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.
The melee also led Ghada Shehbendar, a former marketing executive, to act. She and other women set up a civil rights monitoring group called We Can See You that gathers information on corruption, poor social services and arbitrary arrest.
"I was angry and then sad," said Shehbendar, who saw the violence on satellite television. "On May 25, I felt that our whole value system was falling apart."
Shehbendar said she was not only shocked by the beatings but disturbed by the lackadaisical response of her two children. "They told me they thought this was normal for Egypt. Other mothers told me the same thing. Their children didn't have any other expectations," she said.
Youth for Change is trying to reach out beyond Kifaya activists by distributing leaflets in subway cars and on street corners and by setting up a Web site. At a meeting Saturday, about 70 activists pondered creating street theatrical groups and organizing support for worker grievances and women trying to find relatives lost in Egypt's opaque prison system. They were pleased when one activist reported that after passing out 350 leaflets on a Cairo street, two people called expressing interest in the organization.
The meeting's participants were diverse: Women in veils sat side-by-side with women sporting free-flowing locks; leftists addressed the audience as "comrades" while computer wizards used the label "colleagues"; rock aficionados proposed compiling a compact disc of protest songs. Ages ranged from 19 to about 30.
"It's a risk. We're not legal, but we're not underground either," said one of the founders of Youth for Change, Ahmed Salah. "Anyway, the beating of the women was not the worst thing that ever happened in Egypt, but it helped clear the air. We see what we're up against. We're not afraid."
Government officials recognize that the May 25 incident damaged efforts to promote Mubarak's election initiative as genuinely democratic, though they speak largely in terms of the sullying of Egypt's image. "It was a stupid thing to do," said Attiya Shakran, the government spokesman. "It was the NDP's fault."
But even before the violence, there were signs that active opposition to Mubarak was spreading among professional classes in Egypt. On May 13, magistrates rejected the president's call for them to participate in election monitoring -- government employees and National Democratic Party supporters would dominate the surveillance, the magistrates said.
The judges went further by demanding full judicial independence and an end to the control of judges' salaries by the government. They issued a report that said voter participation in the May referendum that passed Mubarak's election plan amounted to only 5 percent.
"The bottom line is that all elections in Egypt have been frauds for 50 years and we don't want to participate in this one," said Hesham Bastaweesy, a 30-year veteran of the bench. The last time magistrates revolted was in 1969, when many refused to join the ruling party and were dismissed.
Cooperation between the Muslim Brotherhood and Kifaya has been long gestating. The Brotherhood had resisted joining forces with secular groups, partly because, as an organization banned from politics, it would be lending its numbers to others and partly because its agenda of setting up a state ruled by Islamic law clashed with that of nonreligious groups.
Abdul Aly Fattah, a top Brotherhood official, attributed the new union to Kifaya's willingness to accept the Brotherhood as an organization and not just as individuals. The deal was negotiated at three June meetings.
For all the talk of unity, one notable breach has shown up in the opposition spectrum. The Brotherhood and Kifaya excluded opposition presidential candidate Ayman Nour and his Tomorrow Party from joining the new united front. They criticized Nour for meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a visit she made to Cairo last month. The Brotherhood and Kifaya are fiercely critical of the Bush administration.
Nour is battling government charges of fraud in a case his supporters say is a setup. He has called for a united front, but for the moment, he remains a pariah among other opposition groups. "Maybe we will get together later. We'll see," said the Brotherhood's Fattah.