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Kifaya and the Politics of the Impossible

Issandr El Amrani
Date Published: 
March 01, 2006
    Social movements and activist groups in the Arab world are rarely acknowledged or heard about in the west. Even worse, recently the Bush administration has tried to take credit for the work of these grassroots groups, who struggle and protest under the most repressive conditions. One dynamic group in Egypt called Kifaya (meaning “Enough” in Arabic) has not only brought the politics of protest to the streets of Cairo but has dramatically changed “politics as usual” in Egypt under the US-backed regime of Hosni Mubarak.

On December 12, 2004, a small group of people gathered outside an imposing court at the heart of Downtown Cairo. There were, at the most, about 100 people; most of them seasoned middle-aged activists that were regular fixtures in leftist demonstrations. This demonstration, like so many over the past few years, was against Israeli repression of Palestinians, the war on Iraq, the detention of political prisoners and a myriad of other issues. The protest was surrounded by hundreds of Central Security troops, Egypt’s paramilitary riot control police. The function of the rows of soldiers—clad in black uniforms and wielding large plastic shields and batons—was both to contain the demonstrators and to intimidate bystanders from joining their ranks. The protesters, who had been pushed back on a stairwell leading to one of the court’s entrances, stood silently inside the cordon of troops. Some held up posters, others had stickers plastered on their mouth. All had a single word written in large, red, stylized Arabic letters against a bright yellow background: Kifaya—Arabic for “enough.” That small demonstration was the spark that ignited a much wider movement whose effect on Egyptian politics is still hard to discern. The organizers of the December 12 demonstration were two small groups that had formed in September 2004 around these demands. Both groups included seasoned activists from disparate movements, mostly from Egypt’s left. They include Abdel Halim Qandil, the editor-in-chief of the Nasserist weekly Al Arabi—a newspaper that has in the past year broken most of the “red lines” against criticism of President Hosni Mubarak, his family or the military. For his stance, Qandil was kidnapped, beaten and left stranded naked in the desert outside Cairo after being told to “stop talking about the ‘big wigs.’” Other organizers included Aida Seif Al Dawla, a Marxist activist who has become one of the Arab world’s most prominent human rights activists for her work with torture victims, and Kamal Khalil, the leader of a previously underground group. Many of the other seasoned leftist and progressive activists involved had dedicated the last few decades of their lives to protecting fellow citizens from the abuses of a police state. They were also been joined by some unlikely figures, such as Mohammed Abdel Qudous, a veteran Islamist activist and member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood—an organization that has been at odds with the Egyptian secular left for over 50 years—and members of the socialist-turned-Islamist Labor Party, a once influential opposition force. All of them knew they were up against a state, which has one of the largest populations of political prisoners in the Arab world. Kifaya, therefore, is not just a grouping of party apparatchiks and fellow travelers. Rather, it is the product of the political activism of the last few years that has helped to partially galvanize a once-atomized opposition. The origins of what is today known as Kifaya came out of two organizations: the original Kifaya, dominated by Arab nationalist tendencies, and the Popular Movement for Change, a more ecumenical socialist group. A year later, the slogan “Kifaya” is used to describe an amorphous and rapidly growing number of groups that have emerged in the wake of that first demonstration. These include a myriad of groups “for change”—students for change, youth for change, university professors for change, workers for change, artists for change, etc.—as well as single-issue movements like a corruption watchdog organization called Shayfeenkum (“We see you”). Many of these groups have members from widely different professions, social classes, activist experience and age; but all now campaign under the slogan Kifaya to demand change at both the macro and micro level of politics—from the office of the president to the presence of security officers on university campuses. Palestinian intifada To understand the diversity of the Kifaya movement, it is important to look back at what preceded it. Starting with the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, Egyptians of all political stripes (but especially from the left) began to organize conferences, fundraising drives and aid convoys for the victims of Israeli military attacks in Gaza and the West Bank. The backbone of this activism effort consisted of loosely connected “popular committees,” only some of whose main focus was working on the Palestinian cause. Other committees were simply workers’ rights movements acting outside of the state-controlled unions, or dealt with local issues. The intifada—and particularly the outrage that followed Israeli operations in Jenin in April 2002—created new networks of activism, bringing together seasoned activists and young, apolitical Egyptians who tended to know more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the situation in their own country. The Anti-Globalization Egyptian Group (AGEG), Egypt’s first anti-globalization movement, was born-again partly because the Al Aqsa intifada brought European and Arab activists together, with the latter also bringing some of the ideas currently driving the European left. A few years later, many of the same groups and individuals were also behind the demonstrations against the war on Iraq. Many activists had been furious at the Egyptian government for maintaining good relations with Israel and its American backer during the intifada. The invasion of Iraq may have been the tipping point: on March 20, 2003, the first day of the invasion, popular anger at American policy turned to anger at Mubarak himself for accepting and even excusing the actions of Egypt’s key Western backer. Activists from the left began to appropriate an old Islamist slogan that “the road to Jerusalem goes through Cairo.” Now, many young leftist activists have adopted the slogan “the road to Baghdad goes through Cairo”—that is, that to liberate Baghdad one must first free Cairo from its US-backed regime. It is perhaps also then that political activism began to change from being directed outward at events in the