CAIRO—One night last week, on the ground floor of a cavernous community center in the working-class neighborhood of Bab Al-Sha’araya, an Egyptian opposition politician named Ayman Nour stood on a stage in front of his constituents, his wife, and an American visitor, and held up a slim tangerine-colored pamphlet he hopes will refresh the political life of his country.
The 48-page booklet is a stab at a new constitution for Egypt. Its preamble, which opens with the phrase “We the Egyptian people,” is a broad attack on Egypt’s current political order, calling for an end to fear and despotism.
“We are owners of this nation, and partners in it, not day laborers,” it reads. “Citizens, and not subjects.”
Nour is just 39 years old, a two-term parliament member and the head of a nascent political party called the Hizb Al-Ghad, or the Party of Tomorrow. He is a divisive figure here, called a publicity-seeking opportunist by some, by others a politician who has shrewdly taken the Egyptian pulse. He and his confederates in Tomorrow are currently waging a battle to gain official sanction for their movement, but a board that approves Egyptian political parties has denied four of their applications so far.
On Sunday, an Egyptian court postponed until November a response to Nour’s request that it overrule the powerful Parties Committee, which is headed by a member of the ruling party.
Tomorrow’s struggles are being fought against a backdrop of political upheaval in Egypt. A political loosening that began in the late 1990s intensified after George W. Bush’s call for democracy in the Middle East, and the war in Iraq. President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981, has said that reform is a priority for the country. But a conference held here last week by Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) tacked sharply toward new economic measures, and unveiled no bold political ones.
The NDP invited a number of foreign observers to the conference, which was seen as a nod to the new openness. One American observer called the proposed political reforms “less than cosmetic.”
Opposition figures like Nour have said that reform talk by Mubarak’s government is meaningless without a change to the country’s constitution, which they claim consolidates power in the hands of the president and the members of his NDP. The debate is sure to intensify in the run-up to next year’s presidential election, which would be the fifth for the 76-year-old president, if he decides to take part. If he doesn’t, there is speculation he will choose Gamal Mubarak, his 40-year-old son, to run instead.
The government’s opponents are further hobbled by the perception that they have little public support. The exception is the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which officially is banned, but in practice is tolerated. The situation has given rise to the barbed conundrum that Mubarak’s government refers to every time the pressure to democratize cranks too high: Free and fair elections in Egypt would probably mean victories for a raft of Islamist candidates.
A senior State Department official told the Voice in August that Bush administration officials are sympathetic to the Egyptian government’s dilemma. “We do want a democratic process,” the official said. “We’re interested in groups that support democracy. Some of these religious groups have come out historically as groups that are trying to overthrow the regime, and they’re not providing, in our mind, an alternative that allows for a free democratic process.”
Ayman Nour calls his party liberal,which in Egypt means advocating a market economy and a multiparty democracy. “Egyptians are centrist,” he said in an interview before Sunday’s court decision. “They are afraid of the Islamic trend. The current opposition is all outdated, and at peace with the government. We are the logical alternative.”
In the U.S., Nour’s opponents would call him a carpetbagger. He is originally from a city on the Nile delta north of Cairo, and chose to run for the parliament seat that includes Bab Al-Sha’araya when it was clear to his former party, Al Wafd, that they had a shot at it. Nour started his career at the Wafd writing for their newspaper, and that period marked the beginning of his quarrels with the establishment, after he ran pictures showing torture in Egyptian prisons. Nour was thrown out of the party in 2000, after a dispute with the leadership.
But Bab Al-Sha’araya seems to have been a fortunate choice. The community center in the neighborhood’s main square is now a project of the Nour Foundation, a charity named after the family and run by Gameela Ismail, Nour’s wife. Ismail, who juggles duties as a mother, a writer for Newsweek magazine, and the host of several shows on Egyptian television, is the softer front of Ayman Nour’s assault on the government.
Their charity group helps Bab Al-Sha’araya’s residents, and especially women, navigate the notorious Egyptian bureaucracy. Every Wednesday night, the courtyard in front of the center is packed with petitioners asking for help with housing, schools, or the police, or just for money. Nour and Ismail normally spend about 45 minutes in the middle of this melee responding to requests before the evening program starts, at about 9 p.m. Upstairs in the center, neighborhood residents take computer and English classes.
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.
“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.
“We can’t do nothing,” she continued. “The U.S. did not create authoritarianism in the region. What we’ve done is aided and abetted it. We have a role to play in perpetuating or promoting gradual change.” Hawthorne suggested that America should not shy away from supporting groups that criticize U.S. policy.
“It’s part of what they do to mobilize support.”