The 25th of January has become something of a sombre date for many of us, memories of the euphoria, the youthful energy and excitement at a once in a generation revolutionary change have been replaced with a regret at what could have been. It was a day that began a journey that showed Egypt and the world that revolutionary processes are not singular events, but rather something that unfolds over long periods of time. There is so much the Egyptian uprising that led to the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak has still to teach us.
Rusha Latif’s book Tahrir’s Youth: Leaders of a Leaderless Revolution takes us on a tour of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition or RYC who emerged as the on the ground organisers and leaders of Egypt’s Arab Spring in 2011. It was formed of people of a diverse range of backgrounds which included different ideologies, parties, affiliations and religious and social attitudes. Latif embedded herself with RYC members in 2011 and witnessed their transformation. Latif warns us against some of the simplistic tropes that some have characterised the Egyptian revolution in the outside world, to see it as a spontaneous moment or a Facebook caused revolt, is a-historical and isolates the events from its predecessors, she argues. “They almost suggest that the consciousness and resistance of these activists was born instantly and online.”
Armed with this warning, we are forced to consider the evolution of Egyptian politics that would give rise to the 2011 Arab Spring. The RYC members came from different backgrounds and the ones Latif follows, although all Muslim, have different ideologies and class backgrounds that range from socialism, Islamism, secularism, liberalism and nationalism. Indeed an extraordinary achievement of the RYC was its ability to coordinate across different social and ideological lines and bring different people together. It is one of the reasons why looking at the RYC is a fascinating glimpse into a revolutionary period where the idea of ‘Egyptianess’ was being transformed. Each activist interviewed in the book had their own reason and experience before 2011 that led them to the protest movement.
While the revolt was leaderless in the sense that there was no overarching leadership figure from your Lenin to your Khomeini, there were many hundreds of local leaders who were responsible for coordinating, organising protests, sharing information and communicating to the world.
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The experience of the revolt shaped the political consciousness of those protesting, even those who already thought of themselves as deeply political before the Arab Spring. As one interviewee, Mostafa, put it: “On January 26, we understood that we had become a group of revolutionaries and that there were people in the street and the masses were with us.”
Some were stunned at the idea of a revolution even as they were organising it. Ola, another coordinator, said: “We called it a revolution in the announcement, but we were joking about that [at the time]…And we knew if not that many people joined, we would all get arrested.”
But the moment Ola realised it was a revolution was a moment of joy for her and in the Rosa Luxemburg sense, despite helping to organise the protest, the sense of losing control and watching the ordinary people take over the demonstrations produced a sense of elation for her.
“In Imbaba march on the 28th, one of my tasks was to make sure that the chants were unified in the march. On the 28th, those of us who had this task, we were congratulating ourselves that it’s out of control. This meant success, real success, because we couldn’t control it.”
The book takes us through the personal transformation in terms of ideas, experiences and beliefs the activists in the RYC had. Ultimately this unity did not last and divisions emerged within a year. In spite of this, the RYC will go down in Egyptian history and form part of the political memory that future generations will learn from.
Tahrir’s Youth offers a fascinating insight into the men and women who organised the Egyptian revolution of 2011. We learn of the personal stories, trajectories, experiences and outcomes for individuals involved in the RYC during this critical period in the history of Egypt. The book spends quite a bit of time reflecting on the shifting ideas of class, religion and gender on each subject before, during and after the revolt. While this will no doubt be of interest to researchers, for the average reader it gives us a glimpse from the ground up on how the 2011 uprising happened and how it impacted the ordinary people involved with it. Rusha Latif has made a valuable contribution to research on Egyptian politics with this study and it will no doubt become a necessary reference for further work on the Arab Spring in Egypt.