Inside the Middle East - Blog
April 10, 2008
Political Activist Jailed In Egypt
--By CNN's Ben Wedeman

A friend is behind bars. Wednesday evening Egyptian security personnel arrested George Ishaq, a leading figure in the Egyptian democracy movement, at his home in Cairo. No formal charges have been filed, so it’s not clear at this point why and for how long he will be detained.

I met George four years ago while covering a demonstration by Kifaya—which in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic means Enough—outside the Journalists Syndicate in downtown Cairo. Kifaya is a small but vocal group bringing together activists from across the political spectrum, from old school Marxists to Islamists, joined by a common desire to see an end—thus their slogan—to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, in power since October 1981.

I saw George again and again at similar events, where protesters were often outnumbered ten to one by riot police and plain-clothed policemen clutching rubber truncheons.

A demonstration by Kifaya supporters in Cairo in 2005. (Photo AP)

At first glance George doesn’t look like a political firebrand determined to bring down the regime. George is a bespectacled former school teacher in his sixties with a shock of white hair and an unwavering, mischievous smile. He possesses that unique Egyptian ability to combine biting humour aimed at the high and mighty with razor sharp political analysis, his observations on contemporary Egypt always on the mark, often funny but deeply saddening at the same time.

In an interview when his movement was at its height, George told me “The door [to democracy] is open 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.”

But his determination to bring about change has been met by an even more uncompromising determination by the Mubarak regime to hold on to power.

George’s arrest is just the latest in a campaign by the Egyptian government leading up to the municipal elections held on Tuesday. More than a thousand members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood were rounded up, plus, according to Kifaya, around 50 of its members.

The vote was met with indifference by most of the population, disillusioned by decades of rigged, sham elections. The same day, Egyptians were shocked (and some thrilled) by photos circulating on the internet of angry striking workers in the industrial town of Mahalla Al-Kubra destroying a billboard featuring a picture of President Mubarak.

A Coptic Christian, George identifies himself first and foremost as an Egyptian patriot, a man profoundly committed to a tolerant Egypt which, alas, is slowly disappearing, a country fiercely proud of its profoundly rich culture stretching back thousands and thousands of years, the Arab world’s cultural and political centre of gravity, where literature and music and theatre and art flourished.

Today Egypt is impoverished, economically and politically, its cultural life a mere shadow of what existed fifty or sixty years ago.

But the spirit of Egypt—and an unflagging optimism that Egypt will rise again—is kept alive by people like George. Even if he is behind bars.

it is really sad when we see our egypt on the end of the way there was nobody whe we say life and i think that where will not be neather when we will death
In response to the comment that it is not known why he was arrested as an Egyptian I can tell you the answer. Simple put the rising wave of discontent as a result of years of abuse, torture, brutalization and oppresion has come to a head since the outbrak of strikes in Mahala in attempt to crush the voices of freedom any well known figures who advocate Egyptian rights in any form are being arrested and terrorized. This is meant by the Egyptian government to send a direct message to the people that those who complain and ask for our basic rights will be punished and that criticism of the regime will not be tolerated. This is just another in the latest government attempts to drive the Egyptian into fearful silence. I cannot say if this will happen but I know that there will always be those brave few like George who refused to be silenced. I for one will continue to fight for my voice to be heard and I urge others Egyptians and anyone who believes in the sanctity of human rights to speak out against the ongoing crimes being committed against the Egyptian people
I really hope everything in Egypt works out and peace can be found, some of these stories can be so sad.
I hope there will be peace in Egypt, cause I plan holidays there, somewhere in September...
This is an excellent article. I wish Ben was still in Egypt. I can tell he really cares about the place even though he's now in jerusalem. i think ben knows perfectly well why in the big picture mr ishak was arrested, clearly he knows that the REAL reason is that ishak and others have the courage to speak out and work against mubarak.
Excellent article for domestic use only, but for those who know more, it is worthless. I have lived in Egypt for most of my life, and let me tell you something about what is happening now in that country. First, what happened in the town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra was a simple strike over wages. Due to the fact that it took place two days prior to local elections groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and “Enough” pushed to turn it into a nation wide strike hoping to destabilize the country which could lead to postponing the elections. In this election, if the Muslim Brotherhood should win, they will be eligible to nominee a candidate in the next presidential election in the year 2011. For so many reasons they couldn’t participate in this election, so, they wanted to set the whole county on flame in order to postpone the elections and gain some political ground, which is by the way a typical way for them to conduct. How else would you explain burning cars, stores, private property and medical centers in a labor strike? Needless to say that if the Muslim Brotherhood ever came to power in Egypt, this will be a total and complete disaster not just for Egypt but for the Middle East and indeed for the whole world. Regimes like the Iranian, Hamas in Gaza strip, Taliban are all just a fraction of what the Muslim Brotherhood is all about.
Now about George and “Enough” movement, they are a group of ambitious politicians who have nothing in common other than reaching power. How can you explain Marxists working with Islamists? If the ever come to power, they will turn to each other. They are now unified by their joint goal, once this goal is reached, nothing will unite them. It is illusion to think that they will work together for the good of the country.
To the person who is concern about the safety of Egypt and hoping it will have peace, there is nothing to worry about. Egypt is one of the safest places to go. As long as there will not be western media and journalists cameras, you will not see “Enough” members or Muslim Brotherhood activists. You will see regular Egyptian people with a very welcoming smile.
The Egyptian government is far from ideal, certainly not as ideal as Bush’s administration or president Butin of Russia regimes. However, Egypt is a very important country. A lot of work need to be done in this country, still, be careful what you wish for, you might just get it-like in Iraq.
We need to nudge our allies a little bit more on this though not undermine them at this tumultuous time.

