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Voices of the Street
Voices of the Street
By all indications, this year has been the spring, summer, fall and winter of discontent. Public frustration has been building over stagnating wages and rising prices, sexual harassment and reports of torture and abuse of prisoners in police custody. Not so long ago, people would have complained more or less quietly around their kitchen tables and left it at that. But attitudes are changing as protestors take their complaints to the streets with little fear of who can hear them.
Thursday, November 20,2008 17:17
by Dina Basiony EgyptToday

By all indications, this year has been the spring, summer, fall and winter of discontent. Public frustration has been building over stagnating wages and rising prices, sexual harassment and reports of torture and abuse of prisoners in police custody. Not so long ago, people would have complained more or less quietly around their kitchen tables and left it at that. But attitudes are changing as protestors take their complaints to the streets with little fear of who can hear them.

Protests are not unprecedented here — in 1977, then-President Anwar Sadat’s decision to raise the price of subsidized food sparked riots that led to some 80 deaths and nearly 1,000 arrests. After the riots, the price increases were rescinded. In the past decade, international events have inspired the nation’s youth to fill Tahrir Square to express solidarity with Palestinians or outrage at the United States’ military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But what makes these recently-formed protest movements different from those in the past is that the focus has turned inward, targeting what demonstrators say is ongoing government corruption and social inequity.

At least three groups are actively trying to marshal public frustration into government action: Kefaya (Enough), Shayfeenkom (We’re Watching You) and April 6 Youth. Despite differences in age, social class and political background, members of these protest movements all claim a common goal: fixing a nation that they say faces imminent ruin. And they are not afraid to employ public demonstrations, strikes and other measures to make their voices heard.

Their leaders say they don’t aspire to political power, but with the 2010 parliamentary and 2011 presidential elections on the horizon, these groups want to play a critical role in voter mobilization as well as the outcome of the elections.

Voice of Youth

April 6 is the rallying cry for a new generation of activists. The date refers to the day of protests in the Delta industrial town of Mahalla El-Kobra earlier this year. Textile workers planned a strike to protest their stagnant public-sector wages amid steep inflation. According to Shady El-Adl, a member of El-Ghad (Tomorrow) opposition party, the strike organizers contacted him and fellow activists and party members Israa Abdel Fatah and Ahmed Maher to seek their support. The three men decided to call for a general public strike in Cairo as well, publicizing the event via SMS and on the popular social networking site Facebook.

“Urgent: A general public strike for all Egyptians on April 6, 2008. Do not go to your work. Do not go to your college. Together we’ll unite against the inflation, corruption and violation of human rights,” says the Facebook post.

El-Adl says, “As soon as we established the [Facebook] group, over 6,000 members joined it. We were overwhelmed. We couldn’t believe it.”

Shortly after the post, the group’s membership jumped to nearly 70,000.

“People, especially youth, liked the idea,” says El-Adl. “They [felt oppressed], and they liked that they were given the chance to speak up freely [on the Facebook group] about what they don’t like in their country and what needs to change.”

In the days leading up to the protest, the government had announced in local newspapers that it would take action against those demonstrating, blocking traffic, disrupting jobs or public services, or urging others to do the same. On Sunday, April 6, the typically traffic-congested streets of Greater Cairo were eerily empty except for hundreds of riot police.

Some 120 kilometers north of the capital, Mahalla El-Kobra was not so quiet. Demonstrators took to the streets in protests that quickly turned violent. At least two died and more than 60 were wounded in two days of violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators, estimated to be between 10,000 and 27,000 strong.

According to local media, the call to strike went largely unnoticed throughout the rest of the country, as business carried on in all other governorates.

Altogether, at least 700 people were arrested in Mahalla and Cairo — including a number of human rights activists and Kefaya founder George Ishak, who was charged with preventing state organizations from accomplishing their duties. Abdel Fatah, El-Adl and others were arrested as soon as they arrived in Tahrir Square. Abdel Fatah was held for 18 days and El-Adl for a month.

Those arrests prompted 40 young men and women to form the April 6 Youth movement. “We were born surrounded by 26 years of emergency law...We decided to search for hope,” says a video clip entitled “The Achievements of April 6 youth” that group members uploaded to YouTube. “We are a large number of young people united in the love of this country and the eagerness to reform it.”

