Cairo—On January 25, Akram Youssef, a mechanical engineer in his early 30s, was relaxing at his childhood home in Heliopolis, a residential neighborhood in east Cairo. It was National Police Day, and Youssef, like much of the country, was off from work. A coalition of youth activists had called for demonstrations that day, to protest the brutal tactics of Egypt’s police and state-security forces. Youssef had supported previous protests against Mubarak and his regime’s tactics. Still, he was skeptical of the day’s events. “You can’t schedule a revolution,” he thought.

In his university days, Youssef had been active in politics. “I would have liked to have been a politician,” he says, drinking tea and smoking a shisha pipe at a coffeehouse in downtown Cairo. But like many other young Egyptians, he became disillusioned and abandoned activism—scared off, in part, by the...

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