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Imagining Otherwise In Egypt
Opposition Campaign Embodying Bush Vision Now Lies in Pieces

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."

Then came the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in September 2000, its images filtering across a landscape transformed by technology and energizing older activists such as al-Dowla. Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite television network, broadcast searing footage. A boycott of U.S. and Israeli goods was spread by the most modern of means: e-mail, the Internet and cellphones. The campaign gave rise to a student movement such as Cairo had not witnessed since the turbulent 1970s. What many saw as American aggressiveness in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks propelled it forward.

"We grew up under Nasser, so Palestine was part of our psyche, if you want," al-Dowla said. "But there was this new generation, our kids who did not live this. This was the amazing thing, the new generation."

"Those were the first protests we went to," said Alaa Seif, a stocky, bespectacled 25-year-old who did poorly in school but has a knack for computers, a testiness toward authority of any kind and the cockiness that comes with youth.

It wasn't until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, however, that Seif and his wife, Manal Hassan, felt inspired. Crowds indignant at the attack and Egypt's alliance with the United States, including the passage of U.S. warships through the Suez Canal, surged into Cairo's Liberation Square, converged on the ruling party's headquarters and tried to move on the U.S. Embassy, where they were blocked by phalanxes of helmeted Central Security Forces conscripts. Seif remembered someone tearing down a banner for Mubarak. Khalil, the veteran activist, recalled the president's portrait being set on fire. As the hours passed, anti-U.S. chants melded into a chorus of protests against Mubarak's government.

"I felt if we could keep that spirit for a while, we could challenge the government," Khalil said. "The conclusions were unanimous in a sense: Let's talk about Egypt. Let's talk about dictatorship. Let's talk about Mubarak. They're part of the same story."

Birth of a Movement

For 11 years, Abul-Ela Maadi has tried to win government approval for Egypt's first Islamic, albeit moderate, political party. His shelves are cluttered with binders, packed with thousands of articles and interviews by him and his followers attempting to prove that his brand of politics has a place in the mainstream.

Fond of Pierre Cardin suits and quick to smile, Maadi is a garrulous man whose friends defy categorization: Coptic Christians, devout Muslims, leftists and followers of both Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood. For years, he invited them and others to his home, a first-floor apartment with a view of the Pyramids, to share iftar, the traditional meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast. In November 2003, 22 people from across the spectrum attended, Marxists mingling with Islamic activists. After a sumptuous meal of stuffed pigeon and a soupy dish known as mulukhiya, they sat for hours over tea, addressing the question Maadi put forward.

"What can we do?" he asked.

In the months that followed, a journalist, Abdel-Halim Qandil, and others joined the group. They came up with a name, the Egyptian Movement for Change. But the question lingered, even as protests gathered force. In time, variants of it would prove most vexing for the emerging circle of activists: What could they do to transform the talk of a salon into a politics of the street? What role would the United States play? And how would the nascent group confront a state that, in times of crisis and perceived threat, proved itself all too willing to deploy the unassailable power of its security forces?

A Brusque Warning

As early as the 1990s, Egypt's smattering of opposition newspapers had begun challenging the government. But by 2004, even as Maadi's group formed and mounting protests voiced unprecedented criticism of a figure some simply call "the big man," attacks on Mubarak were still a red line the news media had not crossed. That made the columns of Qandil, a fast-talking, ascetic-looking editor with glasses, even more striking. There was little metaphor in his writings, the usual tool of critical Arab media. Instead, in the months after the question posed at the Ramadan meeting, Qandil bluntly put to his readers the suspicions on everyone's mind: Would Mubarak do away with any pretense that he presided over a republic and pass power to his son Gamal?

In el-Arabi, a leftist opposition newspaper, Qandil suggested that father and son represented "a dual presidency."

Mubarak's powers are "God-like," he wrote, critically.

Less than a month later -- on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004 -- a colleague dropped Qandil off at 3 a.m. near his home on the bustling road to the Pyramids. It was Ramadan again, the Muslim month of fasting when Cairo seems to stay up round-the-clock. A few minutes later, a car with four men barreled toward him and stopped. The men jumped out, blindfolded him and stuffed him in the back seat. The car then careened into Cairo's warrens, passing checkpoints unhindered.

"I thought I was a dead man," Qandil recalled.

During the hour-long ride, he remembered being given a clear message: "No more words about the big people," he was told. Next time he would be killed. A few minutes later, one of the men answered his cellphone. "Yes, sir," Qandil recalled him barking, as if answering an order.

The car stopped on the outskirts of the city, on the road toward Suez. Qandil said the men stripped and beat him, stole his cellphone and the equivalent of about $100, then left him lying in the desert at the side of the road. He eventually caught a ride back and later filed a complaint against the Interior Ministry, which denied any role. "It will stay forever in the court," he said glumly.

