Start the revolution with me
Besides political considerations, some young people in Tahrir Square have been motivated to protest for other, more prosaic reasons.
CAIRO - The first open argument between the organizers of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt took place on Wednesday morning. After President Hosni Mubarak declared in a televised address the night before that he intends to stay in office until the end of his current term in September, thousands of people took to the streets and called on him to stay on, praising him for bringing stability to the country. They tried to enter Tahrir Square. Most of the pro-democracy backers, still exhilarated by their huge success the previous day, when hundreds of thousands packed the square, tried to prevent the entry of the Mubarak loyalists. But some of the protest organizers thought differently.
"My instinctive reaction was that we should not let them enter," explains Mohammed al-Said, a 21-year-old urban-planning student from Cairo's Zagazig neighborhood. "But then it occurred to me that what we want is democracy, which means accepting the legitimacy of ideas that I don't like."
Said, thin, muscular and short, is dressed in jeans and an orange, brand-name shirt, and is wearing sunglasses with a wavy black-and-white frame. He says he is a member of the April 6 group, a protest movement of Facebook-based young Egyptians, which played a key role in organizing and encouraging the demonstrations against the regime here.
The majority of the group's members are from Egypt's educated middle class, but the movement was founded originally in order to encourage a strike by poor workers in a Nile Delta town three years ago. That strike started on April 6, hence the name of the group.
"We are actually a small group who decided to focus on workers' rights," he says, "to demand that they get a proper minimum salary linked to the cost of living, and to insist on safety conditions at work and on a pension which they can live off of in dignity after retirement."
In the absence of a true infrastructure of opposition parties, the April 6 group has become not only an organizer of demonstrations, but also a focal point of interest for both Egyptian society and the international media.
"So many people are seeking us out and asking us questions," Said says. "But we have no answers in most areas. We simply have not discussed all these things yet, and we have no apparatus for making decisions or formulating a platform."
An Egyptian journalist who writes for American magazines related this week that an editor in New York had asked him to send a color piece from the headquarters of the April 6 organization: "He wasn't able to grasp that this is not an organization with offices but a bunch of guys who communicate via Facebook," he chortled.
Said is clearly embarrassed when questioned about his group's religious affiliation.
"We really do not want to deal with that now," he explains. "It's a sensitive subject and we prefer to concentrate on the social issues that we launched this struggle for. And, of course, on the current struggle for democracy."
Said's personal story is telling. "My family belongs to the middle class," he relates. "My parents and my brother are all university graduates. But in recent years, life for the middle class in Egypt has become much more difficult. There are not enough jobs that offer a reasonable salary for university graduates who have no connections in the government. People are simply faced with the dilemma of taking a job with a low salary which is not enough to build a normal life, or leaving the country. I don't know if I will be able to find work after I graduate."
The fact that it is nearly impossible to make enough money to pay the rent is forcing many young Egyptians in their twenties and thirties to continue living at home with their parents. In a conservative society, the consequence is that many Egyptian men have no female partners or do not have sexual relations before getting married.
"We don't like to talk about it," a young male demonstrator said during a long night in Tahrir Square, "but the economic situation and the conservative values have turned us into a generation of sexually frustrated virgins. That frustration is one of the driving forces of the demonstrations."
Said, who has a girlfriend, says that even though he "believes in the principles of Islam," he and his family are "liberals - and that means with respect to all aspects of life, including the subject of sex."
Mohammed Atiya Hamad, a 29-year-old resident of central Cairo, says with a sad smile, "I am religious, so I do not have a girlfriend." He wears a large embroidered skullcap, and a straggly beard covers much of his pockmarked face. But he has a sense of humor. When foreign correspondents ask him something, he declares, "I am the leader of the Egyptian revolution - I am the revolution."
Hamad has a diploma in accountancy from a professional college, but says he cannot allow himself even to start thinking about marriage. He works mostly doing odd jobs in local businesses. His family lives in the industrial city of Al-Mahallah al-Kubra, the site of the strike three years ago that spawned the April 6 group. Hamad himself is not a member. He has a Facebook page, he adds, but doesn't have much time to surf the Web.
"When I have a little time," he says, "I go online, read, get updated and chat with friends. Sometimes I also express my political views on Facebook, but before anything else, I have to make a living and help my parents."
Hamad adds that he identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood, but does not want to elaborate on the subject. "I am a part-time political activist," he says, laughing, "both because I have to work and also because being a politician is dangerous." He does not like the term "Islamist" either: "I am religiously observant - but what of it? I am religious, like many Egyptians. I pray and I observe the laws of Islam, which are present in every aspect of my life. That is how I was born, and I cannot imagine myself as anything other than a believing Muslim. These are good values, which I apply in my life."
Still, he is quick to point out that being religious does not dispose him to being intolerant toward other opinions or other religions. "Whoever thinks he should believe or behave differently, that is his right," he emphasizes.
Said and Hamad do not know each other, but for the past week and a half, they have been fighting shoulder to shoulder. They were part of the street battles last Friday, when the demonstrators absorbed clouds of tear gas and beatings with truncheons until they started to fight back and chased the police from the streets - and again on Wednesday of this week, when the first groups of pro-Mubarak demonstrators were followed by violent groups wielding sticks, knives, bricks and firebombs, in an attempt to recapture the square for the pro-democracy demonstrators.
Even though their way of life is utterly different, when the two men are asked about Egypt's future - that is to say, what will happen after Mubarak leaves - their responses are almost identical.
"Egypt's citizens have to decide for themselves what kind of government they want," Hamad says. "Now all the different parties are on one road on the way to democracy." He offers a similar viewpoint concerning Egypt's future relations with Israel: "The parties that will take part in the government will have to decide about that in the future," he says. "We will want to help the Palestinians, but even Israel has legitimate demands."
Said: "We believe in democracy, which means that Al-Ikhwan [the Muslim Brotherhood] and the rest of the Islamists also have to have the right to put their views forward, and to run in an election. In any event, at this stage, we are still fighting to get to a situation in which such elections can be held. So there is no place now for arguments between the parties."
Is he not concerned that the Islamists are using liberals like him to topple Mubarak, only to foment a Khomeni-style Islamic revolution afterward?
"Everyone will have an equal voice in free elections," Said responds, "and if the Ikhwan do not respect the democratic laws, we will fight them and triumph, too, as we are fighting now and will soon triumph over Mubarak."
On Wednesday, Athaneseus Zakari, a Christian doctoral student in the engineering faculty at Cairo University was standing near the group that had come to demonstrate in favor of Mubarak.
"Until last night I was on the other side, among the demonstrators against Mubarak," he admitted. "But last night, when I stayed on after most of the demonstrators had gone home, I realized that the ones who are really running the show there are the Ikhwan. They are hiding things and claiming that everyone is participating. They are waiting for Mubarak to go and then they will seize power. That is not the democracy I want. I would rather have Mubarak stay on as president. He at least protects the Christians here."