CAIRO — On the night of July 3, 2013, Moheb Doss stood looking at his television set in disbelief as a statement was read in his name on national television.
The words coming out of the presenter’s mouth bore no resemblance to the carefully drafted statement that Doss, one of the five co-founders of the Tamarod, or Rebel, movement had helped draft hours earlier. It was a statement to mark the moment of Tamarod’s victory, as the protests the group launched on June 30 led to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government just five days later. It was a statement, Doss said, that the group hoped would have a stabilizing effect on the Egyptian public, as it called for a peaceful transition toward a democratic path.
Instead, the presenter quoted Tamarod as calling for the army to step in and protect the people from “brute aggression” by terrorists during potentially turbulent days. The statement supported the army’s forcible removal and arrest of Brotherhood leader and then-President Mohamed Morsi, and dismissed charges that what was happening was a coup.
“What we drafted was a revolutionary statement. It was about peace, and going forward on a democratic path,” Doss told BuzzFeed. “What was read was a statement that could have been written by the army.”
For five days, millions of Egyptians had taken to the streets and demanded an end to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their numbers surpassed even the wildest expectations of Tamarod, a then-largely unknown group that organized the protests. The five founders became instant celebrities, and on the night of July 3, the moment it appeared their victory was imminent, all of Egypt’s television stations had turned to them for a statement on what would happen next.
“What state TV read was as if it had been written by the army, it threatened the Brotherhood, told them they would use force if necessary,” Doss said. “I was shocked. I understood then that the movement had completely gotten away from us.”
It was, he realized later, the end of a process that began weeks earlier, in which the army and security officials slowly but steadily began exerting an influence over Tamarod, seizing upon the group’s reputation as a grassroots revolutionary movement to carry out their own schemes for Egypt.
“What they did, they did in our names because we let them,” said Doss, who admits he turned a blind eye for too long to what was happening behind the scenes at Tamarod. “The leaders of Tamarod let themselves be directed by others. They took orders from others.”
While the Tamarod movement has, in the past, been linked to Egypt’s interior ministry and its members have admitted in off-record interviews to taking phone calls from the army, never before has a member of Tamarod said that they were under the direct guidance of Egyptian army and intelligence officials. The accusations confirm the suspicions of many in Egypt that the group could not have enjoyed such widespread success without being helped along by senior Egyptian officials.
When, on the night of July 3, the military ousted the Brotherhood from government, arresting Morsi and whisking him to a secret location, they did so in the name of the tens of millions of people who had taken to the streets after Tamarod circulated a petition across Egypt that drew up a number of complaints against the Muslim Brotherhood-held government.
“How did we go from such a small thing, five guys trying to change Egypt, to the movement which brought tens of millions to the street to get rid of the Brotherhood? The answer is we didn’t. I understand now it wasn’t us, we were being used as the face of what something bigger than us wanted,” said Doss, who now has nothing to do with the Tamarod movement, or political life in Egypt. “We were naïve, and we were not responsible.”
In six weeks, Egypt will go to the polls and elect its first president since Morsi’s ouster. By all accounts, army strongman Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, who recently stepped down as the army chief, will win.
Doss now wonders if that wasn’t the plan all along.
“When we began Tamarod we were very innocent,” Doss said, nursing a coffee in downtown Cairo’s historic Café Riche, less than a mile from where the group once had its headquarters. Most, he said, had known each other from the Kefaya movement, a grassroots coalition that once protested against longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. “We knew each other, we believed in the revolution and wanted it to continue.”
Doss, Walid el-Masry, Mohammed Abdel Aziz, and Mahmoud Badr had all been leaders in the Kefaya movement, and Hassan Shahin had been friendly with the group. Doss said the men knew each other “reasonably well” and it was exciting to launch Tamarod together.
He recalled, however, how in the weeks leading up to the June 30 protests, their office began to fill with unfamiliar faces who appeared to exert great influence over Badr, Aziz, and Shahin. The three began taking meetings at the interior ministry and with Sisi, then head of the army, and when they returned, their talking points appeared to have shifted.
BuzzFeed repeatedly tried to reach Badr, Abdel-Aziz, and Shahin, and relayed to them through emails, voicemails, and Facebook messages the allegations that were being made against them by Doss and other members of the Tamarod group. All three declined to comment.
According to a Reuters special report published last year, officials at Egypt’s interior ministry helped collect signatures to back Tamarod and joined in the protests.
“Of course we joined and helped the movement, as we are Egyptians like them and everyone else. Everyone saw that the whole Morsi phenomena is not working for Egypt and everyone from his place did what they can to remove this man and group,” a security official told Reuters.
One interior ministry official told BuzzFeed that by mid-June, Tamarod was receiving support from across his office and that doors were opened to make sure the group received tactical and logistical support for their protests.
When millions took to the streets on June 30, there were water bottles and hundreds of thousands of miniature Egyptian flags to be spread throughout the crowd. Smiling police officers posed for photos with Egyptian babies, an unimaginable sight just one year earlier, when Egyptians joined the Arab Spring protests and took to the streets to call for an end to the police state and Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
In the skies above Tahrir Square, military planes began to conduct elaborate flying stunts, painting the colors of the Egyptian flag or drawing hearts in the blue summer sky. The stunts were neither easy to perform nor cheap, but they sent the clear message that both the army and police were behind Tamarod.
Doss recalled the evening of July 1, as the army prepared to make an ultimatum that the protesters reach a compromise with then-President Morsi over stepping down.
“My suspicion increased as we started to discuss who should go and sit with Sisi and negotiate,” Doss said. “We had agreed previously that there would be a coalition of people who included one representative from the students, one for women, one for religious minorities, and others. I was shocked when all of a suddenly it was only them three — Badr, Abdel Aziz, and Shahin — who went to go sit with Sisi.”
