Egypt’s New Opposition Leader Sees End of Regime

Even as the Egyptian government cracks down on any kind of opposition, an ageing academic who has taken the helm of the faltering pro-democracy Kefaya movement insists the regime is on its last legs.

As a result, Abdel Wahab Al Messiri, 68, looks forward to using his as-yet amorphous reform movement to draw the country’s disparate opposition trends — including the banned Muslim Brothers — into a common front for change.

“I am emphasizing the need for a peaceful change,” the scholar of Zionism and literature told AFP from his Cairo apartment.

“For the time being we will continue with demonstrations and statements, and hopefully we will succeed in coordinating with other opposition groups.

“I think we are approaching the end to that debate, at least to the present regime, I don’t think it will survive one or two more years, the end is near,” he added.

It is quite an assertion to hear from a frail professor emeritus of English literature at Ain Shams University, who is better known more for spending a quarter century writing an exhaustive encyclopaedia on Zionism than for his political activism.

It is especially bold considering that the 25-year-old rule of President Hosni Mubarak shows no signs of failing while Kefaya (Arabic for “enough”) itself seems to have lost its momentum.

Bursting on the scene in late 2004 with a series of taboo-breaking demonstrations that for the first time condemned Mubarak directly, Kefaya seemed set to become the unifying opposition force that modern Egypt has always lacked.

Yet lately it has seemed unable to recapture its earlier vigour or direction.

In December, several prominent members of Kefaya — which includes activists from across the political spectrum — resigned in protest at the state of the movement.

George Ishaq, the movement’s general coordinator since its founding, resigned and recommended Messiri, who now faces the daunting task of finding a new focus for this disparate collection of activists and politicians.

“Last year was full of events and no real attention was paid to the organisation and the system,” said Hani Anan, a prominent member of Kefaya, adding that the next few months would focus on restructuring the movement.

Younger members, however, have privately grumbled about the choice of Messiri, questioning whether an academic approaching his seventies and with little political or administrative experience can re-energise the movement.

They’ve also questioned the relevance of the movement’s ageing leadership when most of Kefaya’s activities are initiatives from the younger members.

“The problem is we did not define really our area of activity,”  said Messiri. “We should concentrate on two or three domestic issues, like democracy, corruption and succession.”

Messiri points to recent strikes by workers and demonstrations by students as signs of Egypt’s growing political awareness, which must now be harnessed into a single political front that can push for change.

Constitutional amendments being pushed by the president, attacks on the independence of the judiciary and referring Muslim Brothers to military courts will be other areas of focus, he added.

Messiri also hopes to draw the powerful Brotherhood into his front and somehow allay both the suspicions of other secular activists as well as overcome that group’s preference to go it alone.

“The main line (of the Brotherhood) is this kind of reformist Islamic discourse, aware of the problems of modernity, aware of the real social and political problems of Egyptian society,” he said.

Messiri also hopes to mobilise people outside Cairo itself.

“The de-politicisation outside Cairo is much less. If I go to my home town in Damanhur (in the Nile Delta), people are much more politically aware, much more involved,” he said, noting that the grip of Egypt’s ubiquitous security forces is also less tight in the provinces.

Born in 1938, Messiri was caught up in the political ferment of the 1950s, joining first the Muslim Brotherhood and then the Communist Party.

He went on to follow the path of many of Egypt’s intellectuals, eventually abandoning his secular leftist ideology for more Islamist-influenced political beliefs.

“It was a long process, nobody else has resisted God more than me. For 30 years I used to put patches on my materialistic robe until the patches became much more than the robe itself,” said Messiri who now calls himself as an “Islamic humanist.”

Messiri is best known in Egypt for spending a quarter century compiling his Encyclopaedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism, one of the only scholarly works on the subject written in Arabic.

His latest academic project is a book about the end of Israel, ”suggesting that Israel cannot continue as an apartheid state and the only way is to dismantle the racist frame of reference, just as happened in South Africa,” he said.

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