The Political Education of a Techie Dissident

Imprisoned activist Ahmed Maher is now measuring Egypt's transition to democracy in decades, not months or even years. 

Ahmed Maher (L), co-founder of the April 6 Youth movement, before turning himself in at Abddein court in Cairo (Reuters)

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.

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s recent death, I couldn't help but look at Maher in a new light. Obviously, they are different in myriad ways. But the gene that made Mandela so wholly unrelenting is one I think Maher carries as well. Like other great leaders, Maher’s response to adversity, arrest, and even torture has never been to cower, but to bounce back stronger despite the risks. Sitting outside in the drizzle that afternoon, he told me that his wife wants the family to move to Kuwait, London—any place where she won’t have to worry about her husband’s safety. He gave a small shrug with his cigarette. “There is no way I could do that.” He didn’t justify this comment with some platitude about the people who depend on him or the legion of followers he’d be letting down were he to leave Egypt. His assessment was more ...  mechanical, as if it were physically impossible for him to stop striving toward that Egypt of his dreams.

Just days after Maher returned home from his trip to the U.S., he was slapped with an arrest warrant on charges that he had violated the new law against unauthorized public demonstrations. When he turned himself in on November 30, Maher was wearing sunglasses and smiling broadly, surrounded by a throng of shouting supporters.

He is now being held in Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison, where he says guards have refused to provide him with paper to write. He has done so anyway—on toilet paper. Egypt’s current leadership, he wrote in a letter smuggled out of jail, has “gone back to the tactics of torture and repression, while the young people of the revolution are suffering in prison and being denied their basic rights.” I can’t help but think that Maher is forecasting how all of this will play—the non-violent activist imprisoned yet again for no good reason. With his court hearing slated for Sunday, he is surely aware that it is from behind bars where some of history’s greatest dissenters have grown into leaders.

Update: On Sunday, an Egyptian court found Ahmed Maher and two other young activists—Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel—guilty of organizing an unauthorized protest, and sentenced each of them to three years in prison. They are the first to be jailed under the country's new law governing demonstrations.