region (which had always been encouraged by the regime) inward to Egypt itself. In the context of a “war on terror” that they felt was a war on Islam, threats and attacks against other Arab countries, a tacit endorsement of Israeli annexation of the West Bank by the West and pro-Western Arab countries, and a deteriorating socio-economic situation at home, many Egyptians started to feel powerless and humiliated. They decided that they had had enough. Since that first Kifaya demonstration began to capture people’s imagination, the word Kifaya has since become synonymous with an urgent need for change that is deeply felt by Egyptians of all political persuasions and that has even been partly recuperated by a regime in the middle of the most important political transition in over two decades. More immediately, the word and the demonstration was a previously unseen public and personal attack against Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt in an increasingly authoritarian fashion since his predecessor Anwar Al Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Kifaya’s other slogan, also introduced at that demonstration, is “la lil tagdid wa la lil tawrith”—“no to re-election and no to inheritance”—a cry against the re-election of Mubarak for a fifth term in office and the apparent grooming of his son Gamal to replace him. More generally, Kifaya’s leaders—some of whom have suffered the repression of three successive presidents—are targeting the institution of the presidency and the very character of Egypt’s presidential republic in which the executive has steadily encroached on the other branches of government to become an opaque and indomitable power. That critique, along with calls for a new constitution that would redistribute power towards parliament, has since become a common demand across the political spectrum and endorsed, at least partially, by Mubarak himself during his presidential campaign. Easy prey Yet, almost a year after that original demonstration, critics feel the Kifaya movement has outlived its stated purpose. Mubarak, after all, has been re-elected in the country’s first multi-candidate election with some 87 percent of the vote, and his son Gamal is becoming ever powerful in the ruling National Democratic Party. There have been few concessions to Kifaya’s demands, and the movement is viewed with suspicion—if not disdain—by Egypt’s legal opposition and the banned Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that is the most popular opposition group on Egypt’s streets. The International Crisis Group, an influential Brussels-based think tank, wrote in a September report on political reform in Egypt that Kifaya’s very future was in doubt: Kifaya’s agitation has in reality got nowhere…Its decision to target President Mubarak and the issue of presidential power was arguably a strategic error. The anti-Mubarak line has made little or no impression on the public, for the very good reason that neither Kifaya nor any other opposition force has had a plausible alternative candidate…Without positive demands, Kifaya’s anti-Mubarak line has come across as an end in itself. Not only has this guaranteed the authorities’ implacable hostility, but it has also divided potential democratic reform forces and left Kifaya at logger-heads with the main opposition parties, isolated and easy prey for repression. This is fast becoming the conventional wisdom on Kifaya among Western observers of Egyptian politics, not least because the movement does not appear to have had much success in attracting true mass appeal—the number of people at its demonstrations has never exceeded a few thousand. The group’s leadership also has little political acumen, preferring principled grandstanding to pragmatic compromise. Its organization is hazy at best, with the myriad of groups often having little contact and frequently disagreeing with one another. Some even see Kifaya as an opportunist group that tries to provoke scuffles with security forces to attract attention, particularly from the international press. Post-Mubarak Egypt There is a real risk that Kifaya’s membership will not go far beyond a core of politically educated activists, despite the group’s efforts to spread their ideas, notably in lower-income urban neighborhoods. Although Kifaya has made efforts to campaign on everyday issues such as unemployment and corruption, its core ideas of increased political freedom may be too abstract for the average poor Egyptian whose concerns tend to be much more down-to-earth. Dozens of critiques have been made of Kifaya—many of them by its own members. Nonetheless, it also seems difficult to imagine that the limited political reforms of the past year—the amendment of the constitution to allow for multi-candidate elections, presidential promises to curtail emergency law, increase the role of parliament in politics, a quasi-revolt by judges over electoral supervision, and the regime’s endorsement of the idea that change is necessary—would have been possible without it. Many analysts believe it was the combination of US pressure by a Bush administration embarrassed by Egypt’s regime at a time when its official policy is to promote democracy in the Middle East and local discontent that forced the regime’s hand. They tend to be dismissive of the second half that equation. But perhaps they should consider that the US would have been unlikely to abandon as useful and pliant an ally on the regional scene as Mubarak. Predictions of Kifaya’s death are premature. Whatever form of political reform Egypt will go through over the next few years, democracy activists will have to fight tooth and nail for it. By combating 20 years of willful political atrophy on the part of the Mubarak regime, the Kifaya movement has awakened interest for change in the general public, even if most still shy away from joining it on the streets. There is a good chance that Kifaya will lose the coming fight to determine the outline of a post-Mubarak Egypt—its opponents among the regime, Islamists, and a rising business elite are far more powerful than it. But Kifaya will have begun the process of rebuilding an Egyptian left crushed by decades of police oppression and begun to reverse the political marginalization caused by the rise of political Islam. Along the way, Kifaya will have reminded a people often dismissed as passive and fatalistic that dissent is possible. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Issandr El Amrani is a Moroccan-American freelance journalist based in Cairo. His work has appeared in The Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe,, Bidoun, The Daily Star, Middle East International and elsewhere. He is the former editor of the Cairo Times and managing editor of Cairo magazine.