Appalled at Beating of Protesters, Egypt's Opposition Leaps to Action

A reform activist shouts slogans critical of President Hosni Mubarak last month in Cairo. Such protests, until recently a novelty in Cairo, are now common.
A reform activist shouts slogans critical of President Hosni Mubarak last month in Cairo. Such protests, until recently a novelty in Cairo, are now common. (Photos By Amr Nabil -- Associated Press)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 6, 2005

CAIRO, July 5 -- Youth for Change, Journalists for Change, Lawyers for Change. Ever since May 25, when a mob sympathetic to President Hosni Mubarak very publicly beat up a group of female protesters, advocacy groups that promise change -- as in change of president -- have been springing to life.

"Egyptian society is boiling. We have seen this only one or two times in the past 80 years," said Alaa Aswani, an author and dentist who is active in two other new groups: Writers for Change and Doctors for Change.

In addition to the new groups, established opposition organizations have created a common front for the first time. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, joined forces with Kifaya, a composite of small political, human rights and nongovernmental organizations. The union creates the potential for mass anti-government demonstrations of a kind not seen here for almost 30 years.

Egypt's activists have moved relatively quickly to take their place among reform movements that have blossomed in several countries in the Middle East. While not massive like the protests that rocked Lebanon this spring, their campaign is nonetheless notable in Egypt, which the Bush administration has singled out as a country in the "march of democracy" it says it is promoting.

Small protests, which only eight months ago were a novelty in Cairo, are now common fare, even if most are hemmed in by phalanxes of riot police. For the first time, activists are using the Internet to organize "lightning" demonstrations, with sympathetic bloggers taking the lead in calling out protesters on short notice.

Agitation has been building in advance of a presidential election tentatively slated for early September.

Most opposition groups dismiss Mubarak's proposal to hold a multi-candidate presidential race for the first time in Egypt's history. They call it a sham designed to prolong his rule. Under newly minted election rules, only candidates from officially endorsed parties can run against him. Emergency laws that have been in effect for almost a quarter-century inhibit free assembly and association and permit arrest and detention without charge.

The wave of protests is largely limited to the middle class, and it remains an open question whether Egypt's legions of working-class people and unemployed will eventually join. But in a country whose opposition was long politically dormant, the spread of opposition activity is nonetheless striking, activists contend.

Unlike mass protest movements in Ukraine and Lebanon, which from the outset featured sophisticated mobilization techniques, Egyptian activists have only recently exploited the Internet to recruit and activate a rank and file.

Alaa Seif set up a network of five Web logs that promoted a protest at the shrine of a Muslim holy woman, Sayeda Zeinab, earlier this month. Demonstrators held aloft brooms to symbolize the desire to sweep away Mubarak. Even that was a departure. Until then, leaflets that said "Mubarak, No" were about the flashiest protest tools in use.

Seif was moved to mobilize bloggers on May 25 when a crowd of men beat him while police stood idly by. "I believe we have to do something. Egypt is pretty wired. Internet can build opposition from the bottom up," he said. Postings on his blog increased from about 400 to 1,200 in a matter of days after the May 25 demonstration, in which stick-wielding men under the direction of Mubarak's National Democratic Party attacked protesters. Women in the crowd were particular targets.

"After they beat up the women, the opposition definitely got more popular," Seif said.

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