Meet The Three Young Men Who Decided To Oust Mohammed Morsi

The protests that led to the Egyptian president's fall began in a tiny Cairo apartment, but ultimately got the backing of anti-Muslim Brotherhood businessmen -- and the military.

Meet The Three Young Men Who Decided To Oust Mohammed Morsi
Benjamin Barthe

CAIRO - They are that age when changing the world seems possible. And that's exactly what they did — in just four days. Without hesitation, without compromise, three revolutionaries in their twenties — Mahmoud Badr, Mohamed Abdel Aziz and Hassan Shaheen — ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

They are the founders of Tamarod — “rebellion” in Arabic — the protest movement that began with mass demonstrations on June 30, and four days later, on July 3, managed to unseat Egypt's first freely elected head of state.

How did three activists push out the leader of the most populous country in the Arab world? How was the Muslim Brotherhood -- an 85-year-old movement that gave birth to modern political Islamism -- trampled by a bunch of kids? How this brilliant coup d’état will ultimately shake out is still unknown. But the story of Tamarod’s mutineers can tell us a lot about the ambitions and ambiguities behind this amazing upheaval.

It all started on a spring evening, in Mahmoud Badr’s appartment in Dokki, a residential neighborhood of Cairo. “Hassan and Mohamed were there,” he remembers. “We exchanged ideas, we talked about the best way to relaunch the revolution, to return it to its initial identity, popular and non-violent.”

Badr, 28, with tanned skin and youthful features, is editor of one of the many private dailies that were created after the 2011 revolution. He grew up in Shebin el Qanater, a large village in the Nile Delta, in a family noted for the lawyer father’s political commitment. Aziz and Shaheen, both also journalists, share the same background as part of the middle class that arose mid-20th century during the era of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The early days

The three young men met in the middle of the 2000’s as militants of Kefaya, the precursor to 2011's movement. The group organized flash protests and mobs — quickly repressed by the police — to denounce Hosni Mubarak’s despotism, the corruption of his regime and his subservience to the United States. When the revolution began on Jan. 25, 2011, Badr, Aziz and Shaheen were all in Tahir square.

From that point on, they would take part in all the challenges against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the inner circle of generals who led the post-Mubarak transition and were accused of behaving like the Muslim Brotherhood.

On Dec. 18, 2011, when soldiers assaulted a protester on the ground, then dragged her by her clothes and exposed her blue bra — a expand=1] scene immortalized on Youtube — a young man came to rescue her, only to be beaten and stomped by the same military police. It was Shaheen.

Then, during the second round of the 2012 presidential elections, Badr and many other Tahir protesters voted for Morsi. It was a default choice, more a vote against opponent Ahmed Shafik, a Mubarak-era politician, than an endorsement of Morsi. But it didn't take long for Morsi to disappoint. The uncharismatic new president struggled to rise above his partisan origins.

The December 2012 Constitutional Decree, which gave him extraordinary powers, sounded the alarm for the young revolutionaries. When the new regime sent police to fight them, blood flowed and the stage was set.

In Badr's small flat in Dokki, the three conspirators agreed to launch a massive petition drive. They used as a model the 1919 signature collection to allow nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul to negotiate with British occupiers. The only difference this time was the “anti” — as opposed to “pro” — nature of the petition.

Aiming for 15 million signatures — or two million more than the number of people who voted for Morsi during the second round of the presidential election — Tamarod hoped they could force his resignation. “We imagined a giant motion of no confidence,” Badr says.

Political help from friends in high places

So much about this campaign has already been thoroughly covered: the thousands of volunteers who protested in the provinces, the bags full of petitions going to Tamarod headquarters in downtown Cairo, the estimated, though unverified, 22 million signatures gathered by June 29, the day before the June 30 protest.

What has received less coverage is the powerful support the movement enjoys. For example, billionaire Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian telecom tycoon who is strongly opposed to the Islamists, offered Tamarod free advertising through his TV channel and his daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. He also gave them access to the office network of the Free Egyptians, the political party he founded right after Mubarak’s fall.

“We followed the progression of the anti-Morsi processions all over Egypt on June 30 from a room in this party headquarters,” says Mohamed Heykal, a senior Tamarod official.

This three-room apartment on Ma’arouf street functioning as Tamarod headquarters is being loaned by Hesham al-Bastawisi, a famous progressive magistrate, according to Moheb Doss, another campaign leader. And another leftist figure, who heads a thriving construction group, paid for the paper and printing of millions of petitions. The most viewed television channels in Egypt — almost all of them anti-Muslim Brotherhood stations such CBC, Alhayat and Dream — were eager to welcome the uprising's leaders on air. During the days before June 30, Badr and his companions were frequent guests.

Should we conclude that Tamarod owes its success to a coordinated attempt to sabotage Morsi’s presidency? Did not the foulouls — the name Egyptians use for the supporters of the former regime — pull some strings behind the scene? A certain number of Islamists believe this was the true force behind the supposedly spontaneous protest.

Mohammed Heykal, who leads ground operations for Tamarod, rejects this “conspiracy theory.” But he concedes that the June 30 gatherings attracted a lot of people who were nostalgic about Mubarack’s era and were more motivated by a feeling of revenge than noble political ideals.

“We succeeded in bringing back together these two populations: the foulouls and the revolutionaries," he says without blinking. “People are smart. They understood the real problem was the Muslim Brotherhood. With them, it’s a cultural fight. They obey the brotherhood’s values, whereas we obey Egypt’s values.”

On Sunday June 30, at 5 p.m., the army said in a statement that the protesters in the streets numbered 14 million. Mohammed Morsi’s fate was sealed. Then, on July 3, unshaved, wearing jeans and sneakers, Badr and Aziz met with Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — just a few hours before Sisi ultimately told the president to step down, or the army would take action.

“He told us his intention to hold a referendum on whether to keep Morsi in power," Badr recalls. "We rejected this proposal, explaining that the Egyptian people would not accept such a half-measure.”

Badr, 28, was hardly disturbed by the force of the military's crackdown. "This is a maneuver of the Muslim Brothers who wrap themselves in the cloth of the martyr, to discredit our popular revolution," he said. This admirer of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Charles de Gaulle is already thinking about his future objectives: to become president of Egypt, no more and no less. "The minimum age to run is 40 years, it leaves me a little time."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!