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Analysis: Egypt's ailing democracy movement

By Ben Wedeman
CNN
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CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- It was a time when you felt you were covering a profound historic shift.

Not a single, compact, dramatic event but rather gradual but palpable change which shakes all your assumptions and makes you look at your surroundings in a completely different light.

The spring of 2005 was a heady time in Cairo, when it seemed that decades of authoritarian rule were coming to an end, that a people long deprived of a voice had finally begun to speak out.

In 2003, Egyptians watched in awe as American military might toppled Saddam Hussein. They heard speeches from U.S. President George W. Bush, who in his state of the Union Address in January 2005 declared: "America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

In late 2004, a small coalition of Egyptian intellectuals and political activists, calling themselves "The Egyptian Movement for Change," coined a phrase that resonated across the political spectrum stretching from old school Marxists to the Islamists: "Kifaya," Arabic for "Enough." It was a catch-all colloquialism that said it all: Enough of corruption, stagnation oppression, torture, and nepotism.

It all added up to a spark that, for a while at least, promised to light a fire under a system of government which, in many respects had the hallmarks of pharaonic rule.

"This regime is doing nothing," author and Kifaya member Sanallah Ibrahim told me in his cramped Cairo apartment. "Mubarak and his clique have no idea, no feeling, no plan, nothing at all for the future of the people."

'The door is open'

Kifaya started off modestly enough, in late 2004, with small protests on Qasr Al-Aini street, up the road from the rubber-stamp Egyptian parliament. Their banners had a simple, but for Egypt, stunning message: "Down with Mubarak."

When I saw that slogan, I knew something extraordinary was afoot.

George Ishaq was one of Kifaya's unlikely firebrand leaders. He wasn't a hot-headed young radical, but rather a retired school teacher, a man in his sixties with white hair and an irrepressibly mischievous smile.

"The door is open," he told me in one of our many meetings, leaning forward for dramatic effect, "and nobody can close it again. We will go through this door and we will struggle until the end, to be a democratic country. We will insist on it."

Covering the pro-democracy demonstrations and debates was thrilling. It was exhilarating to see courageous people risk beatings, imprisonment and possibly torture for their convictions.

On one occasion I saw a woman demonstrator in her early 20s dragged by her hair down the street by plain clothed policeman. Later, out of view, she claimed she was sexually molested by her attackers. On other occasions I saw protesters brutally beaten by the police no questions asked.

And it was physically challenging for journalists covering these events as well. I was pushed and shoved, and pushed and shoved back, at dozens of confrontations between policemen -- plainclothed and uniformed -- and pro-democracy activists.

At one encounter during parliamentary elections in the Nile Delta city of Zaqaziq, CNN camerawoman Mary Rogers had her shoulder dislocated when some of that pushing and shoving got particularly nasty. Often, when covering street protests, my colleagues and I had to work like a rugby team, fighting off assaults by policeman who were determined to grab our camera. Needless to say, they failed.

Movement in crisis

But despite the movement's passion and determination, the door to democracy in Egypt appears to be closing. The movement is being worn down, caught between the regime's determination to stay in power and the conviction of many ordinary, impoverished Egyptians that democracy is a luxury that will have to wait.

You don't have to go far to see the limits of political activism in Egypt. Just behind the CNN's Cairo bureau lies the Bulaq neighborhood, a ramshackle area of dirt alleys and crumbling houses inhabited by factory workers, government employees (many of whom had to hold second and third jobs to scrape by), small storeowners, etc.

"The last thing people here are talking about is democracy," off-duty taxi driver Abdul Mun'im told me. "Maybe the rich and educated care about it, but around here we don't.

"We give them our votes and we never see them again," said pensioner Sayid of politicians. He, of course, couldn't remember the last time he cast a ballot. "The politicians win, and then forget about us."

By the time I left Cairo in June 2006, the pro-democracy movement was in crisis.

A few months before leaving I went to see Gamila Ismail at the offices of Al-Ghad, the newspaper of a political party by the same name. Her husband, Ayman Nour, had challenged Mubarak in the September 2005 presidential elections. Now he is in jail, sentenced to five years of hard labor on what human rights activists say are trumped up charges. Nour suffers from diabetes, and by all accounts is now in poor health.

Her shoulders stooped, wilted by exhaustion, Gamila was at her wit's end. The newspaper was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and she was selling off family property to keep it afloat and cover ever-mounting legal expenses.

