CAIRO — Last Thursday, a small group of Internet-savvy young political organizers gathered in the Cairo home of an associate of Mohamed ElBaradei, the diplomat and Nobel laureate.
They had come to plot a day of street protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, but within days, their informal clique would become the effective leaders of a decades-old opposition movement previously dominated by figures more than twice their age.
“Most of us are under 30,” said Amr Ezz, a 27-year-old lawyer who was one of the group as part of the April 6 Youth Movement, which organized an earlier day of protests last week via Facebook. They were surprised and delighted to see that more than 90,000 people signed up online to participate, emboldening others to turn out and bringing tens of thousands of mostly young people into the streets.
Surprised by the turnout, older opposition leaders from across the spectrum — including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood; the liberal protest group the Egyptian Movement for Change, known by its slogan, “Enough”; and the umbrella group organized by Dr. ElBaradei — joined in, vowing to turn out their supporters for another day of protest on Friday. But the same handful of young online organizers were still calling the shots.
They decided to follow a blueprint similar to their previous protest, urging demonstrators to converge on the central Liberation Square. So they drew up a list of selected mosques around Cairo where they asked people to gather at Friday Prayer before marching together toward the square. Then they distributed the list through e-mail and text messages, which spread virally. They even told Dr. ElBaradei which mosque he should attend, people involved said.
“What we were hoping for is to have the same turnout as the 25th, so we wouldn’t lose the numbers we had already managed to mobilize,” Mr. Ezz said.
Instead, more than 100,000 people poured into the streets of the capital, pushing back for hours against battalions of riot police, until the police all but abandoned the city. The demonstrations were echoed across the country.
The huge uprising has stirred speculation about whether Egypt’s previously fractious opposition could unite to capitalize on the new momentum, and about just who would lead the nascent political movement.
The major parties and players in the Egyptian opposition met throughout the day Sunday to address those questions. They ultimately selected a committee led by Dr. ElBaradei to negotiate directly with the Egyptian military. And they settled on a strategy that some in the movement are calling “hug a soldier” to try to win the army’s rank and file over to their side. But both newcomers and veterans of the opposition movement say it is the young Internet pioneers who remain at the vanguard behind the scenes.
“The young people are still leading this,” said Ibrahim Issa, a prominent opposition intellectual who attended some of the meetings. And the older figures, most notably Dr. ElBaradei, have so far readily accepted the younger generation’s lead, people involved said. “He has been very responsive,” Mr. Issa said. “He is very keen on being the symbol, and not being a leader.”
After signs that President Mubarak’s government might be toppling, leaders of Egypt’s opposition — old and new — met Sunday to prepare for the next steps. The first meeting was a gathering of the so-called shadow parliament, formed by older critics of the government after blatantly rigged parliamentary elections last fall. Those elections eliminated almost every one of the small minority of seats held by critics of Mr. Mubarak, including 88 occupied by Muslim Brotherhood members.
Among those present were many representatives of the Brotherhood, the former presidential candidate Ayman Nour and representatives of Dr. ElBaradei’s umbrella group, the National Association for Change, which has been working for nearly a year to unite the opposition around demands for free elections. At the end of the meeting, they had settled on a consensus list of 10 people they would delegate to manage a potential unity government if Mr. Mubarak resigned. And though the religiously conservative Brotherhood was the biggest force in the shadow parliament, the group nonetheless put Dr. ElBaradei at the top of its list. Officials of the Brotherhood said he would present an unthreatening face to the West.
A second meeting, at the headquarters of the Wafd Party, brought together four of the tiny but legally recognized opposition parties. Critics of Egypt’s authoritarian government often accuse the recognized parties of collaborating with Mr. Mubarak in sham elections that create a facade of democracy. In this case, people involved in the deliberations said, the parties could not agree on how hard to break with the president. One party, theDemocratic Front, insisted they demand that Mr. Mubarak resign immediately, like protesters were doing in the streets. The other three wanted a less confrontational statement, people briefed on the outcome said.
The third meeting took place late in the afternoon outdoors, in Liberation Square, the center of the protests for the last several days, said Mr. Issa, who participated. It was brought together mainly by the younger members, organized as the April 6 Youth Movement, after the date a textile workers’ strike was crushed three years ago, and We Are All Khalid Said, after the name of a man whose death in a brutal police beating was captured in a photograph circulated over the Internet. But the meeting also brought together about 25 older figures, including opposition intellectuals like Mr. Issa. Also present were representatives of Dr. ElBaradei’s National Association for Change, which includes officials of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. Issa and people briefed on that meeting said the older figures offered to help the young organizers who had started it all. Those organizers, Mr. Ezz and Mr. Issa said, knew that that the uprising had now acquired a life of its own beyond their direction, spread and coordinated by television coverage instead of the Internet. And they knew that the movement needed more seasoned leaders if Mr. Mubarak resigned, Mr. Ezz said. “Leadership has to come out of the people who are already out there, because most of us are under 30,” he said. “But now they recognize that we’re in the street, and they are taking us seriously.”
The group’s goal now, Mr. Ezz said, was to guide the protesters’ demands, chief among them the resignation of Mr. Mubarak, formation of an interim government, and amendments to the Constitution to allow for free elections. The group settled more firmly on Dr. ElBaradei, consulting with a group of other opposition figures, to speak for the movement, Mr. Issa said. Specifically, he said, the group expected Dr. ElBaradei to represent the protesters to the United States, a crucial Egyptian ally and benefactor, and in negotiations with the army, which the group expected to play the pivotal role in the coming days and weeks.
Mr. Ezz said the group also discussed future tactics, including strikes, civil disobedience and a vigil for dead protesters, as well as music performances and speakers in Liberation Square.
Others briefed on the meeting said that the group had also decided to encourage protesters to adopt the “hug a soldier” strategy. With signs that the military appeared divided between support for the president and the protesters, these people said, the group decided to encourage demonstrators to emphasize their faith and trust in the soldiers.
“We are dealing with the army in a peaceful manner until it proves otherwise, and we still have faith in the army,” Mr. Ezz said. “Until now, they are neutral, and at least if we can’t bring them to our side, we don’t want to lose them.”
Then, Mr. Issa said, it was the young organizers who directed Dr. ElBaradei to appear Sunday afternoon, after the curfew, in Liberation Square, to speak for the first time as the face of their movement.
Copyright 2011 by The New York Times