Since the strikes that gave the group its name, April 6 Youth has staged several non-violent demonstrations around the city, occasionally joined by other political opposition figures and dissidents, including Ayman Nour’s wife Gamila Ismail, Abd El Aleem Dawood (an El Wafd Party leader) and Talaat El Sadat (an outspoken member of Parliament).

The group has rallied for the release of jailed opposition newspaper editors. Members have gone to the Delta village of Serando to support peasants being forced to leave their lands, and to the shantytown of Abu Regeila to support those ordered to vacate their makeshift homes.

To publicize its events and achievements, the group turns to the websites that have come of age at the same time as the protest movement: Facebook, Youtube and blogs.

Though initially organized by members of El-Ghad, El-Adl says that only 30 percent of the current April 6 Youth members are from the party, a small percentage belong to other opposition parties and the majority do not have a political affiliation.

As individuals, they may be politically involved, but El-Adl says that April 6 Youth does not plan to become a political party. Their ultimate goals, he says, are to link wages with prices and defend the freedom of expression and information.

“We don’t offer alternatives to reform the country,” asserts El-Adl. “We’re just a pressure tool that urges the government to change.”

While the government still looks unfavorably on public protests, the security response has been relatively milder than in years past. Detainees find themselves back on the streets after a few weeks or months, rather than disappearing indefinitely.

Some April 6 Youth members admit that, while they do not regret joining the movement, the consequences of political activism are affecting their private lives.

Mosheira Ahmed, 33, appears in YouTube videos of demonstrations, shouting, “Long live Egypt!” Ahmed claims that her affiliation with April 6 Youth has affected her acting career. “Directors fear that I’m politically active,” she says. “They don’t ask me to act in films or commercials anymore. My friends from the industry have stopped asking about me or even saying ‘Hi’.”

There are more serious consequences than being shunned by co-workers, but the group leaders shrug them off. “The jail was such a beneficial experience,” says El-Adl, who was arrested at the April 6 demonstrations. “Imprisonment is not as bad as it sounds. Only the first and last days are tough, but other than that you feel very comfortable and settled in jail.”

El-Adl says that he hopes that the April 6 Youth movement will bring change and will no longer be necessary within three years.

“I think a movement for the youth is essential,” Ahmed says. “Now, all leading positions in Egypt are taken by old people. You can only imagine how many generations of youth have been marginalized.”

We Are Watching You

While the youth movement was spurred into action by this year’s economic hardships, Shayfeenkom was started by three women in 2005 leading up to the nation’s first multi-candidate presidential elections. Journalist and TV anchor Bothaina Kamel, political media analyst Inji El-Hadad, and university professor Ghada Shahbandar founded the group as a government watchdog during the election.

Kamel claims that they wanted to make sure the election followed democratic processes without being tarnished by voting fraud, unjust or illegal acts. The group posted videos and interviews with voters on their website.

On its website, www.shayfeen.com, the group bills itself as a national movement. “Simply, we’re a group who saw that Egypt’s future can be shaped today and that democracy doesn’t have to be just a word imprisoned in its letters anymore,” the website reads.

Kamel says motivation for the movement came in part from frustrations born during her 20-year career in government media. In 1992, she was the host of “Night Confessions,” a popular national radio call-in show, where callers would talk about controversial or taboo subjects such as sex. Kamel alleges that after the October 1992 earthquake her supervisor told her not to talk about anything related to the national disaster; the government, he claimed, wanted to mitigate public outcry by limiting discussion of the topic in the national media.

“The governmental media is rotten to the core. It’s false, it’s not true,” alleges Kamel. “They wait for administrative decisions in every aspect of work even if this defies fairness and the basic elements of media practices.”

Kamel later worked as a news anchor in Egyptian Radio and Television Union ERTU, but left in 2005. “I said to myself, ‘Enough is enough. I can’t fake anymore,” she says. “I can’t read false news and the official newscast is false’.”

In 2006, the Shayfeenkom movement officially became Al-Masriyeen dud El-Fasad (Egyptians Against Corruption, EAC). Kamel says the group turned its attention to corruption after learning that Egypt is a signatory of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), yet, she alleges, the government is not following the terms of the convention or informing the public about it.

