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After Mubarak: Rebels with Too Many Causes

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AFP / Getty Images

Egyptians pose for pictures with their national flag during a rally celebrating the success of the popular revolt, in the northern port of Alexandria, Feb. 15th, 2011.

The room was clearly too small. About 30 young people affiliated with the "Revolution Friends" Facebook group were supposed to turn up for the meeting, their first, to brainstorm ways to maintain the exuberant nationalist momentum permeating Egypt after Hosni Mubarak's ouster, and channel it into civic responsibility programs. Instead more than 100 were trying to find a space along the scuffed peach-colored walls or on the pale wooden floor of Room 3 in Cairo's all-purpose performance space, El Sawy Culture Wheel.

"I've come here for jazz concerts and rock concerts," laughs Karim Ahmed Roushdy, 21, a pro-democracy advocate and final-year engineering student, as he heads toward the crowded room. "And now, politics!"

"Is this a private meeting?" a young man with dark curly hair, a strong jaw and a short leather jacket asks, standing at the door.

"Are you January 25th? Were you in Tahrir [square]?" says Mostafa El Hadidy, 60, moderator of the event whose daughter Maie, 25, is also attending. Hadidy is referring to the first big protest march against Mubarak and to the plaza that was the center of the uprising.

""Yes," says the young man.

"Then welcome. Come in."

In conference rooms, cafes and street corners throughout Egypt, youth involved in the tumultuous 18-day protest that forced out the country's longtime dictator are holding meetings like this one to try and work out what to do with their new sense of empowerment and how to transform it into something more tangible. It's not quite a streamlined process.

Mubarak's regime was brutishly adept at dividing and stifling opposition, co-opting some groups while crushing others. His National Democratic Party dominated the political landscape. Now, the setting is a completely wide-open canvas, brimming with entrenched political figures like Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak in 2005, and newer ones including Nobel laureate Mohamed Elbaradei, who threw his hat into the presidential ring last year before withdrawing it. The elder operatives have been joined by a hodgepodge of emboldened youth groups that are still trying to figure out what it wants to coalesce into. Some are structured like the Revolutionary Youth Movement — an alliance of 13 individuals from 10 opposition groups, including Google executive and poster boy of the revolution Wael Ghonim — that is negotiating with the transitional military government. But hundreds of others are more fluid gatherings like "Revolution Friends."

"We are here today to discuss what we are going to do for Egypt," says Riham Abu Elinin, a petite young woman in a hijab who is a partner in a textile factory, as she opens the meeting, that has now moved into a large auditorium. "We don't have an agenda except to discuss ideas."

That is as much a boon as it is a bane, as it quickly becomes clear after speaker after speaker ascends to the stage, most exceeding the five minutes allotted to each person, to expound on a variety of issues.

A young male engineer says that Egypt should concentrate on agriculture and industry instead of tourism, a mainstay of its economy, while a young woman called Noha says she wants to dissuade people from speaking English, wants an Egyptian flag in every home, and to start a revolutionary book club. "Why don't we love the Arabic language?" she asks.

The audience, which is largely made up of professionals including doctors, engineers and businesspeople, is polite and attentive, but clearly not interested in the book club. "We came here to talk about ideas for improving Egypt," Ahmed Khalil tells Noha from the audience. "Please don't waste our time."

It's a mixed male and female crowd. There is a woman in a full face veil, another in the front row wearing a pink and burgundy hijab, a large Egyptian flag on her lap. Several A4-format pages are circulating, one for the contact information of participants, others for their ideas.

"We need to have a political awareness campaign and to help poor areas," says engineer Ahmed Raja. "I've been working for three years mapping out internet safety issues throughout Egypt, so I know all of these poor areas that are in need. I can provide that information."

Tarek Fouad, a businessman and the former regional projects manager for the French supermarket chain Carrefour in Egypt, suggests forming a political party; others counter that a non-governmental organization would be better. "People are suspicious of parties and what their agendas are," a participant from the audience says.

"We will never all agree on one thing," Fouad says, "but at least there will be a majority, and the rest will have to respect that. We don't want, after we were all one hand, to fragment. That will kill our revolution."

Still, there are myriad differences among and between the various youth groups. It's the problem of a leaderless revolution; instead of one voice, there are many, some louder than others, and all threatening to drown each other out.

"Our main objective was to agree on the objective," Hadidy says optimistically after the meeting. "But that's okay, let everybody empty their hearts. It's just the beginning."