Egyptian protests: Who speaks for the young people gathered in Tahrir Square?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 7 2011 5:19 PM

Voicing Opposition

Not even Cairo's protesters agree on who speaks for Cairo's protesters.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Egyptian protests.

Egypt protesters. Click image to expand.
Egyptian anti-government demonstrators chant slogans as they hold a symbolic funeral for journalist Ahmed Mohammed Mahmud

When I approached Nagla Nasser in Cairo's central square Sunday, she told me she was too old to talk to a reporter. "This is a youth revolution," said Nasser, who looks to be no older than middle-aged. "You need to talk to someone young." Exactly. But the question facing the popular revolt against the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is who speaks for the young protesters in the square. Egypt's youth has been instrumental in starting this uprising. Now everyone is asking who will finish it.

Today, I asked Tarek Nowar, an activist whom I have spoken to a lot in the last two weeks, if he'd heard of a revolutionary youth council representing the interests of the people in Tahrir Square. He responded: "Which one?" For almost two weeks, the sight of hundreds of thousands of leaderless Egyptians calling for the ouster of Mubarak has been inspiring. Suddenly, it has become confusing. The revolution appears to have no organized leadership, and meanwhile the Egyptian regime is back to doing what it does best: Divide and conquer.

On Sunday, Egypt's heretofore-organized opposition met with new Vice President Omar Suleiman. That included representatives from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, officially sanctioned political parties, most of whom have no real support, as well as "youth representatives." In the square, there was confusion as to who exactly was attending those meetings.

Advertisement

One prominent opposition figure told me the Brotherhood would never meet with the regime. He was wrong; they were there. The people who met Suleiman were carefully selected for global audience—chosen to represent the spectrum of people amassed in the square. The Egyptian press center sent the international media an e-mail message saying there had been "consensus" between Suleiman and the opposition. The groups in attendance told the media otherwise. Fair enough. And then there were those like Mohammed ElBaradei, a leading opposition figure and former head of the IAEA, who said they had not even received an invite.

On Friday, there were reports of a group that people have taken to calling the "Wise Men," consisting of Egyptian intellectuals and respected business leaders, which had a plan to ease the transition of power. Another group, calling themselves the Coalition of the Youth of the Egyptian Revolution, announced they had planned the Jan. 25 protest, the day that sparked the upheaval. They said they hadn't met with the government—nor would they. They also insinuated they were the ones representing the people of Tahrir and told me they would be taking their demands to the government only through the "Wise Men."

According to youth coalition, they are composed of five of the country's established youth groups, including the Sixth of April movement, the Muslim Brotherhood Youth, and the National Association for Change. Each of them appointed two members to a 10-member council.

"None of us are in negotiation" with the government, said Mohammad Abbas, Brotherhood Youth's representative to the council told me. "We'll only negotiate after the removal of Mubarak."

But the group's very existence raises an even more basic question: If these are the guys behind this big protest, where have they been for the last two weeks? The group tried to "hide" its role in organizing the protests "so people can feel this [movement] belongs to them," Abbas told me. "We didn't want to appear publically, until the regime started saying the Egyptian youth were negotiating with them. Then we had to announce ourselves and appear."

Nasser Abdel Hamid, who represents the International Association for Change (a splinter group of the National Association for Change) on the council, explained the coalition had put conditions on negotiations, including abolishing the country's notoriously draconian emergency law. If those conditions are met, he said, they will meet with Suleiman. When I asked him if people on the street will object to a self-appointed "youth council" speaking for such a broad array of voices in the square, Nasser was unconcerned. "This will not happen," he said. "All of the youth movements are with us."

But I find that this is not exactly the case. Some people, such as activist Gigi Ibrahim, are actually quite upset. "Nobody should represent anybody. Our demands are so clear, they are written on the walls, on the buildings. No one negotiates before the demands are met," she said. "A handful of people can't possibly represent the people on these streets."

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 9:03 AM My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. And Then I Found Myself With Someone Like Dad.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 8:27 AM Only Science Fiction Can Save Us! What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.