“I was anticipating a breakthrough — hoping that the protest would not be instantly dispersed by riot police, like so many previous marches. On that day I thought that if everybody does their part, we will have tens of thousands. What happened was a shock to me. Instead of tens of thousands, there were hundreds of thousands”.
-Ahmed Salah, speaking to Washington Post reporter Jackson Diehl
Oddly, people who speak to me about revolution quote theorists of the 19th Century or their favorite heroes, now dead, from the 20th. Certainly, there are lessons to be learned there. Yet here in San Francisco, California, we have the key designer of the successful revolution in the most important country in the 21st Century Arab world. And far from being mobbed with inquiries from admirers, he instead lives in obscurity and near poverty.
How could Americans let Nikola Tesla, the genius who invented the modern era, die alone and in obscurity? Why do we ignore such people, but only revere them in death? Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone?
In 1991, Ahmed Salah was a translator and teacher of Arabic to tourists and journalists. Within 20 years he would become a key player in the Arab Spring and a central designer of the revolution in Egypt itself. His memoir (co-written with Alex Mayyasi), You Are Under Arrest for Masterminding the Egyptian Revolution is a textbook for what makes mass social movements succeed and fail, and what makes revolutions triumph against all odds.
They’d tried everything in Egypt before. They’d held marches and demonstrations. They’d taken Tahrir Square before the revolution, only have the police violently take it back. They tried using social media, but that only gave the police their plans in advance. (Yes, “The Twitter Revolution” is an outright lie.) Nothing they tried gained any ground against the security forces until they took their organization and did actual market research, among the population of Cairo. Not that they used that term, but as “journalists”, they took to the streets and asked people if they heard of the upcoming demonstrations. Promising to use no names, they then asked if they planned to attend. Receiving the almost universal answer of “no”, they asked why, and listened. And they took the time to ask each person what their most important concerns about life were.
“It sounds simple for a group of idealists to express noble sentiments like ‘Bread, freedom, and dignity’—as Arabs articulated their demands during the Arab Spring. Yet as I learned from Youth for Change and April 6th, it is incredibly difficult. Activists and dissidents are humans who argue and make mistakes and let ego lead them astray. “
-You Are Under Arrest for Masterminding the Egyptian Revolution, p291
Salah’s memoir gives key insights into issues, not only in Egypt, but in the Middle East as a whole. He grew up in the most secular, educated and modern country in the entire region.
If you think what’s happening Syria is big, notice how central to the Middle East Egypt is on a map. Now note that, while Syria has a population of about 17 million people, Egypt has a population of 96 million. And in spite of all the oppression financed with U.S. tax dollars, parts of Egypt remain outside of government control to this day. There are parts of Egypt the government simply bombs a few times a month, unable to take control, but only fighting to keep rebellions from spreading. The country will fall apart, and when it does, what’s been happening in the Middle East up until now could look like a picnic by comparison. The instability, coupled with the increasing aggressions of Israeli and Saudi forces could lead to anything. Only an education on the realities, not the propaganda, of the region can save it.
“No one could wait for Mubarak to get out of power. Egyptians filled Tahrir Square, the surrounding blocks, and even the bridges over the Nile so thickly that it took hours to move a few hundred yards. When I managed to call activists over the overburdened cell phone network, I learned that protesters remained at the presidential palace and that worker strikes had ended train service, blocked roadways, “
The revolutions, of course, were betrayed. Neither George W. Bush, nor Barack Obama had more then rhetoric for the Arab World’s yearning for freedom. Backing a strongman just feels safer to them, since an educated electorate will act in their own best interests, but dictators can be swayed with money and threats. But despite the bluster and out of control aggression of the Trump administration (or perhaps because of it), the empire is faltering. Future rebellions may not be so easy to reverse and threats may be harder to carry out.
Ahmed Salah lives with medical conditions resulting from torture paid for with U.S. tax dollars. He gets by from money earned from speaking engagements and from selling copies of his memoir. You can buy it at amazon.com or by contacting him personally at firstname.lastname@example.org.