The Challenger

For Egypt's opposition, reforms change little, and America is still the 'kiss of death'

Ismail says that the foundation fields countless housing requests from those still displaced by the 1992 Cairo earthquake. There is also an emphasis, she said, on helping young married couples with the expense of moving out of their parents' homes and starting their lives.

This is a page from the playbook of Egypt's Islamic groups, which gained new popularity providing services the government could not after the '92 earthquake. Ismail says there is no significant Islamist presence in Bab Al-Sha'araya, so her foundation fills the gap between the government and real hardship.

And there are signs the message is spreading beyond the neighborhood. On a recent night, one man said he had traveled two hours from outside of Cairo to see Ayman Nour, hoping to spring a relative from prison. Ismail claims the center receives visitors from all over the country.

Ayman Nour, an opposition leader, is consoled by supporters just after an Egyptian court again postponed a decision to legalize his political party.
photo: Kareem Fahim
Ayman Nour, an opposition leader, is consoled by supporters just after an Egyptian court again postponed a decision to legalize his political party.

"I think the news is all good concerning Al-Ghad," said one of the Western observers who attended the NDP conference, and who has been watching Nour's party. "They're smart people, and they want to learn. The problem for them is going to be developing a constituency not on the level of desperation. They also need to be not about one person. They need a decentralized base, that has decision-making authority. This happens in many opposition groups—they replicate the political dynamic they know."

Nour shared the stage that night at the community center with Mona Makram-Ebeid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, and herself a former parliament member. Ebeid is now the secretary general of Tomorrow. Like Nour, whom she has known for decades, she comes from a storied Egyptian political family; and like Nour, she seems desperate for Egypt to regain the vibrancy of political life she remembers from another era.

"When Ayman approached me to join the party, I found in him the principles I had fought for 20 years ago," she said. "His great asset is that he identifies with people. He has an acute feeling of the street."

In Ebeid, Nour seems to have found a blunt, intellectual heavyweight who shares his general vision, if not always its details. Nour seems to blame the invasion of Iraq on Saddam Hussein, and she disagrees. Nour is careful when speaking about the role of religion in Tomorrow, saying he believes in the secularism of the state. "But we cannot make religion absent in things related to individuals," he adds, saying that religion is the source of ethics, and some legislation. "Look, we're basically secular," says Ebeid, who is a Copt.

Finally, the two have different views of Egypt's place in the Arab world. Nour says he is not as interested in the Arab world as he is in the Mediterranean and Nile Basin countries. "Egyptians are interested in Palestine and Iraq because the Egyptian media has changed them. We need to defend Egypt first, to make it capable of defending Palestine." Ebeid said she would explain it a different way. "We need to show 'enlightened interest.' We belong to a broader entity called the Arab world. You cannot have a vision of Egypt, alone. But you must also have your house in order."

These differences seem small, for now, and the two seem ultimately to agree on one important point.

"Egypt should lead," said Ebeid. "It's always been a pacesetter. Now these Arab countries are going further than us, lifting restrictions and opening business opportunities."


America, the riddle

Joseph Hall, who works for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, sat behind Nour that evening, watching quietly. Afterwards, he declined to comment on his trip to Egypt except to say that the NDI, which is a nonpartisan arm of the Democratic Party, is "assessing the situation."

Still, Ebeid and Nour seemed anxious to have him there, despite their sullen view of America's role in the region. "The U.S. has lost all credibility," said Ebeid. "There's a breach of confidence. How can you believe them now? Their interests come first."

Nour took this point further: "Since the aid given to Egypt by the U.S. is misused by the government, all that remains in the minds of simple people is the position of America in Iraq and Darfur. The U.S. has no role in developing democratic life in Egypt. The dream of liberalism we had in the '70s has turned into a nightmare, especially after the latest developments, like Abu Ghraib."

Yet the U.S., welcome or not, continues trying to pull the levers here. "No one is willing to admit that the dynamic for reform is American pressure," says Hani Shukrallah, editor of the English-language Al Ahram Weekly newspaper. "There is a sense of urgency, I think. The U.S. and Europe both say to Egypt, 'You've become a source of trouble.' " Shukrallah said he's not sure America has a role to play supporting opposition groups like Tomorrow. "They should just stay away," he said. "It's the kiss of death."

Amy Hawthorne, an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, was also in Egypt last week, as a guest of the NDP. "There is a lot of confusion about what the U.S. should do," she said. "The fact that we were invited here shows that there is concern with Western public opinion, which is probably a by-product of diplomatic engagement. At no time in the past has the Egyptian government been concerned about that.

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