First Published: 2005-03-31

Egypts opposition gets bolder

Pro-reform protestors chip away at Mubarak's untouchable status in coordinated nationwide push.


Middle East Online

By Hassen Zenati - CAIRO

More organised and determined

Egypt's pro-reform protestors are finding growing courage to make their voice heard and for the first time are challenging the once near-sacred aura surrounding veteran President Hosni Mubarak.

Supporters of the Kefaya (Enough) movement took to the streets on Wednesday in an unprecedented coordinated nationwide push directly targeting the 76-year-old ruler, who could yet seek a fifth mandate in elections later this year.

Numbers were low as Egypt put on a massive show of force to prevent any significant gathering, thwarting a protest in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria altogether and confining demonstrators in the capital to a tiny area.

Egypt has not yet seen a people's revolution of the type that recently swept Ukraine and Lebanon, but commentators say the mood is nevertheless changing in the Arab world's most populous country.

"I feel the atmosphere is opening up. The government is becoming weaker and weaker, while the people are shaking off some of their fear," said Nawal Saadawi, a long-time opponent of the Egyptian regime and prominent women's rights activist.

The radical left-wing writer, who has announced her intention to run in the presidential election, does not adhere to Kefaya's platform but argues that a taboo has been broken and hopes the country's silent majority will take its destiny in its own hands.

"I am optimistic, there is much more courage to criticise the regime than a year ago or even a few months ago. Mubarak was like a semi-god, nobody could touch him, but this is changing," she argued.

Not content with defying a government ban on street demonstrations, the Kefaya activists crossed a red line by openly calling on Mubarak to step down after 24 years at the helm of the nation.

"Enough", "No to Mubarak, his party and his son", "No to a fifth mandate", "Mubarak, what have you done with our money", "We are fed up, leave" are some of the slogans that could be heard in the streets of Cairo in recent weeks.

Mubarak's predecessors Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser ruled until death.

"The heavy intervention of the police offers evidence of the government's fear in the face of the awakening of the Egyptian people, who is demanding a real democracy," said Georges Isaac, one of the main protest organisers.

After a quarter of a century of unchallenged autocratic rule, Mubarak and his regime are facing an unprecedented situation of political upheaval, stemming from both internal and international pressure.

Cairo is the second largest recipient of US foreign aid and Washington's pressure for reforms and democratic overtures in Middle East countries is growing.

The past three months have seen the rise of Ayman Nur, who is not a member of Kefaya but leads the opposition Al-Ghad party and whose six-week detention made him a symbol of the movement for democratic reform.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which had always opted for non-confrontational tactics, also braved the ban to hold a demonstration last Sunday and flexed its political muscle ahead of the election set for September.

The deputy to the Muslim Brotherhood's supreme guide admitted this week that US pressure on Cairo to mirror democratic developments in Iraq, the Palestinian territories or Lebanon "are benefitting all Egyptian opposition movements."

Earlier this year, Mubarak made a surprise announcement for an amendment to the constitution allowing for multi-candidate elections, although the move came with a number of strings attached which will likely prevent genuine opposition figures from running.

Despite the efforts by the security apparatus to block any large-scale popular movement, commentators are beginning to speculate on how long the regime can stick to its guns.

"The political discontent comes against a very tense social backdrop," said the editor-in-chief of the Al-Arabi Nasserist opposition weekly, Abdelhalim Kandil, in reference to widespread unemployment and soaring prices.


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