Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Simple, normal, good looking, words you could use to describe any girl you come across on the Egyptian street. She may not attract your attention if you encountered her by chance, but you would be amazed if you talked to her, perhaps because of her enthusiastic tone of voice and body language.
She is an Egyptian activist from the April 6th Youth Movement, Asmaa Mahfouz, one of the most prominent youth leaders who called for the Egyptian protests. She was 26 on the 1st of February this year, and she holds a BA in Business Administration from Cairo University. Asmaa Mahfouz did not have anything to do with political activism before participating with her colleagues in the Youth Movement, which was founded after the famous general strike Egypt witnessed on April 6th 2008.
Mahfouz told Asharq al-Awsat that when she distributed leaflets calling on Egyptians to participate in the January 25th protests, the most she could have dreamed would turn up was 10,000 people. The following is the text from the interview.
[Asharq al-Awsat] How did you get into political activism?
[Mahfouz] My first taste of political activism was in March 2008, when I participated in promoting and initiating the call for a general strike [across Egypt] on the 6th April, which was launched on the Internet. Following the strike, we established the April 6th Youth Movement, named after that date. At the time, I did not know anything about political activism.
[Asharq al-Awsat] How did you make up for your lack of experience after joining the movement?
[Mahfouz] The movement began to organize training programs for its members who did not have political experience. Experienced members provided lectures, and then I learned many things through practice and close contact with other people and political activists.
[Asharq al-Awsat] What role did you play in calling for the January 25th protests?
[Mahfouz] I was printing and distributing leaflets in popular areas, and calling for citizens to participate. In those areas, I also talked to young people about their rights, and the need for their participation. At the time when a series of people [across the Middle East] were setting themselves on fire, I went into Tahrir Square with several members of the movement, and we tried a spontaneous demonstration to protest against the recurrence of these incidents. However, the security forces prevented us [from doing so], and removed us from the Square. This prompted me to film a video clip, featuring my voice and image, calling for a protest on the 25th of January. I thought to myself that a video would be the best option as long as I could not communicate directly with the people. In the video, I said that on the 25th of January, I would be an Egyptian girl defending her dignity and her rights. I broadcasted the video on the Internet, via “Facebook”, and was surprised by its unprecedented distribution over websites and mobile phones. Subsequently, I made four further videos prior to the date of the protest.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Where were you on the 25th of January, and what role did you play?
[Mahfouz] I went to a street in Bulaq Dakrur, where I and a group of members from the movement intended to start protesting. At the same time, other members were doing the same thing in other areas. When we had assembled, we raised the Egyptian flag and began to chant slogans, and it was surprising when a large number of people joined us. This prompted us to take our demonstration down Gamat al-Dawal al-Arabia Street. With increasing numbers joining us, we stopped for some time in front of Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, and then we led the march to Tahrir Square. We found several demonstrations coming from different areas towards this area, and thus we decided to occupy Tahrir Square. However, at around 2 am, we were attacked by security forces with tear gas and rubber bullets, and they pursued us through the streets of downtown Cairo.
[Asharq al-Awsat] What happened on the 28th of January, which has been termed the “Day of Rage”?
[Mahfouz] Everyone knows that the Friday demonstrations began in most Egyptian squares and streets after the Morning Prayer. As for me, I met with some of the [April 6th] members, and we began to protest in front of Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, amidst very large numbers. We led the demonstration towards Tahrir Square, but when we arrived at the Egyptian Opera House (located in between Tahrir Square and the Dokki region of Cairo), we were faced with significant security enhancements…armored cars, riot police, and central security soldiers. They started to beat us heavily with tear gas and rubber bullets, and I saw young men die in front of me. I was crying and scared, but I said to myself that I could not back down, because the blood of those young men must not be spilt in vain. Many of us resisted and more of us fled, but in the end a large number of us managed to access Tahrir Square.
[Asharq al-Awsat] How did you feel when you found out that your call [for protest] had transformed into popular demonstrations across Egypt?
[Mahfouz] When the police withdrew from the streets on Friday night, I realized for the first time that the call, which I did not dream would draw more than 10,000 people, had now turned into a popular revolution. Some of the protestors saw me amidst the demonstrations and said “Are you the one on the video? We came onto the streets because of you; we were very moved by what you said on the video”. Then I felt like I had achieved something for my country and my family.
[Asharq al-Awsat] How have your family reacted to your participation in political activism, and the risks that come with it, and what was their reaction after the outbreak of protests?
[Mahfouz] My family, like any Egyptian family, had reservations about my participation in political activism; they were always trying to advise me, saying “you are a girl, not the type to be roughed up!” In time, their pressures led me to reduce my activities, so I could stay at home with them for a longer period. I even left my post as media spokesperson for the April 6th Youth Movement, and was content with being a normal member, due to time constraints. After the outbreak of protests they [Mahfouz’s family] were very happy, and they told me “we are proud of you”.
[Asharq al-Awsat] What is your opinion of accusations suggesting you are receiving funding from abroad, and that foreign countries are financing the protests?
[Mahfouz] These are naïve accusations promoted by the state media, as part of a scheme to suppress the protests, and transform what was unprecedented public sympathy into a state of hostility. Some say America is financing us, others say Iran. With regards to our movement, we are self financed, thanks to members’ contributions; we do not receive any financial aid, either internally or from abroad. We have no headquarters, we meet anywhere, from human rights organizations to cafes, and we pay the costs of printing leaflets and banners from our own money. Regarding the financing of the Tahrir Square protests, some said that famous restaurants such as “Kentucky” had provided the protestors with hot meals, and this is also a naïve claim. Since the beginning of the protests, all these restaurants have ceased trading altogether, and the most expensive meal you will see during the protests is Koshari, a popular Egyptian dish that the protestors bought with their own money.
[Asharq al-Awsat] The protests are ongoing, and your principle demand has not been achieved, namely for President Mubarak to step down. What are the outcomes which you expect in the future?
[Mahfouz] All Egyptians, not only the protestors, have broken through the fear barrier, therefore I expect only one outcome - protests will continue until Mubarak steps down from power.