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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."

Many believe Nour is one leader capable of capturing the imagination of Egyptians. But the government keeps a close watch. He's not allowed to work. He can't have a bank account, and his travel is restricted.

Fatah noted that many of the Iranian protesters appear to be from the social elite. In Egypt, most people are more concerned about food and other basic necessities than politics. More than a quarter of Egypt's 80 million people are illiterate, and only 8 percent have access to the Internet.

"The elite here are limited, and most are working in hand with the regime," Fatah said. "And the only reason the Egyptian street has risen up is over money, salaries or prices. The minute the police arrive, there is silence."

"We're too passive," El Sheikh said. "Protesters go downtown, perhaps 20 or 30 at a time. The security forces come. They beat them senseless. They detain them. And that's as good as it gets."

Ali el din Hilal, chief spokesman for the ruling National Democratic Party, noted that opposition newspapers and parties are allowed to operate in Egypt. "It isn't true that the government cracks down on every movement or demonstration," he said. "Egyptians have many freedoms."

On Wednesday, Fatah said he received a Facebook message announcing a protest in downtown Cairo the next day to support "democracy" in Iran and to mourn the death of Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman whose killing, captured on video, has become a global symbol of the Iranian uprising.

On Thursday, 10 large green trucks filled with riot police arrived at the meeting place. Not a single protester showed up.

"It's a demonstration. It doesn't matter what it is about. They will stop it," Fatah said.

Arab activists on the street have not been inspired by the Iranian protesters as they have been by Palestinians or Iraqis in recent years. In part, this reflects the religious and ideological fissure between the mostly Sunni Arab world and an ascendant Shiite Iran that has deepened across the region since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"There are some religious groups who stress that they are Shiites and that they are different than Sunnis," said Mohamed Mustafa, 35, a lawyer who has participated in anti-government demonstrations. "It is easy to manipulate the feelings of Egyptians through religious beliefs."

"Shiites are more disciplined and organized. It's a part of their culture and religion," said Anwar Ahmed, 62, another lawyer, offering his explanation for why predominantly Sunni Egypt has not risen up against Mubarak.

The two sat with other lawyers in a courtyard of the lawyers' syndicate building, a hot spot for demonstrations in downtown Cairo.

Most of the group said they admired Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and wanted him to remain in power -- chiefly because he was America's foe. "Anyone who can stand up to the United States and force his nation's interest forward, we'll support him," said Ahmed Mattar, 29.

In the blogosphere, too, activists are divided into two camps, further explaining the subdued Arab response to Iran's clashes. One side views Iran's disputed June 12 election as fair and argues that the protests were orchestrated by the West. The other side views the protests as a mass movement that needs to be supported. Many question whether opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi is actually a reformist.

"I am somewhere in the middle," Fatah said. "But I support Ahmadinejad."

Resentment is also growing among Arabs over the condemnations by European nations and by Obama on Tuesday of the state-sponsored violence against Iranian protesters. Many say they see a double standard.

"Here, in the last presidential election, the police used live ammunition," Sharkawy said. "Why didn't the West speak out against what was happening to us, when we had much smaller numbers? You become skeptical. We understand the United States and the West will pursue their own interests. They don't want a strong Egyptian government that will have separate opinions from the West."

Egypt and other Sunni Arab governments have also been silent on Iran, despite their wariness of the Iranian regime's influence on Shiite militant groups in Lebanon and Iraq and on Palestinian Islamist groups. Some analysts say the governments worry about triggering similar popular upheavals at home. Hilal, the ruling party spokesman, acknowledged that Egypt did not want to interfere because it expects other nations not to interfere in its domestic affairs.

"We may face a similar situation in the future," he said.

That's precisely what 28-year-old blogger Ahmed Maher wants. He said he was arrested and beaten last year for organizing a Facebook protest. Today, he keeps a low profile, changing his online passwords and cellphone numbers frequently.

But the Iranian protests have inspired him to think of new ways to organize people and raise political awareness in Egypt. He said he has two years to figure it out.

"It makes me think of 2011 -- our next presidential election," Maher said. "I think we will become like the people they are beating up in Iran now."

Special correspondent Sherine al-Bayoumi contributed to this report.

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