Imagining Otherwise In Egypt

A portrait of President Hosni Mubarak looms in a Cairo store. In office since 1981, Mubarak has been accused of stifling Egypt's fragile democracy movement.
A portrait of President Hosni Mubarak looms in a Cairo store. In office since 1981, Mubarak has been accused of stifling Egypt's fragile democracy movement. (Photos By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 18, 2007

CAIRO -- For two decades, politics in Cairo, the Arab world's greatest capital, had emulated the leadership of President Hosni Mubarak: occasionally tedious and rarely inspired.

But seven years ago, as a sweltering summer began to break along the Nile, Cairo's streets were jolted by the Palestinian uprising. Protests were organized, sometimes tolerated by the state. Activists collected aid for the Palestinians; peasant women, they recalled, were moved to donate gold bracelets, half-opened bags of rice, even squawking chickens. Then, on Sept. 10, 2001, at one of their demonstrations outside the downtown headquarters of Egyptian bureaucracy known as the Mugamma, a grim, Stalinist tribute to authority, a slogan was shouted. No one could recall ever hearing it at a protest.

"Down with Hosni Mubarak!" one activist, Wael Khalil, remembered someone yelling.

What followed was the emergence of the Arab world's most ambitious democracy movement, coalescing in opposition to the taciturn Mubarak, now 78, a former air force commander who has ruled Egypt longer than any leader since Mohammed Ali, the 19th-century founder of the modern state. With its protests, banners and slogans, the largely secular, technically savvy movement represented what the Bush administration asserted was its vision of an effervescent Middle East, set to be transformed by U.S. strategy in Iraq and the world after the Sept. 11 attacks. Ironically, at almost every turn it was deep-seated opposition to American policies that rallied the protesters.

Today, that movement is in shambles. Its most committed supporters admit to a lack of vision, an inability to capture the imagination of the Egyptian people. Its leadership is riven by disputes over everything from the veil to charges of corruption. The government has crushed its momentum with impunity, deploying the ubiquitous security forces to arrest scores of activists, intimidate others and signal to the rest that it will no longer tolerate unsanctioned protest. Across the divide, the government's supporters and foes are unanimous in their belief that U.S. pressure for change, occasionally effective in the past, has now decisively subsided.

"The sense of powerlessness is complete," said Mohammed el-Sayed Said, a secular activist and writer who is trying to win permission to publish a new newspaper, the Alternative. "We're back to the status quo we wanted to liberate the country from."

The arc of Egypt's democracy movement is a story of the unraveling of American policy and the contradictions that always shaped it. In the end, activists and officials say, the Bush administration chose realpolitik over promise, courting allies such as Egypt in a region beset by conflicts in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, war in Iraq and the specter of an ascendant Iran. The movement's ebb and flow is also a story of Egypt -- the fate of ideas in the face of power, and of change confronting the accumulated force of decades of authoritarianism and stagnation in a nation once the Arab world's unquestioned leader. In the autumn of Mubarak's rule, a generation of activists inherited a country that, simply put, was no longer political.

It is a story that began with the slogan that the wiry, bearded Khalil heard in 2001.

Spurs to Action

"I loved it," Aida Seif al-Dowla, a 51-year-old psychiatrist, said of the slogan as she sipped instant coffee in her cramped apartment near Cairo University.

"It was a bit annoying," she recalled. "People were ready to be outspoken on Palestine and not as outspoken about Egypt. How can you express solidarity with people who are struggling and you're not struggling yourself?"

From the heady days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's Arab nationalist president, through Mubarak's long reign, the country's often feeble opposition politics have revolved around two axes: leftist currents that joined Marxists, socialists and communists, and a more powerful Islamic movement often repressed by the state. Al-Dowla hailed from the left. Her communist uncle was imprisoned under Nasser. As a high school student, she watched police storm her apartment in 1972 to arrest her father, a socialist lawyer.

An activist life followed, focused on promoting women's issues, trying to ensure primary health care for the poor and, most prominently, assisting torture victims. "Their stories were endless," she said, a note of awe in her voice. "Endless."

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