Two of Egypt's star youth activists visited the protesters in New York, but what they found was not quite an American Tahrir
Asmaa Mahfouz and Ahmed Maher lead an Occupy Wall Street march on Monday in New York City / Thanassis Cambanis
NEW YORK -- It was supposed to be a master class in revolutionary
activism: two stars of the Tahrir Square uprising visiting Occupy Wall Street
to swap tactics and sass. It ended up more like an undergraduate teach-in.
For Egyptian activists Asmaa Mahfouz and Ahmed Maher, the visit to Zuccotti
Park was an exhilarating -- if surreal -- break from the punishing workload of
fighting the military dictatorship back home.
"Where is the tear gas?" Maher asked with a smile, but he
seemed genuinely puzzled by the cordial relations between the Wall Streeters
and the cops.
"Where is the tear gas?"
Maher and Mahfouz both have been arrested before by Egypt's
notoriously abusive police, and Mahfouz recently was hauled before a military
court martial for allegedly insulting her country's military rulers.
Mahfouz had a question of her own. "Where are the
organizers?" she asked. "There must be organizers." No one knew. She ended up
chatting at the welcome table with a young man wearing a straw hat.
"How do you sustain yourselves? How do you keep yourself
energized?" he asked. "That's our main problem."
"You need a message," she told him.
She inscribed an Egyptian flag ("From Tahrir Square to Wall
Street") with black marker and presented it to the hundreds who gathered to
hear her and Maher.
Mahfouz, 26, spent years protesting when most Egyptians
stayed home, and became a phenomenon with her self-produced YouTube editorials.
She lambasted rulers with homespun humor, and exhorted people to join her at
protests. Eventually they did, in the millions.
Maher, 31, worked with virtually every activist group in
Egypt, and founded the April 6 movement, which was instrumental in organizing
textile worker strikes in 2008. His grassroots political organization boasts
the kind of street muscle and labor ties that Occupy Wall Street still only
hopes to build.
People asked about the role of women in the Egyptian
uprising, the connections between youth and labor movements, and the importance
of social media. Some of the questions were well intended but astonishingly
vague: "How do you overthrow a system?" one man asked. Maher politely replied,
"It's easier to overthrow a dictator than an entire system." He didn't belabor
the point that the Egyptian revolutionaries, so far as they are concerned, have
not yet won; they still are fighting their system. Egypt's military rulers have
staged a vicious campaign against Maher's April 6 movement, accusing them with
no evidence of working as American spies and subjecting them to a public
The Americans wanted to know how they could help Egypt.
"Get your revolution done. That's the biggest help you can
give us," Mahfouz said, expressing the hope that America would one day cut off
the $1.3 billion yearly payments that sustain Egypt's military.
She also advised Occupy Wall Street to select its own
leaders and craft a simple message "that no one can change."
On Monday evening at Zuccotti Park, Mahfouz was eager to
model the fiery disobedience with which she's inspired so many Egyptians.
"Let's march!" she said after an hour-long question-and-answer session,
grabbing an Egyptian flag and flashing the victory sign with both hands.
A few hundred demonstrators fell in line behind her and
Maher, who gamely joined the English chants. The police allowed the march onto
Wall Street itself, and at each corner the American leaders consulted an
officer about the preferred route. Weary of the somewhat stilted slogans, which
lacked the umph and rhythm of Egyptian chants, Mahfouz and Maher taught the
crowd the iconic cry of the Arab uprisings: "Al shaab yurid isqat al nizam," or
"The people demand the fall of the regime." The crowd adopted its own hybrid:
"Al shaab yurid isqat Wall Street."
As they wound back to Zuccotti Park, demonstrators awaited a
cue from the police before crossing Broadway. It was too much for Mahfouz. She
stopped in the middle of the intersection, stopped traffic, pumped a fist in
the air, and demanded the fall of Wall Street. Nervous demonstrators skittered
to the sidewalk, leaving Mahfouz with just the cameras and a few dozen
stalwarts who seemed willing to accept her invitation to be arrested.
For a few seconds, there was a palpable crackle of tension. But
the police, it seemed, didn't want the hassle. They stepped back, and without a
confrontation, the moment subsided. Mahfouz joined her comrades back on the
"I wanted to show them that they need to be tough, even if
they get arrested," she said with her trademark toothy smile. With that, she
repaired for a private session with Occupy organizers -- she had finally found
them -- and the long trip back to Cairo the following day.
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