The following is an edited excerpt from Rusha Latif’s new book, Tahrir’s Youth: Leaders of a Leaderless Revolution. The book tells the story of the young activists who started the mass uprising in Egypt that led to the spectacular fall of President Hosni Mubarak’s government in 2011 and who fought to rebuild the country in the following years. The excerpt explains the strategy devised by the organizers to help Egyptians, especially those of the lower class, overcome their fear of the police and join them en masse in the streets on January 25, 2011. Twenty secret locations were posted on social media, which served as bait with 21 .secret locations.
Activists I interviewed confirmed that the secret strategy for the January 25th protest was the brainchild of April 6th activist Mahmoud Samy, a polished and insightful young man known for his clever innovations in street protest tactics.
A son of Cairo’s popular neighborhoods himself, he knew well the spaces, mobilities and vulnerabilities of its subaltern inhabitants and understood how to negotiate them in his planning in favor of the January 25 day of protest.
This class capital influenced his choice of Nahya Street in the poor, informal neighborhood of Bulaq al-Dakrur, near his neighborhood of Awsim, as the site of their twenty-first secret location and the start of their march.
The goal was to figure out how to get Egyptians to overcome their fear of the police patrolling their neighborhoods and join their protest. “When I thought about it,” said Mahmoud,
“I remembered that one of the things we often encountered during protests before this was that people watching were afraid to join us. Why were they afraid to join us? Because our number was small. So you have two choices: make sure there are no police or outnumber you. How does it make you many? There was the idea of the snow chest, that the further your march goes, the more it increases.”
The idea was to start with a secret gathering in a low-profile indoor space located in one of Cairo’s many popular neighborhoods.
They would concentrate several hundred of their fellow activists there to create the illusion of a large crowd for spectators who need reassurance in numbers before they decide to join.
What drew Mahmud most to Nahya Street in Bulaq, of all the popular areas he explored, was the bridge at the end that connected it to Arab League Street, the main, bustling thoroughfare dotted with high-rise apartment buildings, shops and restaurants.
The flyover perfectly connected this informal area to the upscale district of Mohandiseen, where they could potentially attract even more protesters, showcasing a diverse cross-section of society in their march.
If they had planned everything well, they would have surprised the police and observers with a brilliant show of resistance never seen before in these parts.
With the support of a fellow April 6 organizer, Amr from Imbaba, and another peer from the Youth for Justice and Freedom movement, Mahmoud devised a route and mapped out the details of the march that would take them from their rallying point near a small, inconspicuous bakery at the far end of Nahya Street down Arab League Street, allowing their numbers to swell before linking up with the protests in Mustafa Mahmud Square.
They planned to hold a demonstration there for several hours before dispersing.
In order to ensure the successful implementation of this protest, they regularly visited the area in the two weeks before Police Day to carry out running exercises, measuring the time it would take them to walk, jog and run to see how long it would take them to match the marches that came from other parts of Giza as well as from Shubra, which were planned by other groups such as the Revolutionary Socialists. They also developed strategies for possible police ambushes.
At this stage, there was no firm intention to protest in Tahrir Square, although Mahmoud and his peers had long dreamed of descending and conquering the square with thousands of protesters.
Located in the center of Cairo, Tahrir – which aptly means “Liberation” – was the largest public space in the city, and gained its symbolic weight as a focus of political resistance from the surrounding institutions of state power.
Mahmoud said that the terms under which they could consider going to Tahrir were discussed.
He said the agreement was to continue to Tahrir if luck was on their side and their numbers reached a thousand, a goal they considered quite ambitious at the time.
This reflects how improbable they found it that they would be able to gather a large enough group of protesters to make such a dramatic and daring move.
January 25: Management of the popular uprising
On the morning of January 25, Mahmoud, Amr and the rest of their cohort anxiously prepared to execute their plan.
To ensure maximum secrecy, the conspirators informed only ten activists of Nahya’s location.
