Idealist meets reality when promoting party in Egyptian villages


Egyptian Muslim brotherhood Shura council members gather to be photographed outside the new Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. Once forced underground, the Brotherhood is likely to be part of Egypt's new government. (Khalil Hamra/The Associated Press)
June 19, 2011

On his first political foray beyond cosmopolitan Cairo, Shady Ghazali Harb, a British-educated surgeon, hoped to find support for his effort to build a political party.

What he found instead, here in the Nile Delta, was uncertainty about the new crop of politicians emerging from Egypt’s revolution. Farmers who had gathered in a dirt yard to hear Harb speak stared blankly as the 32-year-old idealist in jeans, a purple dress shirt and Adidas sneakers spoke of his desire to set up shop “where people hang out.’’

“People don’t go to coffee shops here,” Karam el-Hadi Mohammed, 55, a merchant and farmer, told him. “They work hard and go to bed early.’’

Harb was among the thousands of young activists who raised their voices in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as part of the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Now the surgeon is attempting what he sees as the logical next step: to run for parliament under the banner of his newly founded Free Awareness Party.

But the party has only about 50 members. Harb has gathered only 1,000 of the 5,000 signatures required on a petition to make his group official. And he faces competition from dozens of other post-revolutionary political parties among whom the differences are so slight that even the candidates sometimes seem confused.

Egyptians are unsure who to vote for, who is running and what all these groups stand for.

The result has been a kind of paralysis. While Mubarak’s National Democratic Party is no longer on the scene, only a few alternatives have gained official status, and two of them — the Muslim Brotherhood and a moderate Islamist party called al-Wasat — have been around for years.

As for the new political groups, only three secular parties have submitted papers and are awaiting licenses. But time is not on their side. Egypt’s parliamentary elections are scheduled for September, although some activists and officials, including interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, have called for the vote to be postponed.

In the past, parliamentary elections in Egypt were essentially a sham, swept by Mubarak’s party, whose candidates traded favors for votes and passed out free chicken dinners. For aspiring politicians such as Harb, the biggest challenge could be finding a way to translate the revolutionary spirit that took hold in urbanized Cairo, Alexandria and Suez in a way that appeals to the masses.

The majority of Egypt’s 82 million people live outside Cairo, many in rural areas such as this group of 25 villages in the district of Abu el-Matamir, northwest of the capital.

“The challenge we’re facing now is much more difficult than the revolution days,” Harb said on the more than two-hour drive to the district in al-Buhayra province. The military rules the country now, and Harb worries that the ideals of the revolution — social justice, human rights and freedom of expression — could be beaten down if the wrong people assume power over the new Egypt.  

“We’re a revolution that did not come to rule,” he said. “But we do have the tools now to guarantee a truly representative state.”

Along the desert road there is no visible security presence, something that concerns most Egyptians more than democratic elections. The police have largely disappeared from the streets since the first days of the revolution, and crime has shot up.  On the side of the desert road, vendors sell large sticks and batons to people for self-protection.

“We want to give a sense of wholeness to the Egyptian character,” Harb said, ignoring the vendors. He said he hopes to help Egyptians redefine democracy — to see a vote not as something to be given in exchange for food, cash or intimidation, but as a tool to help change the political system and address the country’s problems.

But what Harb found in a town hall meeting in Aashra Talaf village, the center of Abu el-Matamir, was that optimism about democracy is tempered with more immediate concerns about basic needs.

When it came time for questions, people railed about the thugs who pull them off the desert roads, steal their cars and leave them on the side of the street. They complained about the lack of schools in the villages and about the nearby town having only one hospital. They asked how the party would help.

“We don’t want solutions from books,” Harb answered. “We want practical solutions. This party doesn’t have an agenda. The solution is to hear the issues and then set a program to deal with them.”

A 27-year-old lawyer, Ahmed Abdel Mohsen, was skeptical. Like most in the crowd, he was happy to see a politician make the effort to visit but didn’t know for whom he would vote or what many of the new parties stood for. It is important that he make the right choice, Abdel Mohsen said.

“The revolution started with no principles and no goals. It started that way, and it is still that way. I don’t understand your goals,” he told Harb.

In an interview later, Abdel Mohsen said Harb gave no solutions for the problems in the village. And “city” talk did not necessarily work in their village, he said.

As Harb struggles to get his party off the ground, he and other aspiring secular politicians face tough competition from groups with established roots, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. Throughout the villages here, the Islamist group, founded almost a century ago and suppressed under Mubarak, provides free tutorials for high school students in the midst of exams.

The group also sponsors religious and political lectures attended by hundreds here and operates mobile clinics throughout the country. Soon the holy month of Ramadan will begin, and the religious movement will pass out meals to the poor so they can break their dawn-to-dusk fast.

“Our main aim is not to get to power in the next two or three months; we’re aiming to get to power in 10 years,” Harb said as he got into his car to leave. “We’re trying to change the culture. We don’t want to hand out sugar and oil for a vote; we want to help with human development.”

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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