader of the youth movement that helped bring about the revolution told graduate students, faculty and a group of people from the entertainment industry that he is still hopeful about the outcome of elections during the week of Nov. 28.
"With any revolution, it takes time," said Ahmed Maher, an unassuming 30-year-old civil engineer who became the co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement. Egypt's current instability, due in large part to a bottomed-out economy and infighting among groups vying for power, doesn't discourage him, he said. In fact, a state of unrest will probably persist for years to come, he noted.
It took 10 years for Poland to build a new democratic country, said Maher, who visited Poland to meet with its leaders and talk about nation-building, "I know we will face many struggles."
Maher was at UCLA and L.A.'s Four Seasons Hotel on Nov. 15 to give a campus group and those attending an event co-hosted by UCLA and the Artists & Athletes Alliance a gripping, first-person account of the Egyptian uprising that succeeded in toppling the much-reviled former President Hosni Mubarak last February. Maher helped freedom seekers find their footing as a Facebook group and subsequently led thousands in a confrontation with police wielding weapons.
At UCLA, History Professor James L. Gelvin, a scholar in Middle Eastern history and author of several books on the subject, including "The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know," which will be released in January, played host to Maher at the Faculty Center, where the activist lunched privately with a small gathering of graduate students and faculty members. Later that evening, Gelvin moderated a discussion at the event for Artists & Athletes Alliance, a nonprofit that operates at the nexus between the entertainment community and Washington, D.C.
Throughout the day, Maher vividly described the years of unrest that culminated in the revolution and contemplated what's next for Egypt, currently under control of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
"It's one thing to study [the Egyptian uprising] and read about it in the news," said Gelvin. "It's another thing to see somebody who has actually participated in it, to talk to him. Now they can really understand exactly who these young people were who were putting their lives in their hands."
The youth movement drew its name from the April 6, 2008, day of civil disobedience when workers and their supporters across Egypt stayed home to protest low wages and soaring food prices. The whole world watched the revolution unfold, from marches in Cairo's Tahrir Square at the foot of the presidential palace to the violent Battle of the Qasr al-Nil Bridge across the Nile River, where Maher helped lead thousands who clashed with police and armored personnel carriers.
Maher admitted to one questioner at the Faculty Center that when he first started taking part in demonstrations in 2005, "I was afraid at first. I stayed inside (the crowd)." But it wasn't long before he catapulted to the leadership role that would find him inciting workers to join the strike that would establish the youth-worker coalition. "I told them democracy equals a good life," he recalled. "Democracy equals bread."
The strike so infuriated the Mubarak regime that Maher and his cohorts were targeted for arrest. While he succeeded in hiding from police for a month, Maher was eventually arrested, imprisoned and tortured.
"After that," he said, "I was not afraid."
Many have called the Egyptian uprising a Facebook revolution, but was it really that, Professor Gelvin asked.
"It was not Facebook, but thousands of people making the revolution," asserted Maher, while also conceding to the power of social networking in building the organization. During one meeting with fellow activists, Maher had suggested, "There is a new website called Facebook. Why don't we make a page?" The resulting Facebook page, which drew 70,000 members, was part of a broader campaign that included blogs, Tweets, posters and graffiti.
Of special significance to the evening's audience of some 200 actors, writers, agents and others in the entertainment industry was Maher's description of how he and his comrades educated themselves about history, revolution and strategy. They read books and watched movies about everything from the French revolution to the nonviolent resistance practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
As the youth movement grew in numbers and influence, "people called us crazy," he recalled. "We'd say, 'Yes, we are crazy kids.'"
Leaders of other anti-Mubarak groups, he added, also tried to hijack the movement. "They would say, 'You're good kids, and we're proud of you … (but) we can protect you.'" We would say, 'No, we are independent.'"
Maher recalled the Jan. 28 Battle of the Qasr al-Nil Bridge (See video above) as a "very important day. … In the morning, it was a demonstration, in the evening, it was a revolution." Yet it was also "a very horrible day. … The police used everything against us. They beat us and shot many. It was a very bad day because it was Egyptians fighting Egyptians."
Ten days later, Mubarak resigned and the military stepped in. Asked if he was surprised at the takeover, Maher said, "No. The Egyptian army has controlled everything — factories, farms, everything — since 1952."
Despite the ongoing violent protests in the streets, Haher said he remains optimistic about the outcome of parliamentary elections scheduled for November. But he said he also hopes that Egypt's democratic government can avoid some of the shortcomings of America's form of government.
America lacks equality and social justice, Maher pointed out, citing as examples inequitable access to quality health care and education. "Egypt," he asserted, "must have equality and social justice.
"We don't have the ideal meaning of democracy and equality yet." But, he added, "Day by day, there is change. Things have improved. People used to be able to talk only about things like soccer and drugs. Now people talk about politics."