Review: ‘The Instigators’- The Digital Activists Behind Jan25

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In his new article The Instigators, author David Wolman tells the story of Ahmed Maher, the leader of the April 6Youth (A6Y) movement and his cohorts. The article was released today by the independent publishing house The Atavist and is also available as an Amazon Single.  An excerpt can be found at The Atlantic Mideast Reports caught up with Wolman earlier in the week for an interview.

The story starts in the middle of the Egyptian revolution when Maher gets called to a secret meeting with government officials to “[talk] about how Mubarak will go.”  At this meeting we are introduced to another hero of the revolution, as well as regime ‘villains’ who only days earlier had been bent on crushing activists like Maher.

However, the revolution and this meeting, are far from the beginning of the story. In a piece that is engaging from start to finish, Wolman thoroughly fleshes out what to many – including myself – seemed to be a spontaneous uprising of the masses. In fact it was years in the making.

Although Wolman only spent about a month total with Maher, and had admittedly sparse contact with him between when they first met in 2008 and Wolman’s return to Egypt this march, by the end of the article the timeline is crafted in such a way that the reader is drawn along a logical path towards real change. But not even Maher predicted could have predicted the magnitude.

We learn about Maher’s adolescence, his political imprisonments, the founding of A6Y in 2008, and the challenges, triumphs and growth of both the movement and Maher himself. This ultimately leads us to January 25th, and Maher’s harrowing adventure during the revolution.

Maher was nearly captured by security forces yet again, but he said, “I ran from them through the side streets. I went home to Tahrir Square to spend the night there because it was the safest place in Egypt.” Like always, Maher pushed through the hard times and finally got to see a Mubarak free Egypt.

Although Wolman’s writing is what initially draws you in, the real strength of the story lies in the stunningly level of detail and meticulous adherence to fact. Interactions are rarely paraphrased but rather quoted or pulled from digital sources. Maher seems to have given Wolman nearly unfettered access to information, including text messages, e-mails and most notably a gchat archive from July 8, 2010.

The conversation was between Maher and the then “mysterious man behind [the] We Are All Khalid Said” website. This chat was the beginning of a collaboration that gave the two largest Egyptian Youth movements (A6Y and We are All Khalid Said) one coordinated and powerful voice. As Maher finds out much later, he had inadvertently teamed up with Wael Ghonim, the Google Executive and hero of the Egyptian revolution I mentioned earlier.

One critique is that the article inevitably gets stuck between a profile piece on Maher, and its larger goal of documenting a grass roots social movement. As a consequence, figures of lesser prominence probably get overlooked. I occasionally got the feeling that Maher and the “kitchen” were in their own little world. I would have liked to know more about what drew 70,000 people to the A6Y Facebook page in the first three weeks, and how Maher related to the average member. But, with only so much time and space, something needs to give.

The Instigators will captivate everyone from academics to those looking for an inspiring story of true perseverance. This is a must read for anyone with even a remote interest in Egypt, the Arab Spring, or peaceful resistance movements in general. I imagine that even members of A6Y will learn volumes by reading this fascinating account; I bet you will too.

Review and interview by Tik Root a student at Middlebury College

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