Egypt’s slide back into authoritarianism wasn’t foreordained. Today the leaders of April 6 admit that they weren’t prepared for the challenges that followed their initial success. Many of them were barely out of their teens; Maher, from a politically aware, middle-class family in Cairo, had built the group online, connecting on Facebook and embracing civil-disobedience techniques that he learned while demonstrating for human rights and judicial independence with a small pro-democracy movement. He was beaten and jailed repeatedly. The group took its name from the date of a sit-down strike in Cairo that Maher organized in 2008 in solidarity with textile workers in the Nile Delta. That led to small demonstrations against corruption and police brutality, which were quickly broken up by Mubarak’s security forces. Then, on Jan. 25, 2011, a protest march on Egypt’s National Police Day exploded into a nationwide movement. Late that morning, Maher watched with amazement as crowds filled Tahrir Square and said: “We made a revolution! We made a revolution!”
Days after the Feb. 11 resignation of Mubarak, one of the world’s longest-serving tyrants, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a transitional military body, sent a bus to pick up Maher and three other protest leaders and took them to a villa owned by military-intelligence officials. Sisi, then the intelligence chief, and two other generals greeted them respectfully, Maher recalled. “Sisi said: ‘You are heroes. You did miracles. You brought down Mubarak. You did something we failed to do for years. But now we need you to stop demonstrating.’ ”
Maher and the others rejected Sisi’s request. “We said: ‘The revolution is not complete. We need to change the cabinet, change the structure of the government.’ We kept sending them demands.” Over the next six months, Maher met with Sisi three times. “We said the same, and he said the same. ‘We need to stop demonstrating; stand together against the enemies.’ Sisi always hated the protests.”
After Mubarak’s downfall, Maher traveled to the United States and captivated students in gatherings at New York University, Harvard, M.I.T. and American University, and met with leaders of the Arab-American community. In Europe, he talked politics and revolution with the first vice president of the European Commission, Catherine Ashton; officials from the United Nations Human Rights Council; and Green Party and Social Democratic representatives to the European Parliament in Brussels. Western diplomats and politicians underestimated the structural weakness of the secular democrats, the grass-roots appeal of the Islamists and the entrenched power of the “deep state” — military intelligence and the state security apparatus.