Published November 17, 2014
A week after Hosni Mubarak's fall, the young activists who launched Egypt's uprising are pushing to ensure the final prize, a real democracy. But already they see threats. The new military rulers have not broken the former ruling party's hold and are evasive about their future plans. And the protesters' "revolution" itself faces splintering.
The tight group of 20- and 30-year-olds behind Egypt's protests pushed out Mubarak with a leaderless but sharply organized movement. They used the Internet, Twitter and phone chains to rally hundreds of thousands to the street and wrote up manuals for peaceful resistance.
In the heat of round-the-clock protests, they huddled in a tent off to the side of the crowds in central Tahrir Square to follow fast-moving developments and decide the next steps. In the process, the group largely consisting of young scions of Egypt's middle class from a variety of ideologies forged a bond of revolutionary spirit.
For the post-Mubarak stage, they are trying to keep up that bond, but adding new tools. Street activists are transforming into young politicians who draft policy papers, negotiate with army generals and reach out to political allies.
A major test of whether they can still wield their strongest weapon — the mass demonstrations — comes Friday, when they have called for a million people to protest in Tahrir Square to keep up pressure for their demands.
"I am here now to monitor how the military is going to take things," said Nasser Abdel-Hamid, a 28-year old information systems engineer. He is a member of the representative body of the Coalition of the Youth of the Jan.25 Revolution, the main grouping of the activist organizers, named after the date the protests began.
Abdel-Rahman Samir, another activist in the coalition, says the military can't be left to determine change.
"We shouldn't let them take the initiative. We need to keep up the pressure and form a wide front to present itself to negotiate in the name of the revolution — to have our voice heard as partners and not only recipient of the military communiques," he said.
The new stage brings new, more complicated challenges.
The Armed Forces Supreme Council, the body of top generals that now rules the country after Mubarak's ouster last Friday, has laid out a transition that emphasizes speed, not the sweeping democratic change the protesters want. The military has left the remains of Mubarak's ruling party to dominate the caretaker government and the levers of power, including the powerful police forces.
The organizers fear that unless the ruling party is broken and major change guaranteed, Egypt can fall back into an authoritarian rule, a Mubarak regime without Mubarak.
"Remains of the old system are still operating in society. They are trying to wage a counterrevolution," said Mohammed Abbas, a Muslim Brotherhood member in the coalition. He said security agents are still targeting protesters, while pro-Mubarak activists are seeking to launch rallies to coincide with those organized by the youth protesters.
Also, the protest coalition is trying to fend off fragmentation that has plagued past reform movements, which tended to coalesce behind a single figure in a personality cult and then fall apart over personal disputes.
The new ruling generals urged the protesters to form their own political party. But the coalition refuses, saying a party now would bring out the divisions among them and break their bond of common demands. Not least, they worry that former members of Mubarak's ruling party or others will try to hijack the name of the "Jan. 25 Revolution."
"I can't be preoccupied with the idea of forming a political party, setting up offices and headquarters and finding financing, while we are still in the transitional period," said Abdel-Hamid. "It is time for everyone to be speaking the same language."
Instead, they present themselves simply as the Revolution. The coalition comprises the five youth organizations and political parties that initially launched the anti-Mubarak protests along with young cadres from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Their 13-member top body — representatives, they underline, not leaders — includes liberals, secular leftists, Muslim Brothers and Christians, drawn from middle-class professionals. The eldest is a 41-year-old architect, Bassem Kamel.
Some have family experience with politics. As a teen, Abdel-Hamid campaigned with his father who made a run for parliament as an independent.
Another, Shady Ghazali, 32-year old surgeon, has been in and out of a secular opposition party started by his uncle. He left it objecting to his uncle's management style, but recently rejoined. Now he's a voice for swift and strong action in the coalition — for example, demanding protesters march immediately to Mubarak's palace after he resisted stepping down last week.
The body came together during the 18 days of protests centered on Tahrir Square. But they have worked to remain resolutely faceless and baseless. No fixed offices, no mailing address. They share cars and move between offices of friends' firms, homes and cafes for electricity and wireless for their laptops to keep in contact with email and Facebook.
Abdel-Hamid and colleague Mostafa Shawki spent the three days following Mubarak's fall putting together their manifesto, "the Political Paper."
The coalition announced it Monday at a press conference on the roof of the downtown building housing independent El-Shorouk newspaper. As a sign of their deep aversion to being co-opted by anyone, no matter whom, they underlined that the venue didn't mean they were connected to El-Shorouk and planned to hold their next conferences elsewhere.
The 12-point document outlines their vision for transition to democracy — the annulment of the 1971 constitution; dissolving Mubarak's ruling party and the caretaker government he appointed; scrapping emergency laws in place for decades; dismantling regime-dominated municipal councils and scrapping regulations that stifled the formation of political parties, unions and free media.
It said the new constitution must establish a parliamentary system that reduces the authorities of the president, a radical change for Egypt aimed at ensuring no autocrat can monopolize power again.
So far, it's not clear the military is listening.
Six coalition members were among eight activists who met with generals from the Armed Forces Supreme Council over the weekend. The generals were reassuring. The Supreme Council has dissolved parliament — a top demand — and promises to hold free and fair elections so the military can hand over power to an elected government and president within six months.
But it has kept in place the last government appointed by Mubarak, which protesters demand be replaced completely by a transitional government of technocrats.
The military has also only suspended the constitution, not dissolved it. It appointed a panel of legal experts that has 10 days to draw up just enough changes to the constitution to allow a multiparty election.
The activists said they pressed the generals to consult with a number of respected public figures in the transition, including Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, whose supporters make up part of the coalition. So far the military has resisted, they say.
On Wednesday, ElBaradei called on the military to include civilians in a transitional presidential council to set the course toward democracy. He warned that the military's process, by moving too quickly without transparency, "threatens to throw the country back in the arms of the forces of the old regime."
Kamel said the coalition is not getting a new meeting with the generals for the time being.
"Our demands are clear," he said. "We need to see measures on the ground."
The coalition is working to expand its membership. It launched negotiations with young members of existing opposition parties, particularly the liberal Ghad and leftist Tagammu. But they are bypassing the parties' aging leadership who are seen as tainted because of their close association with the Mubarak regime.
Under Mubarak, any political party had to be approved by a committee dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party. That meant official parties were largely hollow shells, some dependent on government funding, that squabbled among themselves but have limited public following.
"The problem has always been in Egypt that for opposition groups, especially the elderly ones, it is very difficult for them to come together," said Ghazali. "We want to encourage the young ones of the parties to break free from their elderly leadership."
The coalition has also gathered a circle of experts and public figures, even including the jurist who heads the military-appointed constitutional committee, to help them address the myriad of legal and constitutional issues which they seek to influence.
It is also trying to resist any fraying of the ranks. Several separate groupings have arisen, including ones called the Alliance of the Youth Revolution and the Party of Jan. 25.
The coalition tried to bring in Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who worked on a Facebook page that rallied hundreds of thousands of Egyptians behind the protests. But he has decided to work independently. He has set up a webpage to gather suggestions of what Egyptians think should be done now — so far collecting at least 37,000 entries.
Ghazali said he is concerned that the splits and confusion over who talks for the "revolution" open the door for the former ruling party. He says it is already trying to hijack the movement by campaigning to form a youth party named January 25.
"There is nothing called a youth party, it doesn't work to have an age-based party. Jan. 25 is for all Egyptians. It is not a party," Ghazali said. "This is an attempt to harp on emotions."