Each had been told in advance that their cells would meet them at another location somewhere in Cairo of their own choosing, and from there they were to be taken to Nahya without their knowledge.
Everything went according to plan.
At 12 noon, about 250 activists managed to avoid police notice and meet in a small square in front of a local bakery known as Al-Hayyis, located in this densely populated poor area.
Lawyer Zyad, who spoke softly unless he was revolutionary and blaspheming the establishment, gave a rousing speech directed at local residents peering from their balconies.
“Today is January 25, Police Day!” he roared into the megaphone. “We decided to come here today to tell the Egyptian government that we will no longer be silent!”
He invited the crowd to join them: “Today we either stand by each other and demand our rights together, or we lose the opportunity! Now or never!”
Zyad had their ears. The gathering quickly began to swell and spill over into the neighboring alleys.
Activists began marching, calling on the crowd watching from their balconies to join them: “Ya ahalina! Indammu ilayna!” (Ours! Join us!), they chanted “Inzil! Inzil!” (Get out! Get out!).
The numbers that responded to the activists’ call dramatically exceeded their expectations.
Expecting at best to gather a thousand residents from Nahya Street, they instead left it with a stunning march of at least five thousand protesters, which only continued to snowball as it passed through Arab League Street.
Their numbers were so great that when the nearby Central Security Forces caught wind of the march and rushed onto the footpath at Nahya Bridge to block them, they managed to abandon that route entirely and occupy the lanes instead, drawing the taunt of officers who were hopelessly outnumbered and could do nothing to stop them.
It was a triumphant moment for the activists who for the first time succeeded in overpowering and disorienting the security forces. They were incredibly happy. Abdelrahman described their utter shock and euphoria as they crossed the Nahya Bridge and splashed onto Arab League Street:
“I will never forget the scene when we entered the Arab League. It was as if the people had sprung up from under the ground. This was one of the most moving scenes. . . and we started crying and hugging each other, and we kept shouting, ‘Intasarna!’ (We won!) What exactly did we win? Who knew?! No one knew what would happen next!”
And Mostafa excitedly recalled that moment:
“The very fact that we could participate in such a march, that we could witness such a large march, was a pure victory. We started hugging and kissing and people were looking at us like ‘Who are these crazy people?!’ . . . Before that we organized a march and sometimes there were only twenty or thirty of us. When there were five hundred in our protests, we were beside ourselves. . . . Now, we couldn’t see the beginning of the march from its end! We were so out of it you’d think we were drunk. I’m talking borderline hysteria. . . . And then there was this feeling at this moment, that if this many people mobilized, it means that something significant has changed in the country. There was a jump in people’s political consciousness – a radical change, a deep desire for freedom.”
As the Nahya marchers approached Mustafa Mahmud Square at 2 p.m., they encountered thousands of other protesters.
Their numbers were also so great that they could easily break through the cordons of the security forces that tried to hold them back.
At Mustafa Mahmud Square, it became clear to those who led the procession that the enthusiastic response of the people was unprecedented, qualitatively and quantitatively different from anything they had ever experienced and from what they expected.
At this point, they agreed that a different course of action was needed.
Realizing that they had a potential rebellion on their hands, the activists from this point on began to make decisions on the spot, which were based on a wealth of political experience gained through their active participation in multiple, albeit much smaller, street demonstrations.
This gave way to a very present organizational process in the fluid dialectic between the unfolding of street events and their political skills. Tarek’s reflection shows it best:
“My feeling at this moment was that the street has finally mobilized! … The explosion we wanted really happened! We were all thrown into shock because we didn’t. . . . I mean, we thought a lot about how to get people to come out, but we never thought about what we would do with people if they did come out. We were all in a daze and said, ‘What are we going to do with all these people?!’ Because we didn’t expect it to come out. So when they actually did it, it was like, ‘Okay, so what are we going to do now?!’ Then we started saying ‘To Tahrir Square!'”