CAIRO — Most of the world got a crash course in the Egyptian opposition movement this month, as mass protests broke out on the streets of Cairo. From all appearances, the movement emerged organically in the wake of the overthrow of the government in nearby Tunisia, as hundreds of thousands of angry citizens turned out to demand President Hosni Mubarak immediately step down. Several days after the marches began, former International Atomic Energy Agency chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei arrived on the scene to give the marchers in the streets a nominal leader and media-savvy public face. And shortly after that, Egypt's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, joined in, lending its political heft to the movement.
But the groundwork for the Egyptian uprising was set well before these high-profile figures and organizations became involved. Nearly three years ago, a group of youth activists with a strong sense of Internet organizing and more than a little help from abroad was preparing for a grassroots, high-tech opposition movement.
In early 2008, Ahmed Salah and Ahmed Maher, young members of the Kefaya ("Enough") opposition group that made a strong run against Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election, branched off and formed a group they called the April 6 Youth Movement. The group took its name from the date of the first demonstration it supported -- a workers' strike planned for April 6, 2008, in el-Mahalla el-Kubra, an important town for the Egyptian textile industry. To galvanize the strike effort, April 6 activists used Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other new-media tools to report events, alert participants about security situations, and provide legal assistance to those rounded up by state security forces.
But from the beginning, the group's founders were anticipating a far more critical date: the Nov. 28, 2010, parliamentary elections. With memories of Iran's post-election protests still fresh in their minds, the young activists hoped that the vote -- sure to be marred by ballot stuffing, bought votes, and thuggery -- would spark a mass movement that would bring Mubarak's nearly 30-year reign to an end.
By early 2009, the group's membership was 70,000 strong -- still small numbers for a country of 82 million, yet it represented something genuinely new in Egypt's stagnant political environment. The young activists soon took cues from Iran's Green Movement, which was born out of the June 2009 post-election protests. They built on best practices and addressed the glaring weaknesses of the Iranian grassroots opposition movement. One of their first projects was a manual on protest methods, composed mostly of contributions from the group's members, which were solicited online. Friends passed it to friends and added ideas on topics ranging from security to graffiti. I became aware of the group in January 2010, when a fellow reporter forwarded me the manual.
In its early experiments with organizational tactics and online safety, the group sometimes reached out to some unlikely partners. Digital media experts in the organization consulted with Italian anarchist party activists for advice on how to use "ghost servers," which bounce Internet searches to nonexistent servers to confuse any online monitoring, allowing users to share information and continue coordinating their activities in heavily monitored digital and telecom environments, such as in Egypt, where email accounts and Facebook are watched closely.