CAIRO - They are that age when changing the world seems possible. And that's exactly what they did — in just four days. Without hesitation, without compromise, three revolutionaries in their twenties — Mahmoud Badr, Mohamed Abdel Aziz and Hassan Shaheen — ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
They are the founders of Tamarod — “rebellion” in Arabic — the protest movement that began with mass demonstrations on June 30, and four days later, on July 3, managed to unseat Egypt's first freely elected head of state.
How did three activists push out the leader of the most populous country in the Arab world? How was the Muslim Brotherhood -- an 85-year-old movement that gave birth to modern political Islamism -- trampled by a bunch of kids? How this brilliant coup d’état will ultimately shake out is still unknown. But the story of Tamarod’s mutineers can tell us a lot about the ambitions and ambiguities behind this amazing upheaval.
It all started on a spring evening, in Mahmoud Badr’s appartment in Dokki, a residential neighborhood of Cairo. “Hassan and Mohamed were there,” he remembers. “We exchanged ideas, we talked about the best way to relaunch the revolution, to return it to its initial identity, popular and non-violent.”
Badr, 28, with tanned skin and youthful features, is editor of one of the many private dailies that were created after the 2011 revolution. He grew up in Shebin el Qanater, a large village in the Nile Delta, in a family noted for the lawyer father’s political commitment. Aziz and Shaheen, both also journalists, share the same background as part of the middle class that arose mid-20th century during the era of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The early days
The three young men met in the middle of the 2000’s as militants of Kefaya, the precursor to 2011's movement. The group organized flash protests and mobs — quickly repressed by the police — to denounce Hosni Mubarak’s despotism, the corruption of his regime and his subservience to the United States. When the revolution began on Jan. 25, 2011, Badr, Aziz and Shaheen were all in Tahir square.
From that point on, they would take part in all the challenges against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the inner circle of generals who led the post-Mubarak transition and were accused of behaving like the Muslim Brotherhood.
On Dec. 18, 2011, when soldiers assaulted a protester on the ground, then dragged her by her clothes and exposed her blue bra — a scene immortalized on Youtube — a young man came to rescue her, only to be beaten and stomped by the same military police. It was Shaheen.
Then, during the second round of the 2012 presidential elections, Badr and many other Tahir protesters voted for Morsi. It was a default choice, more a vote against opponent Ahmed Shafik, a Mubarak-era politician, than an endorsement of Morsi. But it didn't take long for Morsi to disappoint. The uncharismatic new president struggled to rise above his partisan origins.
The December 2012 Constitutional Decree, which gave him extraordinary powers, sounded the alarm for the young revolutionaries. When the new regime sent police to fight them, blood flowed and the stage was set.
In Badr's small flat in Dokki, the three conspirators agreed to launch a massive petition drive. They used as a model the 1919 signature collection to allow nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul to negotiate with British occupiers. The only difference this time was the “anti” — as opposed to “pro” — nature of the petition.
Aiming for 15 million signatures — or two million more than the number of people who voted for Morsi during the second round of the presidential election — Tamarod hoped they could force his resignation. “We imagined a giant motion of no confidence,” Badr says.
Political help from friends in high places
So much about this campaign has already been thoroughly covered: the thousands of volunteers who protested in the provinces, the bags full of petitions going to Tamarod headquarters in downtown Cairo, the estimated, though unverified, 22 million signatures gathered by June 29, the day before the June 30 protest.
What has received less coverage is the powerful support the movement enjoys. For example, billionaire Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian telecom tycoon who is strongly opposed to the Islamists, offered Tamarod free advertising through his TV channel and his daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. He also gave them access to the office network of the Free Egyptians, the political party he founded right after Mubarak’s fall.
“We followed the progression of the anti-Morsi processions all over Egypt on June 30 from a room in this party headquarters,” says Mohamed Heykal, a senior Tamarod official.
This three-room apartment on Ma’arouf street functioning as Tamarod headquarters is being loaned by Hesham al-Bastawisi, a famous progressive magistrate, according to Moheb Doss, another campaign leader. And another leftist figure, who heads a thriving construction group, paid for the paper and printing of millions of petitions. The most viewed television channels in Egypt — almost all of them anti-Muslim Brotherhood stations such CBC, Alhayat and Dream — were eager to welcome the uprising's leaders on air. During the days before June 30, Badr and his companions were frequent guests.
Should we conclude that Tamarod owes its success to a coordinated attempt to sabotage Morsi’s presidency? Did not the foulouls — the name Egyptians use for the supporters of the former regime — pull some strings behind the scene? A certain number of Islamists believe this was the true force behind the supposedly spontaneous protest.
Mohammed Heykal, who leads ground operations for Tamarod, rejects this “conspiracy theory.” But he concedes that the June 30 gatherings attracted a lot of people who were nostalgic about Mubarack’s era and were more motivated by a feeling of revenge than noble political ideals.
“We succeeded in bringing back together these two populations: the foulouls and the revolutionaries," he says without blinking. “People are smart. They understood the real problem was the Muslim Brotherhood. With them, it’s a cultural fight. They obey the brotherhood’s values, whereas we obey Egypt’s values.”
On Sunday June 30, at 5 p.m., the army said in a statement that the protesters in the streets numbered 14 million. Mohammed Morsi’s fate was sealed. Then, on July 3, unshaved, wearing jeans and sneakers, Badr and Aziz met with Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — just a few hours before Sisi ultimately told the president to step down, or the army would take action.
“He told us his intention to hold a referendum on whether to keep Morsi in power," Badr recalls. "We rejected this proposal, explaining that the Egyptian people would not accept such a half-measure.”
Badr, 28, was hardly disturbed by the force of the military's crackdown. "This is a maneuver of the Muslim Brothers who wrap themselves in the cloth of the martyr, to discredit our popular revolution," he said. This admirer of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Charles de Gaulle is already thinking about his future objectives: to become president of Egypt, no more and no less. "The minimum age to run is 40 years, it leaves me a little time."