The world couldn't possibly make sense of a leaderless revolution. So in the early days of Egypt's iconic 18-day uprising, an unflagging press corps tried on Mohamed ElBaradei, a bald and bespectacled Nobel laureate. When ElBaradei flopped, they turned to 30-year old Google executive Wael Ghonim, who as Wendell Steavenson wrote, would become the face, but never the leader of the revolution. Before the media gave up on the idea of leadership altogether, Time published one of the most recognizable images of the Egyptian uprising -- its Feb. 28, 2011, cover featuring seven Egyptian activists as the "generation changing the world."
Since then, Egypt's revolutionaries have had a rough ride. The generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took over after Mubarak's ouster, proved to be little better than their old boss, and the recent presidential election crowned the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy, a colorless Islamist politician whom few of the original protesters can get excited about. Indeed, there is an overwhelming sense -- in Egypt and abroad -- that the young protesters who powered the revolution have been overtaken by events. As the Wall Street Journal put it in June, Egypt's transition to democracy "has stalled in a quagmire of divide-and-conquer politics, leaving the country's revolutionaries splintered and disillusioned."
But have Egypt's revolutionaries really faded into irrelevance? The, reality is more complicated -- a fact that is brought home by the paradoxical story of the photograph itself. Taken in the headquarters of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour's El-Ghad party, the image was never supposed to be about its subjects -- indeed, they go unnamed on the cover -- but it has since been elevated to a veritable "who's who" of the Egyptian revolution.
This explains why a number of prominent activists -- including Wael Ghonim and Esraa Abdel Fattah, perhaps the two most recognizable faces from the revolution -- did not make it onto the cover. Despite its accidental composition, however, the photograph had a profound effect. It created a vaunted class of revolutionary leaders out of a ragtag collection of grass-roots activists -- one that was destined to fall short of the public's expectations.
From the beginning, the bulk of these activists fought for incremental change in a single issue-area. That is, they were the very stuff of democracy -- but they were uniquely ill-equipped to affect sweeping revolutionary change. Some would say that this is a virtue: Between Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Libyan autocrat Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the Middle East hasn't had a lot of success with top-down revolutionary movements. But the activists' failure to excise six decades of institutional rot in 18 months has meant that many would relegate them to a footnote on a back page of history. The cheerleaders of democracy, it seems, have forgotten how slow and dysfunctional of a process it is.
For most of the people on that cover, the January 25 uprising has become just that -- an uprising. The revolution, in their opinion, is very much a work in progress. As Noor Ayman Nour, sporting glasses and an unruly mop of hair on the Time photo, put it, "My main regret is that it was called a revolution...We are yet to have a revolution and I think most of the people on that cover would agree."
But what Noor and the other activists FP caught up with for this article -- some from the Time cover, and others that might have been featured in their place -- are doing is pretty revolutionary in its own right. Today in Egypt, they are still fighting to empower women, to end military trials, to win a livable minimum wage, to improve public education, to create jobs, and to make Egypt's press free. It might not have gotten them on the cover of Time if they hadn't also toppled Mubarak, but it happens to be exactly what Egypt needs if it is going to make the improbably leap towards democracy. The following is a look at what some of Egypt's most well-known revolutionaries are doing today.