“Egypt is expected to establish anti-corruption bodies and promote transparency in the public sector,” according to the UNCAC, which requires countries to have criminal and other laws that cover a wide range of acts of corruption.

“We became focused on corruption in particular because corruption leads to terrorism, extremism and it helps maintain despotism,” says Kamel. Among the movement’s grievances, she lists injustice, poverty, extreme national security measures and a lack of civil rights under the Emergency Law.

Shayfeenkom has less than 10 active members, but Kamel says that she does not equate membership with influence because one member can reach millions through the internet. On the EAC website, www.nadafa.org, the group asks people to report their complaints about corruption. Drawing on Kamel’s journalism background, the group investigates the complaints and post videos of their investigations on the website.

“I’m keen on documenting all my work on audio/video to have solid proof for my arguments,” Kamel says.

Kamel also says that unlike other movements that consider demonstrating the only means of participation, Egyptians Against Corruption tries to help people to properly invest their powers. The website also serves as a forum for discussing solutions and connecting people with each other.

Some doubt the efficiency of the internet as a tool in Egypt, where 29 percent of the population is illiterate, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, and there is limited internet access outside the big cities. Kamel, however, believes that “revolutions and changes in societies are conducted by the elite, not the public. The public then supports the elite that they believe in.”

Unlike April 6, the founders of Shayfeenkom have no political affiliation; they claim that they do not want to be involved in the political system. In Kamel’s view, the role of the activist is mainly to educate the public.

As part of its public awareness activities, Shayfeenkom created an award called the Egyptian Fighter award, which is given to person who has played a significant role in fighting corruption. The movement calls for nominations from civil society organizations, and people can vote for the nominees on Shayfeenkom’s website or by sending text messages to a mobile number posted on the site. Shayfeenkom also sells small white pins that read “together against corruption” for LE 1. Proceeds from the pin pay for a LE 5,000 award and a trophy for the Egyptian Fighter winner.

Just as with other protest movements, Egyptians Against Corruption has caught the attention of State Security. Kamel alleges that during one of the group’s demonstrations, State Security officers told the female demonstrators, “We’re going to imprison you, and when we do that, it will be for a prostitution case that will ruin your reputation.”

Kamel says that while this led some of the members to leave the movement, others became more determined to uphold their right to demonstrate peacefully. “This is mothers’ nature. We’re afraid for the future that our children will be brought up in and we want to secure this future for them,” says Kamel. “I think females will lead the change in this country.”

From talking to Egyptians in different governorates, Kamel worries about Egypt’s immediate future, saying, “I think Egypt is approaching a revolution. My fear is that it will be an unorganized one coming from the squatter areas like Al Duweiqa — al-thowra takdi ala al-akhdar wa al-yabis (a revolution ruining both the good and the bad). This will happen while the government is busy hunting the activists and political opponents.”

Not Enough?

With the arrival of these new groups, The Egyptian Movement for Change — better known as Kefaya — seems to have faded from public view.

“We are present, we’ve never stopped working or demonstrating in the streets,” says George Ishak, Kefaya leader and one of the movement’s founders. “All the political awakening that you see now on the political stage is in essence the result of Kefaya. So no one should ask me ‘Where did Kefaya go?’”

Like Shayfeenkom, the last presidential elections were the impetus for founding Kefaya. In 2003, six well-known figures from different social, political and industrial arenas — George Ishak, Ahmed Bahaa Shaaban, Abu El-Ella Mady, Mohamed Saed Edris, Sayed Abdel Sattar and Ameen Iskandar — met to discuss what they should do about the Egyptian presidential and parliamentary elections.

Kefaya members came to the table with multiple political perspectives and a common cause; they object the 27 years of rule under emergency law and agree that Egypt needs fundamental change. Their motto remains “No for extension [of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule]. No for inheritance [of power by Gamal Mubarak].”

Demonstrating is the key, says Ishak, who believes Kefaya opened the way for people to protest and ask for change. “I strongly believe that without demonstrating in the streets there will never be any change or accomplishment [] Before the movement appeared in 2004, no one dared to speak up, protest or say ‘Kefaya’.”

