The View From Egypt

Arab Activists Watch Iran And Wonder: 'Why Not Us?'

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 26, 2009

CAIRO, June 25 -- Mohamed Sharkawy bears the scars of his devotion to Egypt's democracy movement. He has endured beatings in a Cairo police station, he said, and last year spent more than two weeks in an insect-ridden jail for organizing a protest.

But watching tens of thousands of Iranians take to the streets of Tehran this month, the 27-year-old pro-democracy activist has grown disillusioned. In 10 days, he said, the Iranians have achieved far more than his movement has ever accomplished in Egypt.

"We sacrificed a lot, but we have gotten nowhere," Sharkawy said.

Across the Arab world, Iran's massive opposition protests have triggered a wave of soul-searching and conflicting emotions. Many question why their own reform movements are unable to rally people to rise up against unpopular authoritarian regimes. In Egypt, the cradle of what was once the Arab world's most ambitious push for democracy, Iran's protests have served as a reminder of how much the notion has unraveled under President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country for 30 years.

"I am extremely jealous," said Nayra El Sheikh, 28, a blogger and Sharkawy's wife. "I can't help but think: Why not us? What do they have that we don't have? Do they have more guts?"

The frustration comes against a backdrop of deep-rooted skepticism among pro-democracy activists that U.S. policies under President Obama will help transform the region, despite his vow to engage the Muslim world in a highly publicized speech here last month. Some view Obama's response to Iran's protests, muted until Tuesday, as a harbinger of U.S. attitudes toward their own efforts to reform their political systems. The Egyptian government, they note, is a key American ally, and U.S. pressure on Egypt for reforms began subsiding in the last years of the Bush administration.

"When Obama does not take a stance, the very next day these oppressive regimes will regard this as a signal. This is a test for his government," said Ayman Nour, a noted Egyptian opposition politician who was recently released from jail. "If they can turn a blind eye to their enemy, they can turn a blind eye to any action here in Egypt."

When the Iranian protests erupted, Ahmed Abd el-Fatah wrote on his blog, "We Egyptians are like youth watching pornography because they can't practice sex. Congratulations to Iran for its democracy."

"I was very happy about what was happening. But I was also very sad. I know I can never do this here," the thin, 22-year-old activist said. "You need a far greater movement than in Iran to achieve any change in Egypt."

For years, Egypt's democracy movement has used Internet technology, banners and slogans to galvanize its supporters, rallying often against U.S. policies and taking the lead in championing core Arab causes such as the plight of Palestinians or opposition to war in Iraq. Today, the movement is facing a crisis of leadership and vision and is torn by internal disputes, activists said.

Meanwhile, the government has taken advantage of the void to crush the opposition through arrests, beatings and round-the-clock surveillance. Dissent, even online, is not tolerated. Egyptian security officials routinely monitor cellphones and social networking sites such as Facebook and hack into the e-mails of anyone they deem suspicious, activists said.

"We have a very weak opposition. We don't have a civil society. The police are very powerful," said Fahmy Howeidy, a columnist for Ahram, an independent newspaper. "In Iran, at least there are real elections. We've never had any real elections here in 50 years. Our society has been weakened. We have not allowed political groups to grow."

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