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Anti-Government Protesters in Egypt Fight Apathy

  • Lindsay Wise

When the Egyptian Movement for Change began organizing anti-government protests in Cairo a year and a half ago, it hoped it would pressure President Hosni Mubarak to step down or introduce significant democratic reforms. But Mr. Mubarak was easily re-elected in September with 88 percent of the vote. The opposition movement known as Kifaya is now suffering from a loss of membership and momentum, and asking itself - what next?

Last year, chants of "Down with Mubarak" were a familiar sound in the streets of Cairo. So was the sight of small, but determined, bands of protesters, waving colorful anti-government banners, surrounded by black-clad riot police. But today such scenes are rare, and many opposition activists in the Kifaya movement admit they are frustrated and losing hope.

Ahmed Salah is an Egyptian tour guide and coordinator of Kifaya's youth division.

"Kifaya as a movement, The Egyptian Movement for Change, is a movement that does not follow a political agenda because it is not a political party, so sometimes it seems like it is going in different directions, it is out of focus," he says.

Salah says many activists have begun leaving the movement in despair over its poor organization, lack of vision, and bitter leadership disputes.

His branch of Kifaya, Youth for Change, has experienced a dramatic drop in membership from more than 500 to less than 30.

He says that unless protesters regroup, refocus, and realize they are in for the long-haul, the movement could die out.

"Many people have been such dreamers," Salah says. "They are dreaming, they are out of reality. They would think that if we would go out into the streets for a year making a few demos, that if we shout down with Mubarak, Mubarak will fall down, after 25 years in office with emergency laws and all the powers in his hand … Mubarak is a dictator, he is an autocrat, he is the only ruler. Anybody who would think that just by going out to a few demonstrations we can actually change everything like that, these people are very unrealistic. … It is very important to tell them, no, it is a long path. It is going to be difficult."

Salah joined other Kifaya organizers at a conference last week to discuss the future of the movement.

At the meeting, several-hundred activists took turns at the podium to voice their opinions about what position Kifaya should take on everything from the Iranian nuclear crisis to the independence of Egypt's judiciary.

Held at "Freedom Hall" in Cairo's Lawyers Syndicate, the conference was an exercise in free expression unthinkable only two years ago. But it also betrayed Kifaya's lack of focus - perhaps a predictable dilemma for an umbrella organization that attempts to unite opposition trends ranging from Islamism to Socialism.

Organizers admit another problem they face comes from the fact that their movement is made up mostly of intellectuals, writers, artists, and other elites. In order to endure and grow, they say, Kifaya must establish deeper roots in Egyptian society.

Wael Khalil, a technology consultant and Kifaya activist, says the movement should learn from Egypt's banned, but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, which earned an unprecedented 88 seats in recent parliamentary elections, thanks in part to its strong grassroots organization throughout Egypt's far-flung villages and cities.

"And I think the lesson to get from the Brotherhood is actually to work in politics in a country like Egypt you have to have roots and work with that roots, so whenever you are mobilizing for a big event, you mobilize through the roots and then you go back to the roots larger than you were before, and start discussing, okay, it was this good, what next?" he asked.

Khalil says the government is counting on people becoming disappointed and demoralized, so they will stop being active. He believes the only solution is to clarify Kifaya's message and raise its profile among ordinary Egyptians through local meetings and community charity work.

Khalil argues that if Kifaya, which means enough in arabic, offers concrete solutions instead of just criticisms, more Egyptians will sympathize and join the fight.

"Sometimes when we walk down the street people come to us and say, well what is the alternative, if not Mubarak, okay, what kind of government are you talking about? And really start digging into answers to this question that unify us," Khalil says. "I do not think it will be one answer but we can get a consensus, okay, this is what we are talking about. We are talking about a transitional phase, we are talking about not a new dictator, but a real government that is accountable to the people and if we formulate that, I think it will be a good way forward."

Cairo-based researcher Josh Stacher is completing a doctoral thesis about Egyptian politics for St. Andrews University in Scotland. He says Kifaya has not done itself any favors by failing to articulate practical political demands.

"It was not enough to come out in the street and say 'Enough'. It had to go beyond that and it never really did. And now that the fact that they doing it, they are playing catch up, and they have to reverse a whole bunch of sort of reputations and images about themselves," Stacher says.

But George Ishak, a founding leader of Kifaya, argues that activists should take heart knowing that their willingness to speak out already has made a difference.

"You know we achieved three items," he says. "We break the culture of fear, we obtain our right to make demonstrations and we have our right to criticize the president. It was a red line you cannot reach it before Kifaya. Because you know in our culture our president is half-president, half-God, so you cannot touch him."

The question for Kifaya is whether those gains can be made permanent. For now, Egypt's opposition is hoping that the "democratic spring" they dreamed of is not just a false start.

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