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Egypt opposition feels strains from within

Opposition activists were united against Mubarak, but young protesters have split into two rival camps, and both groups distrust older activists.

February 16, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Bob Drogin and Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times
  • Khaled Elsayd, 27, is an activist who helped mobilize Egyptians in protest and a member of the Jan. 25th coalition.
Khaled Elsayd, 27, is an activist who helped mobilize Egyptians in protest… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Cairo — They brought down an autocrat and now hunch over position papers, microphones, BlackBerrys and meals from McDonald's. Revolution is messy but lasting power is won, young activists are learning, in meticulous battles of negotiations, egos and intrigue.

The new breed of professionals who helped topple President Hosni Mubarak is watching its rebellion turn into a political struggle among the country's splintered opposition forces, remnants of the former ruling regime and the army, which has taken control of the nation until the constitution is amended and elections are held.

Not wanting to be left out of the future government, two competing groups of young activists are meeting with the military and distancing themselves from longtime opposition figures they regard as inept and weakened from years of oppression by Egyptian security forces.

Egyptian politics under Mubarak was dominated by his National Democratic Party, which stifled secular opposition groups and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. But this political universe is changing as an emboldened youth movement, some of which represents a progressive wing of the traditional opposition scene, is demanding a wider role in forming a new democracy.

These emerging dynamics are likely to alter Washington's relationship with a strategic ally and the Arab world's most populous nation. Many young activists view the U.S. regional policies more skeptically than did Mubarak's government, which was supported by Democratic and Republican administrations despite its poor record on human rights.

But these new voices have their own differences.

The major rift in the youth movement is between the Coalition for the Jan. 25 Revolution Youth and a clique of urban professionals led by Google executive Wael Ghonim and dentist Mustafa Nagar. The two groups had shared strategies in a ransacked travel agency and under a tent during protests in Tahrir Square that began in late January. But talks with the government involving members of the latter group in the last days of Mubarak's rule angered some members of the coalition.

"The guys from the coalition didn't like it," said Nagar, who has a persistent cough after inhaling tear gas during demonstrations. "They accused us of selling out the blood of the martyrs. And now that same coalition is trying to meet and talk to anyone they can. We are split from them completely."

This strained atmosphere, along with the ambitions of older opposition figures, has complicated negotiations with the military.

A high-level army officer said, "The people want change, and we're trying to give them change, but some of them want all of it now. They are over a million people without a leader. They do not speak with one voice."

The drama is unfolding as labor strikes shake the country, the economy is in turmoil and the army has consolidated power by dissolving the parliament. The army says it wants to hold elections within six months. But some worry that the military's grip is excluding civilians while pushing the country toward elections before it is politically stable.

"I think it's too early to say what the military council's intentions are, but personally, I'm not worried that they're in full control of the country," said Mohamed Nour Farahat, a law professor. "Their statements so far have been reassuring and I don't doubt their intentions."

Ghonim and other activists, including those with the April 6 youth movement, met about a year ago through the new National Front for Change, founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. They studied methods for nonviolent protests and political movements that upended autocratic governments in Ukraine and Serbia.

The broader youth movement, including members of leftist organizations, democratic groups and the religiously conservative Muslim Brotherhood, rallied around the death last summer of Khaled Said, a blogger allegedly beaten by undercover police officers in Alexandria. The activists launched Facebook pages, calculated how to persuade a historically reluctant Egyptian population to take to the streets and named themselves under the umbrella that eventually became the Jan. 25 coalition.

Minutes after news of Mubarak's resignation swept Tahrir Square last week, Islam Lofty, a 33-year-old human rights lawyer and coalition member with the Muslim Brotherhood, sat in the tent with a flashlight and drafted a victory statement on a Nestle Pure Life water bottle box. One protester called it "our Declaration of Independence."

The hastily drawn document read in part: "We are on the brink of a new era that we have always dreamed of, an Egypt free of oppression and tyranny.... This is a great [awakening]. We will never again allow a tyrant to lead."

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