Meet the young leaders of Egypt's revolution

Mar 8 2011 - 12:19pm

Everyone has heard of the young people who made a revolution in Egypt. But few Americans know their names and faces, or how they managed to organize the protests that ousted a pharaoh in 18 days.

During my recent visit to Cairo I talked with top leaders of the groups that organized the original Jan. 25 protest. Ranging in age from 22 to 32, they include an accountant, a surgeon, an engineer, and a marketing expert. All graduated from major universities (although only one spoke fluent English).

Three are leaders of secular liberal or leftist groups that were prime movers of the revolution. The fourth is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood youth, which joined the Tahrir Square protests at the last minute.

None had expected to topple Hosni Mubarak. The Jan. 25 date -- Police Day in Egypt -- was chosen to protest police brutality, personified by a 28-year-old blogger named Khaled Said who was beaten to death last year by cops for protesting police corruption. But a combination of brilliant organizing tactics and critical errors by the regime produced astonishing results.

The young techies behind a Facebook memorial page called "We are all Khaled Said" joined forces with a group promoting the candidacy of opposition presidential candidate Mohammed ElBaradei on Facebook. Each had amassed hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Before the Jan. 25 protests, this techie combo linked up with the April 6 Youth movement, a Facebook group that supported textile workers who struck on April 6, 2008. The core organizers also included a leftist group named Justice and Freedom, and the youth movement of the Democratic Front, a small, liberal opposition party. Each had supporters in cities and towns outside of Cairo.

These young leaders mapped out a strategy designed to disperse police forces and boost the number of demonstrators. They called, on Facebook, for demonstrators to assemble at five staging grounds around Cairo, measuring with stopwatches the time it would take to march to Tahrir Square. Other organizers secretly gathered in working-class districts, coaxing people out of cafes and tenements with slogans about rising food prices.

Such advance planning -- along with a strategy of nonviolence -- helped these young Egyptians outsmart their ossified elders. Muslim Brotherhood youth leaders joined the planning shortly before Jan. 25, despite the reluctance of their organization's leaders; their few hundred cadres, experienced in confrontations, provided muscle when police attacks got violent.

Since Mubarak's fall, a core group of eight to 16 leaders from these groups (hardly a woman in sight) has coordinated Friday demonstrations aimed at keeping the army on track toward free and fair elections. They call themselves the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth.

Army generals have met with the core eight; on Friday the army agreed to their demand to dump Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, a Mubarak appointee.

A few of the youth participated in previous years in democracy-training workshops sponsored by U.S. organizations, but those I spoke with stressed that this revolution was wholly made in Egypt. All were wary of any U.S. government aid; they were even cautious about practical training in political organizing techniques from U.S. nongovernmental groups.

Most were dubious about U.S. backing for Egyptian democracy, but were not anti-American. All wanted the United States to do more for the Palestinians, but none wanted to break the peace treaty with Israel.

These are pragmatic thinkers focused primarily on Egypt's internal problems. They have become icons, symbols of a new Egyptian national pride, but they are scrambling to figure out how to organize the next stage of the democratic process.

They are uncertain whether to organize a youth party, but dubious about joining up with weak opposition parties from the old era. They are searching for clean, older figures who can lead new parties in which they play key roles.

But they doubt that new parties can organize in time for the elections the military has scheduled in four to six months. They worry that speedy elections will favor the Muslim Brothers, even though they believe the Brothers don't represent more than 20 percent of Egyptians.

Are they Egypt's future leaders? Too soon to say. But given their skills, I believe these Facebook rebels, including those profiled here, will figure prominently in Egypt's future politics, and will keep pressing for democratic change.

Khaled Sayed, 25, an engineering graduate of Helwan University, is the son of a textile worker. He leads the leftist Justice and Freedom youth group, which wants to link worker and youth protests. An experienced organizer who had been arrested 14 times, he was in Tahrir Square the entire 18 days. His cellphone ring tone is set to the rebels' chant: "We want the downfall of the regime."

He says that the massive crowds in the square did not show any religious leaning or carry Muslim Brotherhood slogans, "but the Muslim Brotherhood are the most organized bloc."

As a counterweight, he hopes -- in the short term -- that liberals and leftists will create a broad coalition that can win a majority of seats. In the longer term, he says, "If there are clear-cut organized entities led by youth who worked on the revolution they will pull the rug out from under the Muslim Brotherhood."

The youthful rebels collected 50,000 names in Tahrir Square, which they hope to mine for future political organizers, and for votes.

Mahmoud Sami, 22, is a commerce graduate of Ain Shams University and son of a car mechanic and a homemaker. A top leader of the April 6 movement, he says "the military gave us guarantees they would not continue in power."

But he fears that the military's decision to hold parliamentary elections in three months does not permit time for new parties to form and will return "the old NDP (the governing party) to power under a new name."

He and other leaders of the coalition have been meeting with well-known Egyptian political scientists to consult on the best way to advance democracy. He says the Muslim Brotherhood cannot command a majority, especially if the revolutionaries have the time to mobilize young people, and formerly passive adults to vote.

"The Internet role will be big after the revolution as it was during the revolution," he says but young people will also "go to popular districts and universities to talk to the people." Once democracy is restored, he says, he wants to get out of "dirty politics" and go to work as an accountant.

Shadi al-Ghazali Harb, 32, is a London-trained surgeon; he heads a youth group that is an offshoot of the liberal Democratic Front, a small opposition party headed by his uncle. His biggest fear: that the process of change set by the military won't include a constitutional rewrite of Article II -- the 1980 provision that makes the principles of Islam "the source" of legislation.

Liberals want that language to revert back to the 1971 constitution, which said Islamic principles were "one of the sources."

Harb believes that liberals and social democrats should join in one big party to "fight back the Muslim Brotherhood" at the polls. To win, he says, liberals must also denounce "the era of predatory businessmen" under Mubarak, an era that gave economic liberalism a bad name.

Mohammed Abbas, 26, a business administration grad of Cairo University, is one of the Muslim Brotherhood youth leaders who went to Tahrir Square, despite their elders' reluctance, and worked closely with liberals and leftists.

"The times have changed," he says.

Young brothers "can decide more quickly than the elders. We have different sources of information. We are on Facebook."

He says the younger Brothers will have a greater say in the group's decision-making, but insists the Brotherhood won't split. Abbas says "our vision is in complete sync" with the elders, while claiming "we want a civil state that doesn't differentiate between people based on religion." However, his elders have a murky definition of "civil state" that rules out a woman or Christian president, and curtails women's options.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at

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