Rivals Unite to Challenge Mubarak
Politically speaking, Mustafa Naggar, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Mohammed Sherif, a self-styled revolutionary socialist, should have little to say to each other.
The Brotherhood, the Middle East”s prototype for Islamic-based politics, has long been at odds with those democrats who think religion”s place is in the mosque, not the halls of power.
Still, the two men find common cause in the struggle to end the 27-year reign of Egypt”s president, Hosni Mubarak. Promoting their message through blogs — like hundreds, if not thousands, of other young political activists — they agree that Mr. Mubarak, 80, must go and that Egyptians need to end the historic animosity between Islamists and secular democrats that has bitterly divided Arab politics for a century.
Mr. Naggar, 29, and Mr. Sherif, 23, became acquainted through their Web sites and describe themselves as newly found friends. Interviewed in cafes on opposite sides of Cairo, they displayed remarkably common sentiments, given their distinct roots. “We must reach a middle ground,” said Mr. Naggar, a dentist. “We need to understand that to achieve democracy is more important than holding on to old ideologies.”
His blog is decorated with an olive branch and often features a photo of someone praying.
“We can”t be always antagonistic,” said Mr. Sherif, a government computer technician. “I think democracy can respect the beliefs of the people, so long as the beliefs are not imposed.”
His blog is adorned with the clenched socialist fist.
It would be far-fetched to suggest that the two men represent an immediate, concrete threat to Mr. Mubarak”s one-party rule. Nor, for that matter, do they fundamentally challenge the appeal of the Brotherhood—Egypt”s largest opposition force—and its insistence on setting up a theocracy in the Arab world”s most populous country.
Nonetheless, they typify a younger group of Egyptians who challenge the notion that secular democrats and Islamic activists are locked in an immutable struggle.
“It”s important in Egypt that there is such protest activity and that it”s searching for new ideas,” said Hala Mustafa, editor of the political journal Democracy Review. “This is a real development, potentially a new generation that is neither just liberal or Islamist.”
Mr. Naggar insists his outreach isn”t just a cat”s paw for an Islamic takeover —as occurred in Iran when, after the 1979 fall of the shah, Shiite Islamists under the sway of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overwhelmed secular democrats and other opposition parties.
“This is not a tactical stand,” he said. “It comes from conviction. We meet non-Islamists everywhere, at work and in civil society. At the end of the day, we have to cooperate with everyone.”
Mr. Sherif said he wasn”t being naïve. “Of course, there is suspicion on all sides. But why judge an experiment before it really starts?”
Between 1922 and 1952, Islamists and democrats both worked to end British control of Egypt”s finances, civil administration and armed forces. They split over the country”s future, with the Brotherhood, founded in 1928, insisting on an Islamic realm to replace the defunct Ottoman Empire.
Since 1952, when Gamal Abdul Nasser overthrew the monarchy in a coup, Egypt”s three military leaders have encouraged that rivalry, playing one side against the other to weaken both.
Mr. Naggar and Mr. Sherif acknowledge that the chance of short-term change in Egypt is slim. Efforts to bring democracy to Egypt in recent years have failed: Mr. Mubarak never honored his pledges to fosteramultiparty electoral system; small secular parties bickered among themselves and fell short of mobilizing the country”s destitute masses to challenge his rule.
The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2010 and presidential elections for 2011. Regulations in place since 2006 virtually ensure that the governing National Democratic Party will dominate. Egypt”s press considers Mr. Mubarak”s son, Gamal — a top leader in the NDP—as the likely successor to his father.
Democratic bloggers have yet to create a cohesive opposition; under emergency laws in force since 1981, it is illegal for more than five people to meet in a political gathering.
Nonetheless, the diffuse movement has attracted government repression. Police detained 500 bloggers during the past year for periods ranging from a few hours to four months, Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based watchdog group, wrote March 19. No one knows the numbers of political bloggers, the report said, “but that is their strength.”
About 20 percent of Egypt”s 83 million people regularly use the Internet, the group estimated. One political Facebook group, the April 6 Youth Movement—which has tried and so far failed to organize nationwide strikes—has more than 76,000 members.
The Brotherhood is monitoring the secular-Islamist contact—and dismisses it. “They can talk all they want; the Brotherhood will not change,” the group”s supreme guide, Mohammed Akef, said in an interview. Last fall, the Brotherhood banned a member, Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, from active participation because, among other things, he suggested that strict adherence to the Koran should not be the standard for political action.
With Mr. Akef, 80, set to retire next year, several young Brotherhood members recently called for election of a new leader by all Egyptians, not Brotherhood members in the rest of the Arab world and in Europe, as is traditional. In the interview, Mr. Akef said the process wouldn”t change.
Mr. Naggar and Mr. Sherif both reject Islamic rule in Egypt. “Better to have a civil state with Islamic references,” Mr. Naggar said.
“We have to recognize that Egypt is majority Muslim and increasingly religious,” Mr. Sherif said.
They say there is a model that might end the destructive division: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan”s Islamist- rooted Justice and Development Party, which has governed the officially secular state of Turkey since 2002.
“It has been successful in Turkey and would be even more successful in Egypt,” Mr. Sherif said. “The party respects the religion of the people but also responds with laws that the people want.”