Youth Movement At Heart Of Egypt Protests

Sherif Mansour, senior program officer for Freedom House's Middle East North Africa programs, speaks to host Robert Siegel about the April 6th movement, a youth organization that's behind the protests in Egypt. The group is calling for a million people to join the demonstrations Tuesday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

One of the groups calling for a demonstration by a million Egyptians tomorrow is the April 6th Movement. It's a group of young Egyptians that takes its name from a national strike it called on that date in 2008 in support of a workers' strike the year before.

Sherif Mansour of the Washington-based NGO Freedom House is familiar with the April 6th Movement. He says it is an umbrella group centered on its Facebook page, and the movement encompasses young people of different political beliefs.

Mr. SHERIF MANSOUR (Senior Program Officer, Middle East North Africa Programs, Freedom House): I think the focus on having a liberal kind of agenda that's inclusive for everyone to participate - they promoted the idea of unity among political activists regardless of their background and affiliation. And that's why they were able to work with multiple political parties, including liberal, Nazareth and Muslim Brotherhood.

SIEGEL: From what I've seen, documents issued by the April 6th Movement setting out the group's demands, for example, do not begin with a traditional Islamic salutation: In the name of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful. Does that surprise you or no?

Mr. MANSOUR: That was a neat thing back then. Because for so long, the mosque was the only space where Egyptians could actually associate because of the restrictions on public freedoms and freedom for association. And that's why this group was unique because it managed to build a grassroot connection with youth all over the country. And I think the equivalent to the mosque, in terms of providing social space, was the Internet.

SIEGEL: The Internet. To what extent was the April 6th Movement a public above-board group whose members could be identified? And to what extent was it something that you kept your membership secret, if you belonged to it?

Mr. MANSOUR: Most of the activities and members were public. The group was met with a lot of repression by the government. A lot of them were arrested, repeatedly beaten in the streets, so they had to be a little bit careful. But, at the same time, the group is very decentralized in their work. And they have a unique kind of structure where they have flat leadership, so that they can operate in all universities across the country without having a central command.

SIEGEL: But is there somebody who, if that leader stood up in Tahrir Square and said, here, I'm from, you know - you know me, I'm from the April 6th Movement, would hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of people know who that was and recognize him or her?

Mr. MANSOUR: There is. And one of the public images of that movement is Israa Abdel Fattah who is a young Egyptian girl who started the call for the strike in 2008. And she was put in prison for two weeks because of it. And the group started advocating for her release and it became a national kind of debate. So she got a lot of publicity and people knew her by name and know her face.

In addition, there is the current leader of the group who's Ahmed Maher, another young engineer. He's 30 years old and he's also one of the public faces of the movement. And he has been arrested more than once and tortured, even to stay away from the movement but he didn't.

SIEGEL: Mr. Mansour, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MANSOUR: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Sherif Mansour of the Washington-based NGO Freedom House.

And one other note of interest, Mr. Mansour pointed out that January 25th - the day the protests began - is Police Day in Egypt. It commemorates a British attack on an Egyptian police station in 1952, and it celebrates the resistance of the Egyptian police.

Well, last year, the April 6th Movement organized protests on January 25th against the police. And this year, even before demonstrations brought down the government in Tunisia, Egyptians planned to protest on that date again.

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