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.

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."

Ibrahim said she attended the planning meetings for the Jan. 25 demonstration but argued that didn't give her the right to speak for the masses. "No one in their mind during those meetings thought this would turn into a revolution," she said. "Post-Jan. 25, nobody was running the show. It was people acting on their own . … I took part as a revolutionary socialist, but I'm not going to say because I made a Facebook group I have the right to represent these people. This is a people's revolution. Facebook and Twitter didn't make this revolution."

There are other protesters who have been on the square for days and have simply never heard about any debate over representatives at negotiations. "I think the system is trying to find any way out without enacting the changes the youth are looking for," said Ali Gheital, a doctor who has been treating injured protesters. "They are trying to find a way out, so they started talking to the opposition, but the opposition doesn't control the people."

Then there are those who are hopeful. "At the end of the day, no one is in control at the moment," Hossam el-Hamalawy, a blogger and journalist told me. "There is a problem of which way to go forward and there are many opportunist politicians who are trying to jump on the movement and trying to hijack it and that would include those who have already gone to negotiate with Omar Suleiman before Mubarak's leaving." Hossam said he is "totally against negotiations with the regime as long as Hosni Mubarak is in power" and opposed any talks with "his torturer-in-chief, Omar Suleiman."

Yet others, such as Nasser of the youth council, have said they would talk to Suleiman. I asked Hossam if it's possible the movement could spin out of control. "It's inevitable in any revolution, you'll always find divisions, and people with disagreement," he said. "The only referee will be the people here in the street."

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