Introducing the Egyptian anti-Mubarak resistance

Posted: January 29, 2011 in Hosni Mubarak, Kefaya

Who, what is the anti-Mubarak resistance in Egypt?

Resistance to the thirty-year-old Hosni Mubarak government is not spontaneous and did not develop overnight.

Wikipedia has the following lines to enlighten us.

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Kefaya (Egyptian Arabic: كفاية kefāya, IPA: [keˈfæːjæ], “enough”) is the unofficial moniker of the Egyptian Movement for Change (Arabic: الحركة المصرية من أجل التغيير‎ el-Haraka el-Masreyya men agl el-Taghyeer), a grassroots coalition which draws it support from across Egypt’s political spectrum to oppose President Hosni Mubarak’s presidency and the possibility he may seek to transfer power directly to his son Gamal.

While it first came to public attention in the summer of 2004, and achieved a much greater profile during the 2005 constitutional referendum and presidential election campaigns, it has then lost momentum, suffering from internal dissent, leadership change, and a more general frustration at the apparent inability of Egypt’s political opposition to force the pace of reform.

While Kefaya first emerged in 2004, its origins can be found in earlier strands of political protest, beginning with the solidarity committees that spread throughout Egypt following the start of the Second Intifada in Palestine in October 2000. The pro-Intifada demonstrations were particularly notable as they involved a new generation of previously non-politicised youth and, as a direct consequence, resulted in a revival of Egyptian street politics.

Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, these protesters formed the backbone of Egypt’s highly vocal anti-war movement,  and their protests in turn developed into the first demonstrations against President Mubarak since he had taken office.  The anti-war protest of 20 March 2003 – from which the anti-war movement 20 March derived its name – was one of the biggest spontaneous demonstrations in Egypt’s history.

The evolution of this protest movement into Kefaya occurred during the summer of 2004. Speculation, fuelled by state-controlled media, had been mounting that major changes in top-level political personnel were to be announced. The much-anticipated cabinet reshuffle in July 2004 resulted in only cosmetic changes, however, and saw the installation of a number of supporters of the President’s son, Gamal, in important government posts.

Fearing a hereditary transfer of power similar to that which had occurred in Syria, opposition activists and intellectuals were galvanised into action. In August, a petition was circulated which demanded fundamental constitutional and economic reforms, but most importantly direct presidential elections with competing candidates.  The 300 signatories of what became Kefaya’s founding declaration called for “democracy and reform to take root in Egypt.”  Then in October 2004, Tariq al-Bishri, one of Egypt’s most respected judges, presented what soon came to be regarded as the movement’s first manifesto in which he exhorted his fellow citizens to “withdraw their long-abused consent to be governed” – in effect, a call for civil disobedience.

Kefaya’s first rally, held on 12 December 2004, was an historic event, being the first occasion a protest had been organised solely to demand that the President step-down. Surrounded by riot police, between 500 and 1000 activists gathered on the steps of the High Court in Cairo. They “remained mostly silent and taped over their mouths a large yellow sticker emblazoned with “Kefaya”.”

Described as a “loose knit umbrella of diverse political trends,”  Kefaya represents a “new style” of opposition in Egypt, with parallels to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Poland’sSolidarity movement.  It draws its support from a cosmopolitan range of sources including NasseristsIslamistsLiberalsLeftists etc., some of which have deep-rooted ideological differences, and have even clashed in the past. Activists frequently stress that it is not a political party aiming to achieve power, but a “national coalition movement” united by the common goal of seeking an end to President Mubarak’s rule.

Abdel-Halim Qandil, the editor of the Nasserist newspaper Al-Arabi who was spokesman for the movement until the beginning of 2007, emphasised that the use of the word “Kefaya” was designed to connect with the general public: “Our movement targets Egyptians. We want them to put away their fears, and demand their political and economic rights.”  Another member, Dr Mohamed Al-Saed Idris, an academic, called it “a national cry against the status quo.”

Kefaya came of age in 2005, a year which saw two events of great significance in Egyptian politics. The first was a referendum on 25 May to approve changes to the constitution that would allow the first ever direct, multi-candidate elections for the presidency. The second was the Presidential election itself, held on 7 September 2005 .

Kefaya had continued its campaign for political reform since its December demonstration, attracting increasing attention from the government. A rally planned for 18 January was banned, while in the same month political scientist and leading activist Mohamed El-Sayed Said, was removed from a panel discussion at Cairo’s Book Fair.

Then on 26 February 2005, President Mubarak caused consternation when he announced a proposal to amend Article 76 of the Constitution to enable multiple candidates to contest presidential elections directly for the first time. Under the old system, the election process was indirect: the candidate was nominated and confirmed by the People’s Assembly (Majlis al-Sha’b), controlled by the National Democratic Party (NDP), before being approved in a nation-wide “yes” or “no” referendum.

The immediate repercussion to this announcement was the decision by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cancel a proposed visit to the country in protest at the arrest and imprisonment of opposition politician Ayman Nour, leader of the al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party.  More generally, American President George W. Bush had been putting pressure on key regional allies, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to introduce some form of electoral reform as part of efforts to spread democracy – the so-called “forward strategy for freedom.”

TheWashington Post described President Mubarak’s plans as “an act of minimalism intended to deflect domestic and international pressure.”  Kefaya immediately denounced the proposals as “theatrics” and a “fake reform” designed merely as a “reformulation of the dictatorship”.

