On a chilly Friday afternoon in November, just weeks before Ahmed Maher would resort to scribbling notes on toilet paper from his jail cell to communicate with the outside world, I caught up with him on the campus of Portland State University in Oregon. Maher, 33, is the co-founder of Egypt's April 6 Youth Movement, a grassroots group that was instrumental in organizing the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. I had written about Maher in 2008, when A6Y was little more than a motley cadre of rabble-rousers using Facebook and social media to rattle the regime, and again post-revolution, when the world was intoxicated by that thing called the Arab Spring, and Maher and his peers were on their way to a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
What a difference three years makes. Egypt so far looks like an epic flail. Members of secular groups like A6Y have always known that you can’t snap your fingers and create a civil society. As Wael Ghonim, the former Google executive who helped galvanize public fury toward Mubarak’s thug-ocracy, put it: “Revolutions are processes, not events.” Unfortunately, that process to date has been characterized by economic dysfunction, broken promises from elected officials and military leadership, flare-ups of deadly violence, and, most recently, a ban on public protests every bit as draconian as Mubarak-era prohibitions. Just this week, Egyptian authorities acquitted some of Mubarak’s closest allies of corruption while filing new terrorism charges against deposed President Mohammed Morsi. A cynic would say the revolution has been hijacked. Worse, even: deleted.
Maher was making the rounds at a few West Coast universities before flying to Washington, D.C. for meetings with human rights groups. In a drab conference room, he spoke to an audience of 30 people about the country’s current volatility and A6Y’s future. He was a little more rotund than when I last saw him in Cairo in late 2011, and he was using noticeably more hair gel. He wore a beige blazer over a black button-down shirt and carried his trademark messenger bag. Afterwards, we sat outside on a park bench. Maher rolled a cigarette and reflected on his political evolution. “I see now that my dream for Egypt is so much more complicated to achieve than I did in 2008, or during the optimism and happiness of 2011.” It’s one thing to talk about the inevitably difficult transition to democracy. It’s another thing to be stalled in the thick of it.
Maher circa 2010 was not naive or overly idealistic. You could even argue that without outsized idealism the magic of Tahrir Square never would have taken hold. No, what’s different now is that Maher is no rookie. He has grown familiar with the “dirty games and different language of politics,” as he put—and adapting himself accordingly, speaking delicately about U.S. policy in the region, for instance, and not trusting anyone. His English is an order of magnitude stronger than it was two years ago, and he conveys a newfound charisma, smile and all, that makes him more affable and exhibits his intellect better than 1,000 tweets ever could. The sheepish techie dissident I once wrote about is gone.
Although many of the student questions Maher faced that afternoon dealt with Egypt’s present-day challenges, he clearly prefers thinking and strategizing for the long-term. He brings up the 1989 revolution in Poland, for instance, and how its roots date back to the 1970s. He also believes it will take at least 10, maybe 20, years to end the Egyptian military’s cartel-like grip on the economy. Even his response to a question about whether A6Y will ever field a presidential candidate (“Maybe in 2020, but not me,” he answered with a diminutive chuckle) reflected long-game sensibility. In the meantime, he says, A6Y will push for what it has always pushed for: a democracy built on the principles of government accountability, freedom of religion and expression, and economic opportunity for all.