In his sparse downtown office, at the top of stone stairs, each step worn into an arched bow, the editor became angry as he recalled the incident many now see as a turning point for those frustrated by increasingly brutish repression. The government is, of course, not a democracy, he said; that implies freedom. But it's not a dictatorship, either, he added; that requires strength. "It's more like the rubble, the debris left behind," he said, his voice tinged with disgust.

'Enough, We've Had It!'

The past, sometimes imagined, haunts Cairo. From taxis outside Qandil's office, the songs of the late Abdel-Halim Hafez, with their woeful violin, drift along streets buckling under their own chaos. They mingle sometimes with the melodies of Um Kalthoum, a name usually uttered with nostalgia for the bygone era when Egypt reigned almost unchallenged in the Arab world. "Give me my freedom, set free my hands!" she sings in one popular song.

"This regime hasn't achieved anything in the last two or three decades, total stagnation in every aspect of life. You only need to walk a few minutes in the street," said Osama Ghazali al-Harb, an academic and editor who eventually resigned from the ruling National Democratic Party in protest. Frustration mounted in his voice. "Everything has deteriorated. Everything! Everything!"

In 2004, the anger of Harb, Qandil and others gave rise to a simple word: kifaya, enough. It was heard in taxis, drivers turning their engines off in the snarled and neglected streets. It was pronounced by activists enraged over the treatment of Qandil. It was whispered at the prospect of an unprecedented fifth term for Mubarak, who had once said he expected only to become head of Egypt Air or ambassador to Britain. And it was shouted at a protest that year that drew Seif, the young activist who began blogging about the demonstration, and al-Dowla, who recalled the word.

"It picked up like this," al-Dowla said, snapping her fingers. "Enough, we're fed up!" she said. "Enough, we've had it! Enough, leave us!"

The group formed during Maadi's Ramadan iftar soon became known as Kifaya. It issued its first declaration, a manifesto critical of the United States and Israel, as well as "the repressive despotism that pervades all aspects of the Egyptian political system." And on Dec. 12, 2004, the group held its first protest.

The demonstration was the first to be aimed solely at Mubarak. More than 500 men and women stood silently in front of the Supreme Court, many with yellow stickers over their mouths or on their chests. "Enough," the stickers declared in red.

"It was like I was dreaming," recalled George Ishaq, 68, a Christian high school principal who got his start as an activist during the 1956 Arab-Israeli war and soon became the group's leader. "It was the first time Egyptian people could listen to another vision."

Ishaq shared the almost delirious optimism of others at that moment, the sense that the inviolable red line underpinning the government's prestige had been erased. Lacking popular support and the legitimacy of past ideologies such as Arab or Egyptian nationalism, the government now depended for its survival, the activists believed, on the president's Pharaonic stature. As that fell apart, so would the state.

Qandil thought the government might begin to crumble if 100 people poured into the streets; others suggested it would take 1,000. Ishaq was similarly convinced of the state's frailty. "Give me the TV for 24 hours, and I will change Egypt completely," he said then. "The door of change is open, and no one can close it again. Never."

The Movement Flowers

The months that followed in 2005 represented a flowering of Egyptian dissidence unlike any in a generation. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest Islamic movement and, by far, the largest if also quiescent opposition group, began organizing protests; in a rare move, the Brotherhood and the largely secular Kifaya began reaching out to each other, shattering a long-held taboo.

Ayman Nour, an opposition party leader who had been arrested in January, was released from prison in March (only to be convicted and, ailing, imprisoned again in December 2005). Egyptian judges pushed for judicial oversight of Egypt's notoriously rigged elections. Every few weeks, a new group seemed to emerge: Youth for Change, Lawyers for Change, Writers and Artists for Change and, at one point, Peasants for Change, all of them seizing ground from Egypt's coterie of ossified, co-opted and long ago legalized opposition parties. Banners cluttered the colonnaded marble facade of the Press Syndicate building. "No political reform without freedom of the press," one declared.

At demonstrations, some invoked Sheik Imam, a blind, beloved protest singer who died in 1995: "They live in the latest-style home, while we live 10 in a room!" Others spoke more dramatically: "My country, you need a revolution."

But even in those animated months of 2005, as U.S. officials pressured the Egyptian government to reform, activists began to worry. Why weren't the protests -- the 100 people Qandil hoped for -- drawing bigger crowds?

Some admitted that a paradox had begun to emerge in a country seemingly depoliticized by decades of slumbering civic life: The more freedom activists had, the more their lack of popular support was exposed.

The Brotherhood, with a far greater ability to bring out numbers, was almost condescending, even as it tentatively took part. "People think about their livelihood before they think about freedom," said Ali Abdel Fattah, a Brotherhood leader. "If there was hope protests would bring something, they would have been protesting a long time ago." Even Ishaq, the Kifaya leader, acknowledged the challenge. "Our people are naive," he said.

Said, the secular activist and writer, was more direct. "A crisis is looming," he said at the time. "We communicated the message, we expressed the mood, but that's far from saying people support Kifaya and engage in the struggle in any real numbers."

Tomorrow: The movement fades.

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