Older leaders confirm the young are on the vanguard

Last Thursday, a small group of Internet-savvy young political organisers gathered in the Cairo home of an associate of Mohamed ElBaradei, the diplomat and Nobel laureate.

They had come to plot a day of street protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, but within days, their informal clique would become the effective leaders of a decades-old opposition movement previously dominated by figures more than twice their age.

“Most of us are under 30,” said Amr Ezz, a 27-year-old lawyer who was one of the group as part of the April 6 Youth Movement, which organised an earlier day of protests last week via Facebook. They were surprised and delighted to see that more than 90,000 people signed up online to participate, emboldening others to turn out and bringing tens of thousands of mostly young people into the streets.

Surprised by the turnout, older opposition leaders from across the spectrum including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood; the liberal protest group the Egyptian Movement for Change, known by its slogan, “Enough”; and the umbrella group organised by Mr. ElBaradei joined in, vowing to turn out their supporters for another day of protest on Friday. But the same handful of young online organisers were still calling the shots.

They decided to follow a blueprint similar to their previous protest, urging demonstrators to converge on the central Liberation Square. So they drew up a list of selected mosques around Cairo where they asked people to gather at Friday Prayer before marching together toward the square. Then they distributed the list through e-mail and text messages, which spread virally. They even told Mr. ElBaradei which mosque he should attend, people involved said. “What we were hoping for is to have the same turnout as the 25th, so we wouldn't lose the numbers we had already managed to mobilise,” said Mr. Ezz.

Instead, more than 100,000 people poured out into the streets of the capital, pushing back for hours against battalions of riot police, until the police all but abandoned the city. The demonstrations were echoed across the country.

The huge uprising has stirred speculation about whether Egypt's previously fractious opposition could unite to capitalise on the new momentum, and about just who would lead the nascent political movement.

The major parties and players in the Egyptian opposition met throughout the day Sunday to address those questions. They ultimately selected a committee led by Mr. ElBaradei to negotiate directly with the Egyptian. And they settled on a strategy that some in the movement are calling “hug a soldier” to try to win the Army's rank and file over to their side. But both newcomers and veterans of the opposition movement say it is the young Internet pioneers who remain at the vanguard behind the scenes.

“The young people are still leading this,” said Ibrahim Issa, a prominent opposition intellectual who attended some of the meetings.

Mr. Issa said the older figures offered to help the young organisers who had started it all.

Those organisers, said Mr. Ezz and Mr. Issa, knew the uprising had now acquired a life of its own beyond their direction. And they knew the movement needed more seasoned leaders if Mr. Mubarak resigned, said Mr. Ezz. “Leadership has to come out of the people who are already out there, because most of us are under 30,” he said, “But now they recognize that we're in the street, and they are taking us seriously.” — New York Times News Service

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