More than 7,000 members have endorsed Kefaya’s ideas and joined the movement, says Ishak. The group has protested in Cairo at places like the attorney general’s office, the Press and Legal Syndicates and the Cabinet. Demonstrators walk the streets holding up banners that say Kefaya and wear yellow pins.

Ishak stresses that the movement does not call for reform. “Reform means that there is something that went wrong and could be fixed. We, however, want change. We don’t want this system or its individuals, policies, or ideas because they have brought Egypt to aswaa halatana (its lowest point),” he says. “The only solution for us is to become a strong country again — strong through education and democracy, the two wings that maintain a strong country.”

The movement is also against corruption, which it defines as the abuse of powers, unbalanced distribution of wealth and violation of freedoms. The group opposes “the extended 27-year-rule of President Hosni Mubarak and the possibility that he passes on his power to his son Gamal,” says Ishak. “If we don’t go back to being a strong country, no one will consider our presence and we won’t even exist on the map anymore. We are in our worst condition and our weakest spot, and anyone can toy with us.”

Among the constitutional changes Kefaya has called for are a two-term limit for the president and mandatory financial disclosure from all presidential candidates.

“Article 76 needs to be changed, by all means, because it’s a crime in itself,” alleges Ishak, upset that the law does not allow independent candidates to run for the presidency. The movement believes that any candidate who gathers 40,000 signatures from 10 governorates should be able to run for presidency.

Currently, none of the Kefaya leaders plan to run for president, but aim to support 15 to 20 candidates from political, social and cultural fields who they believe have the potential to be good leaders. They also demand that judicial supervision at every ballot box for a transparent voting process.

Earlier this year, Kefaya released “A Report on Egypt’s Future and Building a New Civil, Democratic Country,” detailing what the group feels are necessary reforms and how to implement them. Kefaya has distributed the document to political activists and other like-minded organizations.

Ishak believes Kefaya has succeeded in its mission to motivate people to ask for change, pointing to movements like Youth for Change, Lawyers for Change and Journalists for Change. But there is still much more to do. “The coming two years are very critical in Egypt’s history. If we don’t work as hard as we worked in 2004, we won’t achieve the change we want,” he says, adding that Kefaya will revive its activities in preparation for the 2010 and 2011 elections.

Over the years, the movement has changed its strategy from demonstrating against the government to championing the problems of the people. On September 4, the movement went to Port Said, where factory waste from a nearby industrial zone is allegedly being dumped into El-Manzala Lake and harming the fishing industry, to stand by people complaining of severe pollution and a lack of help from authorities.

The movement is also working to form a national coalition of all the political forces in Egypt, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, and the remaining activists among the El Mahalla textile workers. “We’re talking about a coalition that defines ways of changing the system and bringing back the national leadership,” says Ishak. “We all aim for change: we want a democratic system, new constitution, honest elections.”

Membership is growing through the internet, says Ishak, who estimates that there are millions of Kefaya supporters, although the group only has 18,000 official members.

Breaking political taboos

Said Sadek, a sociologist and political analyst and professor at the American University in Cairo, attributes the rise of social protest movements to both external and internal pressures. He says the government’s relatively tame security response, combined with new communication tools such as the internet, mobile phones and independent press, have facilitated their organization.

These movements broke the political taboo of challenging the head of state, who was previously considered above criticism, Sadek says. He also thinks the movements are already having a long-term political effect, particularly on the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

“The succession [of Gamal Mubarak to the presidency] has been hampered so far [because it is] losing the support of the public opinion,” he says. “On this basis, foreign support to Gamal, after reading domestic Egyptian public opinion, is no longer guaranteed as these external powers need stability in Egypt, not an explosive unpredictable situation.”

Gamal Mubarak has publicly denied any aspirations to the presidency.

Sadek also credits the protest movements with paving the road for further political organization of strikes in different economic sectors.

“[Social protest movements] give vitality to Egyptian politics. The real threat is failing to understand their message of democratic reform by the regime. Failing to reform would give rise to more violent, terrorist movements, not peaceful groups like Kefaya,” says Sadek. “As long as these movements stick to civil non-violent methods, the people of Egypt would learn more about democracy and right to protest and seek improvement in their lives.” et


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