|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
18 - 24 April 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A new political map?Amira Howeidy on how the wave of Palestine-solidarity demonstrations is promoting unexpected new players in Egypt's domestic political scene
In Egypt, "political stagnation" has become a hackneyed term. For almost a decade now, people in political circles have been pointing an accusing finger at this nebulous concept. It is a catch-all term to describe an environment in which the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) dominates parliament and local councils, where opposition parties are weak, where a once-vibrant civil society is in tatters, and where the majority of people shrug off political participation as ineffective.
The political map, "stagnant" as it is, seemed until now to consist of the NDP, a number of left and right wing political parties, and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
But when thousands across the nation went out on massive Palestine-solidarity, anti-Israeli and anti-American demonstrations over the past three weeks, it began to seem like new and different forces might well be redrawing the map.
Despite a consensus that most of the demonstrations emerged spontaneously -- given that their venues were school yards and university campuses -- people are still talking about the conspicuous presence of the Egyptian People's Solidarity Committee with the Intifada (EPSCI) and the Nasserists. The EPSCI, a committee that was formed immediately following the eruption of the Intifada in September 2000, is a mosaic of leftists of various shades (including Marxists and Nasserists), some Islamists, human rights activists, feminists, journalists, public figures and independents. Its mandate is to support the Intifada by various means from sending aid (food, medicine, clothes) convoys to the Palestinians to organising solidarity events and actions.
The committee caught the public eye last year when one of its members, Farid Zahran, was briefly arrested and accused of "propagating malicious disinformation and planning demonstrations for 28 September," the first anniversary of the Palestinian Intifada. From then onwards, the group had maintained a low profile.
But in recent weeks, the name of EPSCI seemed to come up time and again, in almost every context related to the solidarity demonstrations with the Palestinians which took place all over Cairo.
Outside university campuses or the post-Friday prayer Al-Azhar mosque demonstrations, EPSCI or its leading members held a high profile in the most significant protests or rallies. In the 30 March demonstration at the Bar Association, Kamal Khalil, an EPSCI member and one of the icons of the leftist student movement of the 1970s, was practically leading the sloganeering. Next to him, the Nasserists held up their black and white posters of Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
Two days later, in the famous "Monday" demonstration in front of Cairo University, which was attended by actors, actresses, celebrities, politicians, public figures, intellectuals, singers and sympathisers with the various political forces, Khalil and other EPSCI members -- like university professor Ashraf Bayoumi -- were the de facto orchestrators of the "intellectual" chapter at the demonstrations.
Smaller-scale demonstrations and sit- ins followed in front of the UN headquarters, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Press Syndicate and the People's Assembly -- all organised by the EPSCI.
The presence of Nasserists and Arab Nationalists in these events was also felt, not only by the proliferation of Nasser's pictures, but also by the slogans being chanted. "Abdel-Nasser said it before, the occupation is American," cried the protesters. "Palestine is Arab," they shouted. "Egypt is Arab, not an American colony." "One, two, where is the Arab army?"
On Monday, the Nasserist Party held the first Palestine-solidarity rally organised by any political party since Israel's invasion of Palestinian areas in the West Bank. It was also the first time in years that the Nasserist Party -- weakened by divisions and splits -- had hosted an event on that scale. Moreover, on Sunday the party's leaders launched an initiative called the "National Front against the American-Zionist Enemy," which has received the backing of a wide array of political forces.
Established political parties were conspicuous by their absence from the solidarity movement with Palestine. The NDP, the left-wing Tagammu Party and the liberal Wafd Party all kept their distance. Add to this the forced physical absence of the Islamist Labour Party, which was frozen two years ago, and the roles of the EPSCI and the Nasserists begin to clearly stand out.
"We're referred to in almost every event, even the ones which we didn't organize," EPSCI's Adel El-Mashad told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It's an honour I don't claim and an accusation I don't deny," he quipped.
