Sep 192011

CAIRO — Men arrive at an Islamic party’s headquarters on a hot Cairo night. They hug, laugh and whisper around trays of pistachio sweets. A door closes and the haggling over Egypt’s future begins.

But the young revolutionary is missing. Thirty minutes tick by; the amiable mood is cracking.’

Ahmed Maher hurries in, dabbing his forehead with a tissue. He sits across from Saied Abdul Azim, a cleric in an embroidered skullcap, who with a phone call can summon tens of thousands of Quran-wielding followers into the street. The old man begins: “Liberals see freedom as giving rights to homosexuals or for anybody to do and wear what they want, even if it’s against Islam. We’ve come out to tell them we will fight this.”

Maher twitches as if a fly has landed on him. He takes a breath and looks at Azim.

“If we liberals managed to find something in common with nationalists, communists and other sects, then surely we can find common ground with Islamists,” he says. Maher listens for another hour to a Coptic Christian leader, a newspaper publisher, a representative of a onetime terrorist organization involved in a president’s assassination and an envoy from the new Civilization Party, a name that evokes the splendor of Egypt’s ancient past but seems a mirage in the precarious present.

Maher slips out at 1:21 a.m. and orders a coffee in an open-air cafe down the street. The 30-year-old rebel jots notes and appointments in a little black book: Watch the generals. Unify the opposition. Connect with the poor.

The leader of the April 6 Youth Movement, Maher is one of the nation’s most strategically savvy activists. But he senses the young are losing the revolution they heralded. Islamists are pressing for power.

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