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Slate.com
updated 2/7/2011 6:09:11 PM ET 2011-02-07T23:09:11

When I approached Nagla Nasser in Cairo's central square Sunday, she told me she was too old to talk to a reporter. "This is a youth revolution," said Nasser, who looks to be no older than middle-aged. "You need to talk to someone young." Exactly. But the question facing the popular revolt against the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is who speaks for the young protesters in the square. Egypt's youth has been instrumental in starting this uprising. Now everyone is asking who will finish it.

Today, I asked Tarek Nowar, an activist whom I have spoken to a lot in the last two weeks, if he'd heard of a revolutionary youth council representing the interests of the people in Tahrir Square. He responded: "Which one?" For almost two weeks, the sight of hundreds of thousands of leaderless Egyptians calling for the ouster of Mubarak has been inspiring. Suddenly, it has become confusing. The revolution appears to have no organized leadership, and meanwhile the Egyptian regime is back to doing what it does best: Divide and conquer.

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On Sunday, Egypt's heretofore-organized opposition met with new Vice President Omar Suleiman. That included representatives from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, officially sanctioned political parties, most of whom have no real support, as well as "youth representatives." In the square, there was confusion as to who exactly was attending those meetings.

One prominent opposition figure told me the Brotherhood would never meet with the regime. He was wrong; they were there. The people who met Suleiman were carefully selected for global audience—chosen to represent the spectrum of people amassed in the square. The Egyptian press center sent the international media an e-mail message saying there had been "consensus" between Suleiman and the opposition. The groups in attendance told the media otherwise. Fair enough. And then there were those like Mohammed ElBaradei, a leading opposition figure and former head of the IAEA, who said they had not even received an invite.

Video: Calm returns to Egypt, for now (on this page)

On Friday, there were reports of a group that people have taken to calling the "Wise Men," consisting of Egyptian intellectuals and respected business leaders, which had a plan to ease the transition of power. Another group, calling themselves the Coalition of the Youth of the Egyptian Revolution, announced they had planned the Jan. 25 protest, the day that sparked the upheaval. They said they hadn't met with the government—nor would they. They also insinuated they were the ones representing the people of Tahrir and told me they would be taking their demands to the government only through the "Wise Men."

Not in talks
According to youth coalition, they are composed of five of the country's established youth groups, including the Sixth of April movement, the Muslim Brotherhood Youth, and the National Association for Change. Each of them appointed two members to a 10-member council.

"None of us are in negotiation" with the government, said Mohammad Abbas, Brotherhood Youth's representative to the council told me. "We'll only negotiate after the removal of Mubarak."

But the group's very existence raises an even more basic question: If these are the guys behind this big protest, where have they been for the last two weeks? The group tried to "hide" its role in organizing the protests "so people can feel this [movement] belongs to them," Abbas told me. "We didn't want to appear publically, until the regime started saying the Egyptian youth were negotiating with them. Then we had to announce ourselves and appear."

Nasser Abdel Hamid, who represents the International Association for Change (a splinter group of the National Association for Change) on the council, explained the coalition had put conditions on negotiations, including abolishing the country's notoriously draconian emergency law. If those conditions are met, he said, they will meet with Suleiman. When I asked him if people on the street will object to a self-appointed "youth council" speaking for such a broad array of voices in the square, Nasser was unconcerned. "This will not happen," he said. "All of the youth movements are with us."

But I find that this is not exactly the case. Some people, such as activist Gigi Ibrahim, are actually quite upset. "Nobody should represent anybody. Our demands are so clear, they are written on the walls, on the buildings. No one negotiates before the demands are met," she said. "A handful of people can't possibly represent the people on these streets."

Slideshow: Egypt's Mubarak steps down (on this page)

Ibrahim said she attended the planning meetings for the Jan. 25 demonstration but argued that didn't give her the right to speak for the masses. "No one in their mind during those meetings thought this would turn into a revolution," she said. "Post-Jan. 25, nobody was running the show. It was people acting on their own . … I took part as a revolutionary socialist, but I'm not going to say because I made a Facebook group I have the right to represent these people. This is a people's revolution. Facebook and Twitter didn't make this revolution."

'A way out'
There are other protesters who have been on the square for days and have simply never heard about any debate over representatives at negotiations. "I think the system is trying to find any way out without enacting the changes the youth are looking for," said Ali Gheital, a doctor who has been treating injured protesters. "They are trying to find a way out, so they started talking to the opposition, but the opposition doesn't control the people."

Then there are those who are hopeful. "At the end of the day, no one is in control at the moment," Hossam el-Hamalawy, a blogger and journalist told me. "There is a problem of which way to go forward and there are many opportunist politicians who are trying to jump on the movement and trying to hijack it and that would include those who have already gone to negotiate with Omar Suleiman before Mubarak's leaving." Hossam said he is "totally against negotiations with the regime as long as Hosni Mubarak is in power" and opposed any talks with "his torturer-in-chief, Omar Suleiman."