Moreover, he added, more and more people are affiliating themselves with the committee without becoming actual registered members. In the same vein, albeit in a different tone, Bahiyeddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Human Rights Research Centre argued that "in light of the total absence of any organised political activity, the EPSCI does stand out, but then it is still playing its role within a limited context." No one should "expect it to be a substitute for political parties," he said.
Although the committee's main members are not trying to assume this substitute role, they are quite aware of the fact that they're the heterogeneous body which "consists of all the political trends rejected by the government," in the words Amin Iskandar, former member of the Nasserist Party and current member of the EPSCI.
El-Mashad cites reasons for EPSCI's popularity such as "its open membership, open, outdoor activities and ability to sustain its existence for the past 18 months." Evaluating the committee's role, he believes it has "succeeded and proved capable of expanding the margin of political activity in Egypt," he said.
The EPSCI "operated outside of closed [political party] headquarters. These closed headquarters are the reason why Egyptian politics was destroyed," he argued.
He also attributed their popularity to the fact that they do not accept cash donations to support the Palestinian Intifada. "Rather, we take payable checks to the companies from which we buy aid products." Furthermore, fundraising is done "in the streets, popular areas and villages. We didn't simply rely on rich businessmen and we maintained the popular posture in all our activities."
Maintaining a balance between this popular activity and playing a political role at the same time has proved to be challenging following Zahran's arrest -- yet it remains possible, according to El- Mashad. "We followed a policy of not adhering to the dictates of the security bodies but also avoiding clashes with them. This helps us to move," he said.
The technical limit on EPSCI is the Egyptian constitution, which does permit activities such as theirs. But El-Mashad agrees that EPSCI's lack of any legal status limits their activities and threatens their existence in the future, should their 900-member strong committee becomes too popular. This is why they're seriously considering forming an NGO to act as a legal blanket for their activities and to function "professionally" but will not be a substitute for the EPSCI.
Effective as it has been recently, EPSCI remains what it is -- a popular committee. Questions are now being posed on the wider features of today's domestic political map and whether the popular reaction, together with the players who interacted with it, are in fact creating new realities.
Leading journalist and commentator Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, in a recent and rare appearance on satellite television, argued that the massive demonstrations proved that the ideology of Arab Nationalism rules in the Egyptian street. Others, such as Iskandar who defected from the Nasserist Party, agree. "The Arab Nationalist trend is back after 30 years of absence," he claims. "By taking part in these massive demonstrations, new generations have entered the area of national activity. And they entered it via the gate of Palestine. It's a gate of identity, Arab identity," he said.
"One can't but notice that this is reaching the Gulf countries too and I don't think that before the latest events and a reaction being triggered all over the Arab world, anyone would expect to see an Arab nationalist trend reach as far as Bahrain!" he said.
But others beg to disagree. Magdi Hussein of the now-frozen Labour Party insists that if the demonstrations reflected anything, "it is that the street is more or less Islamist. The most obvious slogan chanted in the demonstration from Alexandria to Upper Egypt was Jihad, and that's definitely Islamic." He pointed out, however, that this is "a general Islamic sentiment," which is not dominated by a specific political force. In other words, the Muslim Brotherhood is not in charge.
"The Brotherhood didn't really participate in the demonstrations that we, as national political movements, organised," said Hussein. They've always adopted a static rather than dynamic posture, which is to maintain their organisational presence and not clash with the government. So even if there is need to take action, as the situation [in Palestine] entails now, the Brotherhood doesn't take action. The government accepts this equilibrium and detains only 50 of their members and puts them on military trials."
But just as the domestic political map is evaluated by its players, and not by the real presence of any of the political forces in the street, observers argue that any judgement of the winners and losers in the recent demonstrations remains speculative.
One thing is clear, said Iskandar. The future of politics in Egypt might now take a different form. "Following the 1977 bread riots, the question posed itself: which will prevail, the political or the security solution?" he said. "I think the question is posing itself as strongly today."
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