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'Tahrir's Youth' follows the trajectories of some young revolutionaries in Egypt


In 2011, a popular uprising in Egypt captured the world's imagination. Young activists gathered by the thousands and drew hundreds of thousands more. Eighteen days of protests led to the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak after more than three decades in power. But a counterrevolution brewed, revolutionaries once united against Mubarak fought about the country's future. The military staged a coup, and many of the faces of that revolution now languish in prison. Rusha Latif is the author of "Tahrir's Youth: Leaders Of A Leaderless Revolution." She embedded herself with young activists and writes about what the world can learn from a defeated revolt.

RUSHA LATIF: I think this is actually a very good time to look back on that experience. So the Egyptian revolution, you know, it kicked off a wave of mass uprisings that kind of spread across the globe, you know, over the past decade. And a lot of these movements have, in some way, you know, shared characteristics with the Egyptian revolution or have mirrored it or replicated it, right? And one of those things are, like, its organizational form. You know, these kind of mass horizontal movements that don't really have a visible, clear leadership or organizational structure. And the Egyptian revolution, that had its advantages, like, in the early days of the revolt, but later, the issue became - after, you know, they got what they want, this lack of organization kind of became a liability.

And I think there's a very clear pattern that's been kind of emerging around these movements. And I think stepping back and thinking, like, OK, well, we know that there's these huge flare-ups that can happen. It could be an incident like the murder of George Floyd or Khalid Saeed in Egypt, right? But the question is...

FADEL: Which is the young man who was beaten to death by police. That sparked the 2011 uprising.

LATIF: Yes. And so then the question is, how do you prepare for those moments? How can you make sure that you're prepared and have an idea and a clear project and vision for the change that you want so that when the masses - right? - the public is ready to get behind something, there's something there for them to keep them invested? So I think that imagination kind of needs to happen, that thinking, that strategizing and preparation for those moments.

FADEL: One of the themes of this book is really muddying this assumption that the revolt, as you mentioned, was leaderless, which it was often written about in that way, and that it was a Facebook or Twitter revolution. But you write that's reductive and actually cheapens what actually happened and how these people got to the square.

LATIF: I think the story is more complicated than that. Sure, you could say that the, you know, revolution or the movement was leaderless and that it didn't have, like, traditional leadership that we kind of associate historically with revolutionary movements. It didn't have, like, the sort of male charismatic figure at the helm of the movement. It didn't have an organization running it. But that's not to say it was without leaders. It definitely had leaders who took the initiative in the weeks before January 25, who were planning and strategizing for that day and who were trying to sustain the movement in the weeks that followed.

So I would argue that that's probably not the best term. Some have used the term leader-full (ph), which I think maybe better captures what happened on the ground. And it's a good term in that it helps us kind of analyze to what extent, you know, the movement was led and not led.

FADEL: As soon as that common goal of ousting Mubarak was gone, like you say, a lot of these activists took different paths, and the different revolutionary groups split. But it was more than just splitting. You know, there was one moment in your book where you understand that some people didn't see even Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that ultimately won the elections - more organized than these other groups - as human. And I'm thinking of Rabaa, in 2013, when more than a thousand pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters were killed in the middle of the city. And one of the activists you follow is completely unempathetic about, really, what is a massacre in the middle of Cairo.

LATIF: Yeah, that was hard to write about. I think it was just very representative of what was happening in Egyptian society at the time. And it's true. There were activists who kind of share those sentiments with the larger public. You know, I wouldn't say they were a minority or majority. I don't know. But...

FADEL: I mean, I definitely heard that a lot at that time.

LATIF: Yeah.

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, I remember coming out of that square and people having seen people who'd been killed and then a bunch of other people saying, oh, they deserved it, or it's because they're trying to destroy the country or...

LATIF: Yeah, exactly. And I think that was the sentiment of the one activist that I mentioned. I think there's a lot of factors, too, that probably shaped, you know, his personal trajectory. You know, the fact that they didn't have this very clear idea of what they were doing from the beginning just made it very easy for, you know, some of them, I think, to lose their way from, like, their original positions, you know?

So my own impression of that one activist is I don't know that - I mean, he seemed like a very different person to me in that interview than my earlier interviews with him. And I can't help but wonder if it was because, as a group, as a collective, as revolutionaries, they never really had a clear ideology. Like, the conflicts between different political actors, it was really difficult to maybe see the course that they were, you know, marching on and to stick to it.

FADEL: I think I walk away wondering, was anything actually achieved? Was any of this worth it? Because many of these activists that you write about have been exiled, silenced, imprisoned. Some are still in prison...

LATIF: Yeah.

FADEL: ...Under a much more repressive regime in some ways than Mubarak's regime was.

LATIF: You know, yeah, that was a question I posed to the activists themselves...

FADEL: Yeah.

LATIF: ...Like, you know, given everything that you guys lost and sacrificed, and there was so much death. I mean, I asked one of the - the one activist I asked, his brother was - you know, he was a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood himself, and his brother was massacred. He was killed in the massacres in 2013. And his response was, you know, they didn't have any regrets about what they had started because, you know, in that moment, it was the right thing to do. And so in terms of the gains, I mean, it's hard to talk about when the cost has been so high.

FADEL: Right.

LATIF: But definitely what they've done was they've created a really powerful memory for themselves and for the country that can't easily be put out. You know, there's this idea still that's latent, I think, that, like, it's still possible. Like, we didn't think it was possible back then, but we can still do it. We can still come out of these conditions that we're in collectively. I think that's a really powerful idea that they introduced into their country and into the world. And at a time, I think, where we still really kind of need that hope, that memory is there for them and for us to draw on.

FADEL: Rusha Latif is the author of "Tahrir's Youth: Leaders Of A Leaderless Revolution." Thank you so much for your time.

LATIF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.