Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 June 2005
Issue No. 748
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

As calls for reform grow increasingly loud a new space is being carved out for dissenting voices. Amira Howeidy takes stock of the dynamics of the movement, its historic context, key players and growth

Voices of dissent

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal: the ustaz

At 83, Heikal remains the Arab world's leading political commentator. In October 2002 he was the first to voice public opposition to rumours that Gamal Mubarak was being groomed to succeed his father, President Hosni Mubarak. As such he was the first to break the presidential taboo -- a red line no prominent public figure had crossed before.

Less than three years later Heikal threw a second bombshell when, on 16 June on Al-Jazeera, he bluntly suggested Mubarak leave office after a transitional period.

"We live without legitimacy," he said, arguing that it is "unfair" -- for both Egypt and Mubarak himself -- that the president remain in power for 30 years (counting his six years as vice president). Egypt, he said, is slipping into an "unnecessary collision". The president, Heikal suggested, should "complete his historic duty for three or six more years during which he [should] hold a national conference to issue a new social contract before retiring at the age of 80".

Tarek El-Bishri: the judge

El-Bishri, 72, is a former vice president of the State Council, a historian and writer whose call for civil disobedience inspired the tactics of the reform movement. El-Bishri's reputation as an independent and fearless judge impeded his promotion to president of the state council while his nationalist views made him the Egyptian Movement for Change's (Kifaya) choice as presidential candidate, a proposal he turned down.

Kamal Khalil: the sloganeer

Khalil, 56, has been at the forefront of Egyptian demonstrations since the 1970s' students' movement. Despite being arrested 13 times, the forever-smiling Khalil is the star of the vast majority of demonstrations which he continues to lead with creative slogans.

Abdel-Halim Qandil: the journalist

Doctor Qandil, 55, who studied medicine but opted for a journalistic career, led the first campaign in the Nasserist Al-Arabi opposition newspaper against the rumoured grooming of Gamal Mubarak more than two years ago, though not without a price. Last November he was kidnapped, beaten up and left naked in the desert by unidentified men.

He is one of the co-founders and spokesmen of The Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya).

Aida Seif El-Dawla: the activist

The outspoken 51-year-old human rights defender, political activist and psychiatrist has become something of an icon in activist circles. She has a reputation as an unrelenting and outspoken activist who is always at the forefront of political reform and anti-torture campaigns. She co- founded the Egyptian Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada (ECSPI) and the 20 March Popular Movement for Change.

Mohamed Aboul-Ghar: the doctor

In his hectic daily schedule between hospital, lab, university and conferences, Aboul-Ghar, 65, a prominent and affluent gynaecologist, finds time for political activism and dissent. A member of ECSPI and the anti-war movement, he co-founded the 9 March Movement for the Independence of Universities, the most recent battle in his long struggle to emancipate academia from decades of state control.

"If our universities achieve independence," he told the Weekly, "Egypt will be turned upside down."

Wael Khalil: the engineer

40-year-old Khalil, a software engineer whose first brush with political activism began five years ago in the Egyptian anti-war and anti-globalisation movement, stands out as a shrewd political activist more concerned with Egypt's national interest than with ideological posturing. A co-founder of the 20 March Popular Campaign for Change, Khalil believes that the growing campaign for reform is rooted in the anti-war and Palestine solidarity movements. The link between dictatorship and imperialism is, he says, inevitable.

Heba Raouf : the academic

Fluent in English, German, French and Arabic, 40-year-old Raouf lectures on political theory at Cairo University and is an impressive speaker, much in demand.

She formed the Association of Egyptian Mothers (AEM) in response to attacks on women during the 25 May referendum, and then suggested Egyptians dress in black on 1 June to express solidarity with the victims. Raouf, a mother of three, has developed EAM's agenda into a campaign for the release of political prisoners.

Hagga Zeinab : the citizen

Hagga Zeinab, 50, is a mother of four and a former employee at a telephone exchange in Giza. She quit her job five years ago. She was, in her own words, an average "apolitical" Egyptian worker until she met several members of ECSPI one Friday noon at Al-Azhar Mosque in 2000. Moved by the Intifada and suffering of the Palestinians she joined ECSPI and soon became a fully-fledged activist whose strong presence -- and vocal chords -- have added much needed fervour to any number of demonstrations. In one anti-war demonstration in 2003 at Al-Sayeda Zeinab Mosque, it was the charismatic hagga Zeinab who turned the occasion into a scathing anti- government protest in one of the earliest signs that the anti-war movement was turning into something else.

The future

The logo of yesterday's demonstration at Shubra designed by Amr Gharbeia, a translator and seasoned blogger. Gharbeia, 25, and his older brother Ahmad, 28, a management information systems consultant (and also a blogger), are behind the logos that have promoted Wednesday demonstrations since 1 June. To many they represent a new dynamic that will shape the future of the movement for change.

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