Dear CNN, just curious, when are you going to finally get around to talking about the THOUSANDS of jihadists that Saddam Hussein was training, arming and funding before the invasion? Why the continued silence on this major revelation?
The Egyptian's are passive to the dictator's rule. Kifaya is an intellectual movement among a small percentage of Egyptians although it is the voice of hope and future its impact on our nation is very weak. We should all stand behind Kifaya and similar movements to end this police nation and this dictatorship rule of darkness and economical slump.
Contrary to one the comments above, I think this is a brilliant article. I live in Egypt and anyone who thinks that the Mahallah intifada was JUST about money clearly is doing their best to ignore that facts. And as far as kifaya goes, if they're ambitious what do you call the bloodsuckers in the egyptian government?
one of those who commented on this said of the muslim brotherhood, "typical way for them to conduct. How else would you explain burning cars, stores, private property and medical centers in a labor strike?" oh yea they are just inherently violent people. how would you explain soccer fans who burn cars, stores and private property after a match? and are you saying labour strikes in places such as the US have never done the same thing? Comparing the muslim bortherhood to the taliban is false fear mongering. frustration creates extremism, take out the frustration and extremism declines. ofcourse it wouldnt be a sudden decline but it will decline.
I'm an Egyptian, lived most of my life in Egypt, and from what I see is happening, there is only one thing the Egyptians are lacking, true Freedom.

No one speaks of religious freedom, equal rights for women, or real steps to economic reform.
They all propose very bleak solutions to serious problems.

Our educated and skilled people hardly find any work that can support minimal monthly expenses, for their families. But they are also the least to complain.

Women contribute so little to GNP due to social barriers.

I wish all that changes for the good of the country, which needs more realistic goals and sound approaches to fulfill these goals.

Thanks for bearing with me,
this is what happened when a dictator like Mubarak and Anwar Sadat ruled Egypt for the last 38 years with the support of the US.this is Egypt that was the leader and pride of the Arab world in the fifties and sixties turned in to a beggar.the US promised Sadat prosperity if he signed a peace treaty with Israel this is the result.Mubarak worries is not how to feed his people but how to bring his son as the next leader in Egypt.
I hope most Egyptians are not like the guy who wrote at 2:18 PM ET. He seems in complete denial of the problems in his own country. Fortunately I am told that people like him i.e. blind supporters of the dictatorial Mubarak regime are in the minority. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is so popular among the masses speaks volume of its critical and honest stance but a peaceful approach to social change.
The announcement by Hamas of NO PEACE again demonstrates that Carter is politically deaf, dumb and blind.
And only a dumb and blind person continues to support Mubarak despite the misery caused by him to Egyptians. Only a blind and dumb person cannot understand Hamas' stance. And only a blind and dumb person expects Palestinians to be at peace with Israel when Israel continues to kill Palestinians and steal their lands.
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