After Mubarak, Egypt Wonders What Comes Next

Mubarak is gone. But Egyptians have no idea who or what comes next

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Thomas Dworzak / Magnum for TIME

Revolution T-Shirts vendor in Cairo, near Tahrir Square.

On April 1, the people returned to Tahrir Square by the thousands — to remind the military government that they were still there and hoping for a clearer path to democracy, and because it was fun. The square was tricked out like a music festival, with competing stages: dozens of impromptu platforms for the Socialists, the Socialist Workers, the Egyptian Youth Union and various other secular subdivisions. There were trinket and food sellers moving through the crowd and young people with huge plastic bags picking up the litter. There were no police; I saw four young men break up and then calmly mediate a fistfight between two older men. But there was something missing in the festival of democracy: "The Muslim Brotherhood aren't here today," said my guide, Elijah Zarwan of the International Crisis Group. "They don't need to protest anymore. They're back in the neighborhoods, organizing."

"We need to organize," Mahmoud Salem, a popular blogger better known as Sandmonkey, tells me the next day as we sit at an outdoor café. "The largest youth party now is the Couch Party." Actually, there is organizing aplenty going on in Egypt — but mostly from the top down, youth coalitions forming and splintering, business leaders and members of parliament announcing new parties almost every day. Not even the Muslim Brotherhood is immune: there was a split between the youth, who insisted on joining the Tahrir Square revolutionaries, and the elders — and now there's another potential split between moderates and the extremists. "We don't know what impact freedom will have on the Muslim Brotherhood," a well-known student leader told me. "And I don't care. If they're for freedom, I'm for them."

Indeed, the overwhelming sense that you get from the chattering classes in Egypt, two months after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, is a kind of joyous confusion. Languorous debates take place over arcane constitutional codicils that no one knew existed before, or about whether Egypt should remain a presidential system or become a parliamentary democracy, or whether the parliamentary elections scheduled for September should come after the presidential elections scheduled for November. Some of the young people are suspicious of the military council running the country; others, like Abdallah Helmy of the Revolution Youth Union, have been meeting with the military and are convinced of its benign intent. "I feel as if my head is exploding," says Sarrah Abdelrahman, of the eponymous Sarrahsworld video blog, who is sitting with me and Sandmonkey — a true motormouth — at the café. "I feel bombarded with talk, talk, talk, but I am so happy too. I feel as if I have so much energy since the revolution."

It is not just the young people. I speak with Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the U.S., and Omar Mohanna, chairman of the Suez Cement Co. Both are realists. Both are worried about what sort of government will emerge, and both see the serious economic problems ahead, but both, in unguarded moments, are simply amazed by the events that have transpired. "My son is a prominent lawyer in London," Mohanna tells me. "He came home to be part of the protests. Our whole family went together. And I've never seen anything like this, the young people picking up the litter. I tried to find a piece of litter to contribute, but there was none, it was so clean. My wife is a very secular woman, but I see her in an intense conversation with a veiled woman in black. It was incredible."

And it remains incredible, as if all of educated Egypt is shell-shocked by its good fortune. The wisest of the protest leaders understand the euphoria can't last forever, especially if there's no appreciable change in the lives of the poor. "We have to get them to the point where they are eating bread instead of sifting through the trash for food," says Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose Facebook page helped launch the protests. "'Bread, not trash' should be our next demand." The Muslim Brotherhood has built its popularity from the bottom up, providing social services for the poor. The Brothers have said they will stand for no more than 35% of the seats in the parliamentary elections. But there is need for a credible counterforce, and none has emerged yet.

On a blustery Sunday evening, I attend a tent rally for a new secular political party started by a gazillionaire, who ambles onstage without an introduction and shrugs some remarks, punctuated by self-deprecating giggles. I don't see three veiled women in a crowd of 500. Later, a well-known poet denounces Anwar Sadat from the stage; people are bemused, but they laugh and applaud. It begins to rain, hard, a sign of good fortune. It is, of course, springtime in Cairo.