'The taboos are broken'
The Egyptian Movement for Change tells Amira Howeidy
there can be no turning back
Friday 13 May, the day on which the Egyptian Judges' Club held an extraordinary meeting to determine their position on supervising September's presidential and October's parliamentary elections, was Egypt's day, says the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya). A widely disseminated Kifaya invitation urged supporters to "rally" in front of the Press Syndicate in solidarity with the judges.
Predictably, the scene in Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat Street, where the Bar Association, Press Syndicate and Judges' Club are located, resembled a military base. Demonstrations remain prohibited under the 24- year-old emergency law unless, of course, you are a young man prepared to shout " mesh kifaya " (not enough) and "Hosni! Hosni!" to the joyful beat of drums. For it was young impoverished-looking men (dressed in rags), many in their teens who formed the bulk of demonstrators on Friday, gathering around the steps of the Press Syndicate, their movements directed by police officers brandishing walkie- talkies. They were joined by hundreds of riot police.
Inside the adjacent Bar Association less than 200 Kifaya activists attended a conference in solidarity with the judges while others, sitting in the garden that overlooks the street, just stared at the pro-Mubarak demonstration which moved towards them.
"Who are you and who are we?" screamed the young men. "You are the agents, we are the patriots -- we are the Egyptians."
A middle-aged man standing in front of the Press Syndicate approached Al-Ahram Weekly saying "this Kifaya lot, they're paid agents, traitors."
So why aren't they arrested?
"This is the price of democracy, Mubarak's democracy," he snapped.
The pro-Mubarak demonstration effectively sealed off the Press Syndicate though a handful of Kifaya supporters did make it to the roof where they spread yellow banners to face the Judges' Club. "Egypt's judges! You are Egypt's hope."
By the end of the day reform activists were elated by the judges' unanimous decision to boycott the coming elections unless their demands for full judicial supervision are met. The elation did not last for long. The following day the daily Arabic Al-Ahram appeared with headlines based on an interview President Hosni Mubarak had given to the Kuwaiti-based Al-Siyasa newspaper.
"What Kifaya does is paid for... I could have organised paid demonstrations to shout 'not enough'," read one headline. And then, on page five, the president was quoted as saying that following the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution his eldest son Gamal -- chairman of the NDP's Policies Secretariat -- had the right to stand in elections.
The shock felt by advocates of reform, who take credit for thwarting efforts to promote Gamal Mubarak as his father's successor, was hardly mitigated by the presidency issuing a statement the same day saying that Mubarak had been misquoted in Al-Ahram 's version of the interview. The statement pointed to "accurate" versions published in Al-Siyasa and the Egyptian Akhbar Al-Youm which made no mention of either Kifaya or Gamal Mubarak. While Al-Ahram remained silent Al-Siyasa 's editor, who conducted the interview with Mubarak, told the Emirates- based Al-Khaleej on Monday that Al- Ahram had published the draft version of the interview before it was edited by the president's office.
Kifaya responded in a statement issued on 14 May rejecting the allegations of foreign funding. Kifaya is a "purely nationalist movement based on voluntary work and categorically rejects foreign funding", it read. The pro-Mubarak NDP demonstrations, it continued, "consist of thugs and criminals" intent on "harassing Kifaya's peaceful activities".
Kifaya threatened legal action against those who "deliberately attempt to tarnish the movement's reputation". Whether Kifaya will proceed with its threat remained unclear yesterday.
Kifaya spokesman Abdel-Halim Qandil was less disturbed than might be expected by the president's accusations.
"We're not worried at all," he told Al- Ahram Weekly. "Not only do we not accept foreign funding and foreign intervention -- unlike the government which is the biggest recipient of foreign aid -- members of our movement include patriotic and nationalist public figures that are above any of this, and the people know it."
Nasser Amin, director of the Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, part of a rights group alliance that has issued its own reform plans, finds Mubarak's reference to Gamal "very worrying". It seems, he told the Weekly, that "this file is opening once more and we might witness a re- enactment of the Syrian scenario".
The interview did not, however, surprise Aida Seif El-Dawla of the Popular Campaign for Change. The movement's slogan, she reminded the Weekly, "has never changed. It remains no to extension, no to hereditary succession, though now we have added no to militarisation, just in case Mubarak thinks of appointing Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman as vice- president".
This relaxed attitude towards the accusations contained in the Mubarak interview reflects a growing confidence among groups advocating for political change. Kifaya, for one, is more interested in promoting what it calls "political disobedience" than rebutting accusations levelled against it. According to Qandil, Kifaya wants the political class to boycott the 25 May referendum approving the amendment of Article 76 as well as the September elections.
"What is built on illegitimacy is illegitimate. The amended article's final form is unacceptable and was tailored for the president. It is not genuine and the same applies to the presidential elections. It's all fraud and we want the political class to expose that by boycotting it."
Kifaya has discussed its strategy with opposition groups, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. "The first stage", says Qandil, "will be to encourage civil disobedience, which is easier said than done."
The doing, though, may well be becoming easier. As Seif El-Dawla points out, more and more people are expressing dissent in their respective fields. There are University Teachers for Change, Lawyers for Change, Engineers against Sequestration. And now the Judges' Club has decided to boycott the elections should their demands not be met.
"Look around you," she says, "and you'll see that the number of groups demanding change is increasing. It is true that the police prevent people from joining our demonstrations, but if our influence is measured by the number of demonstrators only, how do you explain all the groups demanding change that surface every day?"
Egypt has changed, argues Qandil, "and we can't go back, no one can undo where we are now. The taboos have been broken."
Kifaya is currently preparing for its first democracy conference, tentatively scheduled for 15 June, to include representatives from all the main opposition parties who, together with the Muslim Brotherhood, announced on Tuesday their own boycott of the 25 May referendum.