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Egypt's Kifaya Protests Keep Pressure on Mubarak

Anti-government protests in Egypt are keeping pressure on the government of President Hosni Mubarak as the country prepares for next month's landmark presidential election. For the first time in his 24-year rule, Mr. Mubarak is facing opponents on the ballot, and although he remains extremely popular, criticism of his government is also widespread. So even the sitting president is campaigning on promises for change.

For the last several months, there have been dozens of protests by different groups affiliated with the movement called "Kifaya," Arabic for "enough." This one is by an association of artists and writers, and they are expressing their opposition to the government through poetry and song. Several artists decorate the sidewalk with political cartoons and slogans, drawn with oil pastels and markers.

A man strums on a lute while the rest sing along to an old folk song that goes, "Rise up, Egyptians."

The crowd has gathered on a Tuesday evening in a downtown Cairo square in an effort to get their fellow Egyptians to rise up, at least symbolically, and demand change from their government.

Writer Sahar el-Mougy, 42, is one of the organizers of the protest. She is realistic about the possible pace of any changes inspired by the Kifaya movement.

"Not very soon. The actual challenge is not the coming elections, because we all know it's Mubarak that's going to win, even though it's clean and everything. We're not fighting a person, we're fighting a system," she explained. "And we're looking for a new constitution and freedom of expression, and abolition of all the emergency laws. So our request, the request of all the democratic movement in Egypt is not going to be realized within a couple of weeks."

Protests such as this one are a relatively new development in Egypt. Under pressure from the West to democratize, Mr. Mubarak has loosened some of Egypt's restrictions on freedom of expression, and the Kifaya protest movement has captured the world's attention.

Some of the protests have turned ugly. At one demonstration, thugs attacked the protesters, especially targeting women. A number of them were severely beaten as the police stood by and watched. Other women protesters have been sexually assaulted.

Journalist and novelist Soad Soliman, 39, says for her, the cause outweighs the risk.

"I have questioned myself and asked, what do I have to do with it? Because I get so much afraid of violence, of beating," she said. "And to tell you the truth, when I see the events in the papers and see what they do to girls, I get really horrified," she said. "But I just thought, if I just stay home and say it is none of my business, it is really my business. It is really my business. I should participate and ask for change."

The security presence at this protest is overwhelming. There are probably fewer than 200 demonstrators here, not even enough to spill off of the sidewalk into the streets surrounding the square. But there are easily 600 police officers in riot gear ringing the area. They stand three-deep in formation on several streets nearby, with high-ranking officers in white uniforms watching from across the square.

The chanted calls for change get more raucous as the evening wears on, but the protest is entirely peaceful, and it disbands promptly at eight o'clock, two hours after it started.

The Kifaya movement is largely restricted to Egypt's intellectuals and upper classes. It is not clear how much support the movement has among the poor and disenfranchised, who make up most of the country's population. And the group is encouraging its followers to boycott next month's presidential election, rather than taking part in what they term a charade.

But Kifaya and its calls for change have captured the attention of the ruling party. Next month's election will be the first time in his 24 years in power that President Hosni Mubarak has faced opponents on the ballot. He does not intend to lose to someone who is promising change.

Earlier this month, Mr. Mubarak launched his electoral campaign in front of several thousand cheering supporters. For a man who has been in power for 24 years, he spent a lot of time promising reform.

"My first pledge before you begins with specific steps and ambitions to continue our march on the path to political reform," he said.

He said he will amend the constitution to ensure more civil liberties, and then he launched into a litany of planned reforms: reform of the electoral system, reform of the judiciary, reform of local government, reform of the media, reform of the emergency laws.

Some of his campaign promises, to an outsider, seem astonishing. He pledges to build a thousand factories, and create more than half a million new jobs every year. He promises to double the salaries of the lowest-paid civil servants over the next six years, and increase other government workers' paychecks by 75 percent. He promises new schools, new roads, new houses.

But part of his campaign for re-election is also based in part on his experience. In his stump speeches, he emphasizes the need for strength and stability in troubled times, implying that his challengers are untested newcomers who could not provide that.

"This is a sensitive phase, and it is not enough to deal with it with promises, empty words and catchy slogans that jeopardize the destiny of our people," Mr. Mubarak said.

So he is trying to strike a delicate balance, taking credit for shepherding the country through the last 24 years, but also acknowledging the need for change.

In the meantime, the Kifaya protesters are ignoring the election and focusing on the long term, and hoping that their movement can keep the pressure on the government and ensure that those changes actually materialize.