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Kifaya: The New Player in the Egyptian Politics


Kifaya: The New Player in the Egyptian Politics

By Tarek Cherkaouiƒx

After decades of political stagnation in Egypt, there is a semblance of change in the Egyptian public arena thanks to the emergence of new actors on the political scene. Yet there are still many challenges ahead.

2005 is a crucial year in Egypt, the most populous Arab country. For the first time since the 1952 military coup against the monarchy, the country will hold its first contested elections. After 24 years in power, President (General) Hosni Mubarak rules a country in a state of decay as a result of a lethal combination of corruption, cronyism, and failed structural adjustments. Analysts estimate the budget deficit rose to an estimated 8% of GDP in 2004 compared to 6.1% of GDP the previous year. The Egyptian currency is constantly dropping in its value, provoking dramatic increases in prices over the last two years. The cost of living has risen by up to 20%, pushing hundreds of thousands of people under the poverty line and provoking the Egyptian government to reintroduce vouchers for basic foodstuffs last year. Politically, there is a complete divorce between the population and the elites in power. The regime uses a set of political, legal and repressive measures, including rule by Emergency laws since 1981, to prevent any real political debate inside the society.

Nonetheless, despite all the failures accumulated in 24 years in power, President Mubarak (77 years old) wants his presidency to be extended by another six years. On the four such previous occasions, only a yes-or-no referendum on continuation of Mubarak's presidency was presented to Egyptians and no competing contestants were allowed to run. Furthermore, Mubarak has taken many steps to ensure his son Gamal, currently vice-president, succeeds him as President.

However, in the face of growing international pressure, in February 2005 President Mubarak put a proposal before the parliament to amend Article 76 of the Egyptian Constitution to allow for multi-candidate presidential elections. Unfortunately, far from being fully democratic, the proposal included a number of repressive conditions. Future candidates have to come from the few officially approved political parties; otherwise, to stand as candidate will require the signatures of 762 public officials, most of them members of the governing party.

The determination of Mubarak to prolong his stay in power provoked an enormous hullabaloo throughout Egypt. The first reaction came from the newly-created but vociferous grassroots group called the Egyptian Movement for Change, also known as Kifaya (Enough). ¡¥Enough¡¦ was the intended message to Mr. Mubarak and his allies: enough of dictatorship; enough of corruption, enough of repression.

Kifaya appeared in the Egyptian political arena in December 2004 and immediately captured the attention of local and international observers for its originality and inspiration. Members of Kifaya are drawn from the full range of the political spectrum, from human right activists, leftists, nationalists, Christian Copts activists and Islamists. Hence, its demonstrations are led by personalities as diverse as veteran left-wing activist Kamal Khalil, who often led student demonstrations in the 1970s, Nasserist activist Kamal Abu Eita, and Abdel-Halim Qandil, a secular socialist and editor of the Nasserist newspaper Al- Arabi, Georges Isaac, a Christian activist, and Abul-Ela Madi, a moderate Islamist and founder of the Wasat Party (which was denied a licence by the government).

Kifaya pioneered the protests against the ineffectual measures proposed by the government and led demands for greater political reform and the lifting of the state of emergency. These moves have succeeded in breaking the barrier of fear and silence. For the first time there is open criticism of Mubarak and his family. This is a significant development since, under the current constitution, all powers are vested in the Egyptian president who, like the ancient pharaohs, can act with total impunity and complete immunity from criticism. By choosing the right timing and the right themes, Kifaya rapidly succeeded in gaining the esteem of many segments of the Egyptian people. These demonstrations were considered by Kifaya as a form of gradual training to get people used to the notion of protests. Ultimately, in the minds of Kifaya leaders, this will lead to the introduction of a modified constitution that will achieve fundamental political change.

The efficiency of Kifaya rejuvenated the political scene and had a snowball effect. Other political players realized they had to react or become relics of the past. Traditional political movements and parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Union Party (Attajmu¡¦) also started organizing protests in the streets, and swiftly adhered to Kifaya¡¦s list of demands, including the lifting of emergency laws that prevent free assembly, easing the formation of political parties and newspapers, and releasing thousands of political prisoners. Even the judges appear to rally behind the movement for change after decades of apathy. On May 13th 2005, the General Assembly of the Egyptian Judges Club threatened to boycott their constitutionally mandated role of supervising elections if they were not given full supervisory authority. Even though the Judges Club is only a social organization and exercises no formal power over judges, the message in a dictatorship like Egypt is a powerful one. It signals the possibility of the judiciary freeing itself from domination by the executive, and the prospect of ending the endemic fraud during elections.

From a broader perspective there is no doubt the new American discourse about spreading democracy facilitated the emergence of Kifaya. For instance, the U.S. president, during a visit to Riga, called upon the Egyptian authorities extend democratic freedoms and to authorize the reformers to participate in the upcoming presidential elections. Being the third largest recipient of American aid, and having swallowed some US$25 billion of aid in the last 24 years, the Egyptian authorities could not remain insensitive to the American rhetoric towards the region after 9/11.

Yet the American administration itself doesn¡¦t want a sudden change in the region. Kifaya is not the ideal ally for the American agenda as the movement has taken care to dissociate itself from unpopular U.S. foreign policy. Some of the rallies of Kifaya included slogans such as ¡§Enough to Mubarak, Enough to Bush, Enough to Blair,'' and "We will not be ruled by the CIA". During her visit on 20 June to Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unprecedented declaration: ¡§For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.¡¨ This mea culpa could have won Egyptian hearts and minds if it wasn't followed by mixed messages. For instance, when U.S. first lady Laura Bush visited Egypt, she praised the limited measures introduced by the Egyptian government. Moreover, Rice said that "[n]ot everything moves at the same speed, and there are going to be different speeds in the Middle East"; a phrase that was understood by observers in the Middle-East as a reassurance for the Egyptian government that they would not be rushed into implementing democratic changes. Furthermore, at a reception organized by the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Rice only received people belonging to Mubarak¡¦s party and the M.P. Ayman Nour, head of Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party, who is considered by many as the U.S. favourite. The U.S. mixed message not only disappointed the opposition but also disoriented the Egyptian regime, which seems in a confused indecision between using force or making conciliatory gestures towards the ever-increasing opposition of Kifaya.

The use of brutal force against demonstrators is a long-standing tradition in Egypt. The regime always ensures that security forces outnumber protesters and scores of demonstrators routinely get brutally beaten and jailed for very long periods. Sometimes thugs are used to assault the rallies. For instance last May, on the day of the referendum, thugs holding emblems of the national party attacked local reporters and molested some women journalists. International human rights groups voiced their concern, especially since some of these assaults happened in the presence of security officers who did not intervene. In the face of international indignation, the Egyptian authorities have abstained from repressing recent demonstrations. On June 29th hundreds of reform activists marched through a Cairo neighbourhood denouncing President Mubarak without a riot policeman in sight; a rare scene in Egypt.

Yet despite recent successes Kifaya has a long way to go. The regime in Egypt is under pressure from other dictatorships in the region not to give in to street pressure lest this trigger a domino effect of freedom and democracy throughout the region. This means the Egyptian authorities could still resort to severe repression to solve the political predicament if they see their absolute power in jeopardy. By broadening its efforts to reach all the Egyptian people and by establishing a national platform gathering political players from different persuasions, Kifaya seems ready for the challenge ahead.

ENDS


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