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Africa

Egypt's opposition: Thousands take to the streets – now what?

Video by Louise Hannah , Shirli SITBON

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2011-02-03

A wired group of young activists has embraced the power of the internet to get Egyptians out onto the streets to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. But can they work with an older generation of opposition figures to direct the change?

Exactly a week after Egyptians took to the streets demanding that President Hosni Mubarak resign, protesters are gathering for a “march of a million” on Tuesday in a sign of growing cohesion and organisation for a popular movement that has stunned the world, grabbed headlines and raised more questions than answers.

The call for massive protests in Cairo and Alexandria came the morning after Egypt’s most high-profile dissident, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, appeared on Cairo’s central Tahrir Square in a made-for-TV appearance on Sunday night, calling for political change.
 
For six consecutive days – as Egypt’s vocal, wired set battled to overcome an internet and digital communications blackout – correspondents in the field and pundits in Arab and Western capitals attempted to identify the leadership, if there was any, among the crowd.
 
Armen Georgian analyses the Egyptian Revolution
In the absence of designated leaders or speakers, the unprecedented protests are simply being looked at as a popular uprising by the people of Egypt after 30 years of tyranny.
 
There is little doubt that the uprising in the world’s largest Arab nation began as a spontaneous movement. But Nadim Shehadi of the London-based Chatham House believes that in recent days, an organisational structure has been emerging as an older generation of Egypt’s fractious, long-subdued opposition joins forces with groups of younger, wired activists who had taken to the Web to shake up a political landscape that was moribund for more than three decades.
 
“Most of the opposition parties had very little street-gathering power,” Shehadi said. “These protests are not really by the opposition, they’re being led by street power. The old opposition groups were never on the forefront of these demonstrations.”
 
The power of the Egyptian street, fuelled by the energy of the internet, may have been enough at first. But as the protests move into their second week and as Egypt’s impoverished masses – particularly subsistence labourers eking out a living on a daily wage – start confronting the economic cost of the unrest, there has been a growing realisation that experience and expertise are needed to keep the momentum.
 
A native son returns home
 
One of the primary organisers of the recent demonstrations, according to Samir Shehata of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, has been the April 6 Movement, a Facebook-based youth protest group that emerged in 2008, when the group launched a solidarity campaign with striking workers.
 
Shehata says another organiser is the Kifaya movement, a grassroots organisation that shot to prominence in 2004 when it launched a campaign opposing Mubarak and, in particular, the prospect of political succession being handed down to Mubarak’s controversial son, Gamal. Kifaya means “enough” in Arabic, and it is a message that has resonated on the streets of Cairo and other major Egyptian cities such as Alexandria and Suez in recent days.
 
The France 24 interview: ElBaradei says Mubarak 'must go'
A turning point for the opposition movement came when ElBaradei, the former head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, arrived in Cairo from his home in Vienna last week. But although he is an internationally recognised and respected figure, ElBaradei has spent more time abroad than in his home country in recent years and now has more credibility on the international policy circuit than on the Egyptian street.
 
“I think ElBaradei’s influence is minimal,” said Shehadi. “Before these demonstrations, his popularity was minimal, his election chances were limited and he had very little street-gathering power.”
 
Enter the Brotherhood
 
ElBaradei , however, was an obvious figurehead for the social networking activists igniting the protests. His National Association for Change, a non-partisan umbrella group he founded last year, has reached out to all opposition groups, including Egypt’s powerful, officially banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood.
 
Shortly after his arrival in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that it was seeking to form a broad political committee with ElBaradei.
 
Mindful of the West’s distrust of the Islamist group that spawned hardline figures such as al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri and the threat it poses to the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace accords, the Muslim Brotherhood has been careful to allow ElBaradei to the lead the way.
 
Speaking to the crowd gathered around ElBaradei in Tahrir Square on Sunday night, Mohammed el-Beltagui, a senior Brotherhood figure and former parliamentarian, said the movement was “supporting ElBaradei to lead the path to change”, before adding: “We’re trying to build a democratic arena before we start playing in it.”
 
While the Brotherhood has taken a supporting role in the recent uprising, they have a strong base among Egypt’s impoverished masses through their network of charities, schools and hospitals across the 80-million-strong Arab nation.
 
Ironing out a platform
 
It didn’t take long for other opposition parties to try to get in on the act, including Egypt’s oldest but now largely toothless Wafd party, which waged a nationalist struggle against British colonialism.
 
Who is the Muslim Brotherhood?
Joined by other dissident figures, such as Ayman Nour – who came a distant second to Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections – and Osama al-Ghazali Harb, the new coalition has been holding a series of meetings over the past few days to iron out a platform for change, according to a New York Times report.
 
According to Shehata, the coalition has managed to put out a list of likely candidates for a transition team that includes ElBaradei, Nour and Harb, among others.
 
At a meeting on Monday in the Dokki neighbourhood of Cairo, opposition groups agreed to call on Tuesday for a “march of a million”. They still have to finalise a list of demands and decide whether to nominated ElBaradei as the movement’s official spokesperson.
 
While the alliance may be able to rally around ElBaradei as a unifying force, coming up with a coherent policy platform will be a bigger challenge.
 
Everybody wants Mubarak to go, but the groups vary widely on what should come next. If it does manage to oust him, the fledgling alliance will face its biggest challenge – organising a free and fair election in which the electorate will face a choice between a secular state or an Islamist one that could fall anywhere along the moderate-extremist spectrum.  

 

Date created : 2011-02-01

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