Yet others, such as Nasser of the youth council, have said they would talk to Suleiman. I asked Hossam if it's possible the movement could spin out of control. "It's inevitable in any revolution, you'll always find divisions, and people with disagreement," he said. "The only referee will be the people here in the street."

Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and the New Republic, among others.

This article, Voicing Opposition: Not even Cairo's protesters agree on who speaks for Cairo's protesters, was originally published on slate.com.

© 2013 Slate.com

Video: Calm returns to Egypt, for now

  1. Closed captioning of: Calm returns to Egypt, for now

    >> now more on the ongoing protests in egypt . the government met with opposition leaders for the first time. nbc's chief foreign correspondent richard engel is in cairo. good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning, matt. the egyptian government is offering sweeping democratic reforms, but the protesters in tahrir square simply don't believe they will be carried out. yet after two weeks of violence and chaos in this country, calm has returned to egypt -- at least for now. it's now a stand-off for egypt 's future. tahrir square, once a battleground, has become a camp site .

    >> i wanted to see change happen.

    >> reporter: a tent city erected in the traffic circle in the center of cairo. protesters are expecting a long haul and say they will stay until president mubarak leaves egypt . tanks surround the square keeping peace, but protesters are nervous troops will move in. they formed a human shield to block the army's advance. at a makeshift infirmary, doctors and nurses treat the hundreds of wounded in the square. this doctor said he's here for the injured but also even with two degrees he earns $400 a month, a salary that barely sustains him.

    >> many professions.

    >> reporter: but life is returning outside the square. banks and stores are open. government salaries are being paid. this is the image the egyptian government wants its people to see. a country moving on. the crisis over. after a meeting yesterday with opposition groups including the banned muslim brotherhood which wants islamic law , egypt promised to make huge democratic reforms. the meeting itself was astonishing. it was led by vice president omar suleiman , the intelligence chief who's chased the brotherhood down for years. now they are sitting together to discuss egypt 's future. egypt promised to soon lift marshal law in place here for decades, allow freedom of the press and more candidates to run in elections. some egyptians worry none of it will really happy.

    >> what they have promised today they promised before. i have no reason as long as mubarak is the head of the state to feel these are credible promises. let's talk about mubarak staying another six months. you're talking about complete paralysis of the country.

    >> reporter: some say the promises of democracy are a ploy to clear the square, keep mubarak supporters in power, protect his legacy and wait out the political storm. the protesters tell us they want a clearer position from the united states and that they are not sure if the white house is with them or president mubarak . meredith?

    >> richard engel , thank you very

Photos: Farewell Friday

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  1. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Feb. 11. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Egyptians set off fireworks as they celebrate in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after President Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military. (Khalil Hamra / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the resignation of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in the Grand Foyer at the White House in Washington D.C. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Egyptians celebrate in Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military on Friday. Egypt exploded with joy, tears, and relief after pro-democracy protesters brought down President Hosni Mubarak with a momentous march on his palaces and state TV. Mubarak, who until the end seemed unable to grasp the depth of resentment over his three decades of authoritarian rule, finally resigned Friday. (Khalil Hamra / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protesters walk over a barricade after it was taken down to allow free entry to hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 11, 2011. A furious wave of protest finally swept Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak from power, sending a warning to autocrats across the Arab world and beyond. (Yannis Behrakis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A spokesman for Egypt's higher military council reads a statement titled “Communiqué No. 3” in this video still on Friday. Egypt's higher military council said it would announce measures for a transitional phase after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. (Reuters Tv / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Egyptian celebrates in Cairo after the announcement of President Mubarak's resignation. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. A furious wave of protest finally swept Mubarak from power after 30 years of one-man rule, sparking jubilation in the streets. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An Egyptian reacts in the street after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and handed power to the military in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday, Feb. 11. (Amr Nabil / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Thousands of Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation on Friday. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Egyptian soldiers celebrate with anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square on Friday. Cairo's streets exploded in joy when Mubarak stepped down after three-decades of autocratic rule and handed power to a junta of senior military commanders. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Egyptians celebrate the news of Mubarak's resignation in Tahrir Square on Friday. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Egyptian woman cries as she celebrates the news of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who handed control of the country to the military, Friday night, in Tahrir Square, Cairo. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate minutes after the announcement on television of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday. Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had resigned. (Khaled Elfiqi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Opposition protesters celebrate Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, in Tahrir Square on Friday. President Mubarak bowed to pressure from the street and resigned, handing power to the army. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Friday. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. On Egyptian state television, Al-Masriya, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman delivers an address announcing that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, in Cairo on Friday. (TV via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo
    Dylan Martinez / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (18) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Farewell Friday
  2. Image: Protester in Tahrir Square
    Emilio Morenatti / AP
    Slideshow (61) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Week 3
  3. Image: Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters
    Amr Nabil / AP
    Slideshow (93) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Week 2
  4. Image: Mohamed ElBaradei
    Khalil Hamra / AP
    Slideshow (83) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - Week 1
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    Slideshow (17) Egypt's Mubarak steps down - World reacts

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