The timing of the President’s announcement was significant, coming only a few weeks after the close of the annual voter registration period (1 November to 31 January) specified under Article 5 of Egypt’s constitution. When the specifics of the constitutional amendment were presented by law-makers, the opposition’s fears seemed justified. Under the new rules, eachcandidate would require the support of at least 250 elected officials from national or local bodies. As these were controlled by the NDP, it would be virtually impossible for signatures to be collected.

In addition, political parties that wished to put their candidates on the ballot would need to have been licensed for a minimum of 5 years and have at least 5% of seats in the lower and upper house.  This move seemed designed to place even greater pressure on established opposition parties, in particular the already-proscribed Muslim Brotherhood.

The opposition were scathing in their criticism of the NDP.  Hussein Abderazzek of the left-wing Tagammu party declared: “The NDP will not only choose its own candidate but also his competitors,”  while Kefaya accused the party of “aborting people’s hopes for freedom and democracy.”

The run-up to the referendum saw popular demands for reform “skyrocket.”  Kefaya held regular protests, calling for the “cancellation of the state of emergency law and all special laws that restrict freedoms” (ilgha’halat al-tawari‘wa kafat al-qawanin al-istithna ’iyya al-muqayyada lil-hurriyat). In addition, they attacked the government for its record on social welfare, job creation and education. In April, simultaneous demonstrations were planned in 13 cities under a banner of “No Constitution Without Freedom”.

Kefaya’s activities served as a catalyst for other opposition groups.  Egypt’s largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, held its own demonstrations calling for political reform, while university professors held a silent protest on 19 April calling for an end to state control of campuses.  The previous month Misr Digital, the country’s first independent digital newspaper, was launched quickly becoming the main source of information on Kefaya’s activities.

Egypt’s judiciary, regarded as having almost replaced the opposition in the past,  put additional pressure on the government over the issue of the domestic monitoring of elections. At a meeting on 15 April of the Alexandria Judges Club, 1200 judges threatened to withdraw their supervision of presidential and parliamentary elections unless they were guaranteed independence and control of all stages of elections.

Throughout this period, while police and security forces continued to harass Kefaya and other opposition activists, there was no full-scale crackdown. In effect, a stand-off had developed: while the opposition was not strong enough to topple the government, the government was equally unable to stamp-out the opposition, at least partly in fear of the international outcry that would follow. Egyptians described the situation as “political congestion”.

Despite its importance in becoming a “model of dissent”, Kefaya has been criticised on a number of levels. It promised both mass “civil disobedience” and a strong opposition network to press the regime, neither of which have materialised.  Moreover, in the aftermath of the 2005 Presidential elections, the International Crisis Group stated: “Kefaya has remained essentially a protest movement, targeting Mubarak personally and articulating a bitter rejection of the status quo rather than a constructive vision of how it might be transformed.”

It has also been criticised for failing to reach beyond “an exclusive, Cairo-based intellectual crowd,” offering a “lofty discourse on human rights and democracy” but no practical solutions to the problems Egyptians face on a daily basis, such as poverty, unemployment, poor access to education and public services, etc.

Thus, according to Abdel Fattah, an academic at Cairo University, Kefaya “are not effective among the masses and they will not reach the point where we see millions of Egyptians take to the streets…instead of slogans I want practical solutions to problems.”

Unless they can broaden their base of support into key urban and rural areas, they may indeed remain “a group of intellectuals screaming and shouting in political forums and magazines….”

After the high-profile campaigns of 2005, Kefaya has found itself in the political doldrums. Its challenge remains how to operate in what has become a largely “apolitical society”.  A culture of fear remains among ordinary Egyptian people as a result of 53 years of bans on protests, along with crackdowns on and detentions of opposition activists.Mohammed El-Sayed Said described Kefaya’s problem thus: “Ordinary Egyptians want democracy but will not fight for it.”

Moreover, recently Kefaya has been described as suffering from an “identity crisis”. There have been disputes over tactics between the movement and Youth for Change, particularly over what have been termed the latter’s “vigilantestreet tactics.”[4] Then, at the end of 2006, a more serious split occurred after an anonymous article was posted on Kefaya’s website apparently supporting an anti-veil stance advocated by Farouk Hosni, the Minister of Culture. Although the article was subsequently removed, seven key figures, all pro-Islamist, announced their intention to quit the movement. One, Magdi Ahmed Hussein, declared that Kefaya had “failed to find the middle ground between the Islamists and liberals…”

The movement’s co-ordinator since 2004, George Ishak, stepped down in January 2007 to be replaced by Abdel Wahhab Al-Messiri, a renowned anti-zionist scholar and former member of both the Egyptian Communist Party and Muslim Brotherhood. He faces the difficult task of renewing the movement following further constitutional changes approved by a referendum in March 2007. The changes, which make it even harder for political parties to operate and extend the state’s security powers, are described by Amnesty International as the “greatest erosion of human rights” since the introduction of emergency powers in 1981.

Having successfully broken the taboo on directly criticising and challenging the President, it remains to be seen whether unity within such a disparate movement can be maintained long enough for it to broaden its appeal beyond its urban roots and become a genuine popular movement.

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If the current anti-Mubarak resistance is any indication, it appears that Kefaya has indeed broadened its appeal and has linked with other groups all over Egypt to become a truly genuine and broad-based movement.  Even if the current resistance in Egypt is more than just Kefaya, it is quite apparent that anti-Mubarak forces have united for strength and political potency.

Tunisia was indeed the spark in the Arabian prairie fire!

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Comments
  1. Richard says:

    The regime has proven so ineffective and weak… systemic change is increasingly probable.

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