Badr, who was the official spokesman for Tamarod, began making statements to the media that were in direct contradiction to what the group had earlier discussed, Doss said, and appeared to increasingly support the army.
In a press conference held the night of July 1, Badr surprised many with his fiery rhetoric and with his repeated calls for public support of Sisi and the armed forces, “We salute the Army! We salute them!” Badr said. “They have shown that they are with the people.”
Doss at first said he didn’t realize what was happening to his movement, but later corrected himself, and said he knew his group was not the independent, grassroots movement they claimed to be. He had come forward once before, to tell The Daily Beast in July 2013 that there had been regular communication between his group and the army.
Doss admits he was overly naive about what they had managed to achieve — the massive signature campaign, support from state media, and seemingly limitless funds. Even today, as he recounts how his co-founders began meeting with army and state officials, he has a note of disbelief in his voice.
“I realized that they were taking orders, being used by state institutes,” Doss said. “This only became more obvious the closer we were to June 3.”
Badr, Shahin, and Abdel-Aziz no longer frequent downtown Cairo. The area where the trio were once praised as leaders of Tamarod has now become hostile after stories emerged that they had accepted gifts of cars and apartments from their backers. Little is verified, but the rumors were enough to see a mob attack Shahin when he sat in the café less than a mile from Tahrir in October 2013.
“There is this feeling that they betrayed the mood of the revolution,” said Sarah Yasin, a former member of Tamarod. “Suddenly they had nice clothes and their wallets were full of money. Everyone knew where that had come from.”
Doss said that he had been offered the same. On the night of July 3, he said he was also given the chance to go meet with intelligence officials along with Walid Masry — the fifth member of Tamarod.
“I knew what they were offering and I said no,” he said. “Until that moment, I really wasn’t sure if I would say yes or no, if I would take their payoff, but I surprised myself and I didn’t.”
Masry, he said, also refused any possible payoffs. Masry is about to start his mandatory enlistment in the Egyptian army and couldn’t be reached for comment. Doss is trying to start his own political movement but is largely ostracized from the group.
“It seemed in the beginning we agreed on several things. We wanted a road map and elections. We said that we agreed that none of us five would run for office, and that we would elect new names, new faces from the revolution,” Doss said. “We all said that we should not try to benefit in cash, or to run for office from what we were doing.”
Hesham Gobran, the owner of the apartment that Tamarod used as their campaign headquarters, said, “The group seemed happy until the state decided to put its hand on Tamarod.”
Badr, Aziz, and Shahin appeared overly excited by the media spotlight and seemed suddenly flushed with cash, Gobran said. There were never any papers, he said, but he, along with four other people who worked with the Tamarod movement, told BuzzFeed that Badr, Aziz, and Shahin suddenly appeared around the office with tablet computers that appear to have been gifted to them.
“All this money was coming in, and it was disappearing,” Doss said. “Nobody could tell you where it was going.”
Islam Hamam, who ran Tamarod’s social media office, recalled overhearing an argument over three checks totaling more than $100,000 that had been sent to the office from a “wealthy Egyptian abroad.”
“It was confirmed that the checks had arrived, but then money disappeared and we never heard about it,” Hamam said. A young activist named Mohamed Badia who had, until then, been in charge of finances, was suddenly given another task by Badr. Hamam said when he asked about the decision to remove their only finance officer, Badr told him, “We trust each other and the checks come directly to us, so there is no real need for a finance person as long as there is trust.”
Both Hamam and Gobran said there was no transparency over the group’s finances, but that Badr, Aziz, and Shahin were increasingly keen to meet with donors and control funds.
“Money disappeared and we never heard why or understood what was happening,” Gobran said.
One female activist, who joined the group in early June, said it appeared to be a combination of money and power that corrupted the core founders.
“They suddenly saw a world opened up to them. They had resources, money, made available to them by people with a lot of power,” she said, asking not to be named because her parents are both involved in political movements. “All of a sudden, they wanted to be the people at the café, picking up the tab for everyone. And as long as they said what the state wanted them to say, they could have it all.”
Less than a year ago, Yasmine Taltawy was a member of Tamarod. Today, she hangs a poster of Sisi above the cash register and tapes small Egyptian flags to her clothing shop’s storefront.
“It’s important to be seen as supporting the correct side today,” she said. “The message is clear that Egyptians should vote and support the military, through Sisi.”
She recalled crying the night of July 3, when Sisi announced that the army had overthrown Morsi and would be moving toward early elections. “I remember fighting, screaming with a cousin in Alexandria, who wrote on his Facebook wall that Egypt had just had a coup. I was so angry at this suggestion,” she said. “I told him that he would eat his words. That the army would help us hold new elections and then step away.”
She said she has “no problem with Sisi running” but adds that her cousin now gloats when he asks her if she is happy about the miltary’s rise to power.
“He says to me, are you happy you and your friends from Tamarod did this? Are you happy you helped Sisi? I don’t really have an answer for him,” Taltawy said.
Doss also struggles for answers these days.
“This is not what we wanted to see happen,” he said. “I know that in the beginning, we did not believe that this would be the outcome of our movement.”
Unlike many in Egypt, Doss doesn’t know who he will vote for in the upcoming elections. He won’t vote for Sisi, or the rival liberal presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, he says, and can only hope a new candidate steps forward to challenge them. He’s not sorry for starting Tamarod, he stresses, though he’s disappointed in where it’s led.
“What we were doing got away from us. It was bigger than us,” he said. “We were used.”