TALKING HEADS: Egypt: they're talking about a revolution
THE most important thing about change, whether it's in your work, home life or in a relationship, is that it needs to come from deep within you. The revolution inside. That's the nub of the message Waleed Rashed, one of the leaders of the 18-day uprising in Cairo's Tahrir Square in January last year, is bringing to business leaders in South Africa.
We meet on the opening day of Egypt's historic elections, "The first democratic ones in 7000 years," declares a buoyant Rashed. "We've never had an election that we don't know the result of before we've voted."
His voice is firm but not strident, not that of a shouter. H e has the quiet authority of an unmistakable leader and typifies his generation as he sits with one hand on his laptop, the other cuddling a cellphone.
He's constantly alert to both, for the world media wants his views on the election. But, and here's the difference that marks him, he never lets them intrude on the intimacy that marks our interview. It's one of his major strengths, an ability to convey a message, whether it's about revolution to 2-million people filling Tahrir Square or a one-on-one discussion.
Contrary to general perception, the Egyptian uprising was not just about social media. The April 6 Youth Movement of which Rashed was a founder - "just one of them, there were many of us, write that" - used Facebook, Twitter, cellphones and blogs. It also used marketing, research and sales strategies to create their revolution, just as you would when starting a business. The millions who gathered in Cairo were there as the result of years of co-ordinated planning.
Rashed, a banker with a BA in commerce and accounting, who is doing his Masters in Political Science at the American University in Cairo, was a member of the pro-democracy group, Kefaya. But it was largely made up of an older generation "and no change was happening". He and his young friends did internet searches on successful revolutions before deciding it was wrong to import one. They needed to create their own.
"We decided to be salesmen. Our Egyptian people were our customers, the competition was the regime, and the product was the revolution."
They studied the mind-set of the 82-million population, nearly 40% of which lived below the poverty datum line. You can't sell democracy to people without food or shelter, 30% of whom cannot read or write: "We needed to make a link between their needs, dreams and the corrupt regime. So we didn't mention freedom at all but asked them why they were silent when the government had taken their money, their work rights, their salaries. We hit their pockets and self-dignity."
But, how to spread the message to their "customers" in a country with government-controlled media, where only about 10% had computer access. Their strategy included cellphones but they focused hugely on face-to-face interaction: "We got leaders that people trusted in a particular area to speak at soccer matches and festivities. It was their voice but our message."
One of the early successes of the young activists was organising Egypt's first general strike, amongst textile workers in the industrial city of El Mahalla on April 6 2008.
Rashed and his young, tech-savvy activists created a Facebook page in support of the strike, which soon had 76000 followers. They also used Twitter, YouTube and Flickr to organise and incite. The successful strike coalesced the young leaders, who took their name from the strike date, and decided to move offline as well. They used taxi drivers as one of their stratagems, "because they never stop talking. They always boast they know everything that's happening in Egypt."
One of their major concerns was to break the barrier of fear about change: "You can get people to a boiling point of anger but something needs to tip it." The Tunisian uprising in December 2010 was that tipping point. "We share the same culture and language as them. Besides, in Arab culture, if someone buys a car, we want to buy a better one," he chuckles. "We knew we could do a revolution too, and do it better."
They adopted a slogan, when met with anxious queries about having an uprising - "the answer is Tunisia".
Within days they began whispering to taxi drivers that they'd heard the revolution was happening on January 25 2011, on a holiday called Police Day.
The activists chose 2pm, a time Cairo is close to standstill with traffic gridlock. In a diversionary tactic they'd alerted police to a supposed gathering far from Tahrir Square.
Crowds on foot, using the subways, were much faster than police, who took three hours to arrive in their huge vehicles.
"We had no idea how many people would come as our marches until then had been about 7000 strong."
When the estimated 2-million filled Tahrir, the message went out that the revolution was on, "and we'd not leave the streets until it was achieved".
The activists were well prepared for brutality, cutting open plastic bottles to wrap around their arms for protection and carrying onions to offset tear gas.
When we meet, Rashed has already tweeted his belief that the current presidential election will be won by the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi.
He doesn't support him, or his party - "they were formed after the revolution and their objectives lack clarity".
But even if the outcome is not what he hoped for, "it was the right revolution. When you're thirsty, you drink now, not next year. We were hungry for our rights and I would do it again."
He mentions a friend, Khaled Said, who videoed two cops selling drugs and uploaded it to the internet. They grabbed him from a cybercafé and an hour later threw his pulverised and lifeless body on to the pavement.
The message was clear. "If we did not speak up, we'd all become Khaled Saids."
Rashed's activism did not have the backing of his middle-class family, living just outside Cairo. His parents work for the government, his father as an agricultural engineer, his mother as a teacher. His two siblings are a banker and a university lecturer. Rashed didn't wake up one day and decide to overthrow thousands of years of autocracy - "But working in banking in Dubai and other Gulf countries I soon realised nobody respected Egyptians. We were a poverty-stricken nation with no opportunities."
He talks of people so desperate to leave the country, they drowned leaving its shores. "They had only a 10% chance of success, and still they went."
Today he tells international audiences, often consisting of Young Presidents' Organisation members, that he's proudly Egyptian. But, no matter who is listening, his main message in this shifting, scary world remains the same: if you want change, the revolution begins inside you.
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