"The message of this regime, to everybody," she said, is "that whoever dares to put his head up will immediately be hit by all means -- personal, career, politically, socially, financially, everything. He simply won't be there, he won't exist. Not him, not his family, not his supporters, not his relatives, not his party members. Nobody."

Hisham Bastawisi is a judge, a profession held in high esteem in Egypt. Bastawisi accused fellow magistrates tasked with overseeing the November 2005 parliamentary elections of aiding and abetting government-inspired electoral fraud.

I rode with him in his car on a hot day in May of last year through downtown Cairo. Thousands of police had been deployed around the Supreme Court, where he was to attend a disciplinary hearing by his peers.

"It's like schizophrenia," he told me in a calm, quiet voice. The government "talks about democracy but acts like a dictatorship. They talk about an independent judiciary then try to control it. They talk about combating corruption while corruption increases."

Anger with U.S. administration

As frustrated as democracy activists were with the regime, they were equally angry with the Bush administration, which they said had given them so much encouragement, then seemed to lose interest.

The surprisingly strong showing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections in late 2005, the electoral victory of Hamas in the Palestinian territories in early 2006, the growing regional clout of Iran, the gathering tempest of chaos and bloodshed in Iraq, many believed, had soured the Americans to political reform in the Arab world.

"Most people say this is not an ally we can rely on," said Ghada Shahbandar, a housewife in her 40s who had founded an election monitoring group called Shayfeenkum, Arabic for "We're Watching You."

"American policy makers are always switching sides. They want change, but maybe not that much change."

Like the thick grey smog on a hot Cairo day, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the movement to breathe.

"It's left us on the verge of state failure," observed newspaper publisher Hisham Qasim. "It's difficult to talk about a reform process when power is so centralized in the hands of one man and a few people around him."

The supporters of Hosni Mubarak insist he is sincere about change, that his approach to democratic reform is gradual, but his commitment is irrevocable.

Cairo University Professor Muhamed Kamel is part of young generation of reformers who believe that the system can be changed from within.

"I don't think these were cosmetic changes," he told me in his office. "I think these were real changes. We have achieved many things but I also say we have a long way to go. And there is no going back on democracy."

The Muslim Brotherhood

The one group that wasn't feeling discouraged was, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest, oldest and best organized opposition group. It is technically illegal, but the Mubarak regime allowed them to operate. But when the Brotherhood's members, running as independents in parliamentary elections won 20 percent of the seats in late 2005, the government began to get nervous.

Hundreds of Brotherhood members and supporters have been arrested in the last year. And most recently the government has frozen the assets of key businessmen who have financed the group's activities.

Over the years, I met many times with the so-called Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Mahdi Akif. He was an affable gentleman in his seventies, a man with the energy of someone half his age. He liked to talk about the Brotherhood's commitment to democracy, but his democracy had distinctly divine overtones.

"We carry a religion, a mission, a program," he once told reporters at a press conference in the Brotherhood's cramped headquarters in a three-bedroom flat in the Cairo suburb of Manyal. "I don't care what the government thinks. What concerns me is that God is satisfied."

On Monday Egyptians -- well those approximately 10 percent of Egyptians who normally vote -- will go to the polls to cast ballots in a constitutional referendum which, among other things, will make it much harder for the Muslim Brotherhood to run candidates in elections.

It will also enshrine many of the more onerous aspects of Egypt's emergency law, which has been in place since 1981. Human rights groups and the opposition warn that the proposed amendments to the Egyptian constitution represent a further eroding of individual rights in Egypt, and a strengthening of the already sweeping powers granted the president.

The Egyptian opposition often doesn't agree on much, but this time they're united in their opposition to the proposed amendments, and have vowed to boycott the vote. The government is equally determined to make sure the vote goes ahead, and has deployed thousands of police to make sure nobody gets in the way.

These heavy handed tactics usually have their desired effect. Even those Egyptians who are passionate about democratic reform know that standing up to the authorities comes at a high price.

But in the meantime, resentment grows, as do fears that, if the system doesn't change, change will be forced upon it.

One day in the spring of 2005, when we were out on a shoot, an older, elegantly dressed man approached the CNN crew, and shared his concerns, though he didn't share his name.

"I am afraid," he said, "this will be something like Iran. You know, Iran and Khomeini before? If things will continue like this, a big bloody revolution will happen in Egypt."


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Supporters of the opposition "Kifaya" coalition are confronted by police in Cairo in March, 2006.

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