Students at Tahrir square

Social groups within the January 25th movement
by Nima Madjzubi

Who were those people on the Tahrir square who stood for system change? We know that the protests were broadly supported, but who ignited it, and what was the share of the different groups? We asked Medhat Riad about the Egyptian events and the role of students (and workers).

Had you expected such huge protests in Caïro?

Yes and no. I was there two weeks before January 25th. People were discussing a demonstration but it wasn’t serious yet. I was sceptical at first. Egypt seemed so different from the smaller Tunisia and a 59 years-old system is unlikely to budge. The conversations didn’t excite me. Only, the number of people on the square caught both my disbelief and utter excitement.

But you were sceptical first?

Yes, I’ve seen many movements over the years but they vanished prematurely. In the 2006 presidential elections, a movement called Kefaya (Enough) started to support a candidate. Mubarak won big and the other candidate was jailed for alleged forgery. In 2008 some lads started campaigning for social justice on Facebook for a few months. Many got arrested and were released later. Who were those lads? In 2006 it were pupils and university students who supported the candidate. In 2008 it were young workers from the industrial city El-Mahalla El-Kubra. They protested against the working conditions and the wages. Students supported them through digital media.

And the older ones?

Our parents are afraid or don’t believe change is possible. But January 25th surprised them a lot.

Did the youth ignite the Tahrir events, and with what demands?

Relatively rich students started socialising on Facebook. I know many of them. They suggested gathering on the square on the 25th, the Police Day. They reached the non-Egyptian Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia TV with that. Many people were watching those channels and were seeing Tunisia and the Tahrir square, so things got vicious. Workers and the poor followed, but they had to return soon to make their living. All the groups stressed that they rejected Egyptian politics. But students hammered on their age-old demands: social justice, corruption-free government, freedom of speech and fair elections.

Who were the men inside those tents?

The richer middle class with their laptops and cellphones. They created a ‘command center’, the enduring core of the protests. What organisations supported them? At first none. There was only an invitation and a huge mass. The biggest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, actually announced the protests wouldn’t achieve anything. But when the police started using force, they sent their men to protect the protesters. At first MB was the only opposition. But many people, especially in Caïro, don’t identify with them. So now new political options are becoming available. What do the students do now? They seek room for more action. On March 19th, people voted on constitution change. The young ones decided to watch the process. They filmed the voting stations with their cellphones. Hopefully the political space opens up for all these groups.

– Medhat studied at a private university and lived at the Tahrir square. In 2007 he came to Utrecht for an MSc in Cognitive AI. He is now working on neuroimage analysis at the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre.

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