How Egypt's Opposition Got a More Youthful Mojo

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Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images

Egyptians gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square for the "march of millions" on Feb. 1, 2011

If the Tunisian revolution was sparked by the self-immolation of a poor fruit vendor, you could say that Egypt's weeklong protests had their genesis in an equally gory death: that of 28-year-old Khaled Said, who was beaten to death by plainclothes police officers in the port city of Alexandria on June 6, 2010. Photos of Said's battered face — including a fractured skull, dislocated jaw and broken nose — were widely distributed on the Internet, and belied the official police record, which said he died of asphyxiation after swallowing a plastic-wrapped packet of drugs. At the time there were protests, but Egypt's now notorious riot police quickly quashed them. Still, resentment simmered — and it boiled over last week on a national holiday meant to honor the country's police force.

Shadi Taha, a 32-year-old activist and member of former presidential candidate (and ex-prisoner of the regime) Ayman Nour's Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, came up with the idea of holding a protest on Jan. 25, Police Day, early in the month. He was part of a group of like-minded Egyptians, the National Coalition for Change, who came from the country's many illegal political parties. They wanted to make a statement and thought a protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo, where President Hosni Mubarak was due to make a speech honoring the police, would be the best way to gain attention from the media.

"[The unofficial opposition parties] are not allowed to appear on state media, and the privately owned media doesn't let us on either," says Taha. "So the only way to get our message out was to make news." The goal was simple: a peaceful demonstration, witnessed by millions. "When people see others protesting and nothing bad happens to them, then even more people get encouraged to protest," he says.

In the planning stages, Taha and his compatriots envisioned a couple hundred protesters. Then Tunisia happened. "That gave us hope that this might happen in Egypt as well," he says. Members of the new opposition alliance started organizing in small groups of three to four people who went door to door passing out flyers that told people to attend the protest on Jan. 25. They put up Facebook pages and posted on Twitter. Nour spoke out against the regime in a YouTube video. Members exhausted their thumbs sending text messages to everyone in their mobile phone books. "Tell your friends," the messages read. "Look what is happening in Tunisia. This is how people change their country." They even dialed random numbers in the hopes that the exhortations to demonstrate would fall on sympathetic ears.

It was the success of Tunisia that turned what was expected to be a small demonstration into a nationwide revolt, says Taha. "We used to say, 'Hey, we are having a demonstration, come join us to change your country,' but no one believed us that it would work. But the Tunisian tsunami gave everyone hope. People realized that if they joined, it would make a difference. And from there it snowballed." In his wildest dreams, Taha didn't expect to see 5,000 people on Jan. 25. When he counted more than 10,000, he knew that the end of the regime was simply a matter of time. The police wouldn't be able to stop them, and the army wouldn't dare fire on its own people, especially not in front of the media. "What happened on the 25th was a turning point," says Taha. "The relationship between Mubarak and the people is over. Now he is just buying time. Even if he succeeds in ending the demonstrations by force, he will never be able to go back. The Egyptian people have tasted their power."

The opposition, as newly vibrant as it may be, hasn't quite gotten over the old habit of factionalism. The much ballyhooed formation of a united front to negotiate with the regime, if it comes to that, isn't final. "There is no official committee, and no negotiation [with the regime] has started. There will be a meeting [on Tuesday] to finalize this because there has been some disagreements about who can be on this committee," says Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University and one of the organizers of Mohamed ElBaradei's National Coalition for Change. Even through all of this, some politicians are whispering that some of the older parties may be willing to be bought off with Cabinet seats.

But what happens when Mubarak does step down, as so many are demanding? Taha and members of his alliance — if they hang together — want to see a transitional government that can keep the country running while preparations are made for a referendum on the constitutional amendments limiting how presidential elections are conducted (i.e., the laws that pretty much guarantee that all but a few vetted opposition groups are excluded from the process). Then a real election. "If we can form a united transitional government to take control, if we can enact political and constitutional reform in this transitional period and if we can let the people decide who they want in power for the next five years, I will consider this revolution to be a success," says Taha.

History may show the significance of Feb. 1 in any eventual revolution. The eighth day of protests saw more than 100,000 people gathered in Tahrir Square by midday, with organizers hoping that 1 million would attend what is expected to be the biggest show yet. More than 200,000 had flooded into the heart of Cairo. The atmosphere was carnival-like, with protesters singing and chanting as they posted placards and held banners with anti-Mubarak slogans. And while military helicopters buzzed overhead, soldiers at checkpoints set up at the entrances of the square did nothing to stop the crowds from entering.

Egypt's second biggest city, Alexandria, saw thousands of people near the railway station hoping to travel to join the rally in Cairo (protests were taking place in at least five other cities across Egypt), but security officials were reported as saying all roads and public transportation to Cairo had been shut down. Meanwhile, opposition leader ElBaradei called on Mubarak to step down by Feb. 4, according to al-Arabiya TV. The domino effect of change sweeping through the region was reportedly felt in Lebanon on Feb. 1, as news emerged that King Abdullah had dismissed his government in an effort to bring about reform.

As for who would lead a transitional government, Taha isn't sure. ElBaradei is a heavyweight, to be sure, he says, adding, "His strength is in foreign policy. But most problems in Egypt today are internal. So I want to see a coalition of opposition forces with experiences in many fields." And yes, that coalition includes Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood. "We cannot do what the regime has done, which is exclude the Muslim Brotherhood," Taha says. "We need to hear their ideas as well. We need to talk to them."

The Muslim Brotherhood has its own internal divisions, but influential members of the group had been actively involved in the opposition's attempt to form a parallel parliament after the November elections, which were widely seen as rigged to benefit the regime. And while the leadership of the Brotherhood did not endorse the Jan. 25 protest, members of the group cooperated with the other parties. Some were on the streets even before the leadership chose on Jan. 28 to participate.

The Brotherhood isn't likely to be the only potential source of anti-Americanism in a post-Mubarak Egypt. "Shame on you, Americans! You are giving constant headaches about democracy," says Wahid Fawzi, the foreign minister of the liberal Wafd Party, which has helped organize the protests. Like many Egyptians, Fawzi believes U.S. policy toward Egypt derives from Israeli pressure to keep an Israel-friendly dictator in place. And Egyptians are angry. "The streets want one thing, and America wants another," he says. "I think America has lost this time. The Egyptians are never going to forget this position."

— With reporting by Abigail Hauslohner / Cairo