Saturday, April 30, 2005

Kifaya: Asking the Right Questions

Might vs. Right: Kifaya's March 30, 2005 protest in downtown Cairo. Cairo Security Chief General Nabil al-Ezabi and his men (left) face off with Kifaya organizers George Ishaq and Amin Iskandar (right).

On Wednesday, April 27, The Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya) orchestrated its most dramatic protest yet, fanning across 15 Egyptian cities, though many of the demonstrations were scuttled by security forces (see accounts here, here, and here). The protest was Kifaya’s first to extend beyond the usual Cairo-Alexandria-Mansoura troika to include the south (Minya and Aswan).

Let’s reflect on this for a moment. Less than a year ago, the nucleus of Kifaya was formed, immediately after the July 2004 cabinet reshuffle, when 300 some intellectuals and public figures signed a founding statement demanding real political changes, an end to economic inequality and corruption, and an end to Egypt’s dependent foreign policy. Between August 2004 and April 2005, nine months, Kifaya has grown from a small gathering of politicos and intellectuals to a movement that has routinized the right to protest Hosni Mubarak’s policies and unending tenure. Signatures on the founding statement now stand at 4,917, with every conceivable vocation, confession, and extraction represented (full disclosure: mine is one of those signatures).

The Egyptian independent and opposition press and international media have undoubtedly boosted Kifaya’s cachet and visibility. The American media especially have tried to fold Kifaya into the general “Arab Spring” narrative allegedly attributable to Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That staunch friend of Arab democrats, the Washington Post, claimed on 18 January in an editorial entitled “’Enough’ in Egypt”: “Hoping that Mr. Bush is serious, Egyptian opposition movements have formed a coalition to call for fundamental reforms.” The more ingenuous BBC got it right, thankfully, and the CS Monitor truthfully noted Arab democrats’ antipathy to U.S. policies.

So what is Kifaya and what are its prospects? Is it the most dangerous threat to Mubarak’s rule as its supporters have billed it? Or is it yet another bevy of isolated intellectuals as its critics have panned it? Predictably, it’s neither. Asking the right questions is critical here, to avoid fruitless and boring cogitations about exactly how many people showed up at this or that Kifaya protest or assigning meaningless, unwarranted labels to the movement (The CS Monitor recently called it “a mostly liberal” movement, without explanation).


It behooves us to note two facts. First: the emergence of Kifaya was unthinkable and hardly predictable just three years ago, and if anyone claims to have foreseen it then I take my hat off to them in awe. It is a genuinely new type of movement, perpetually under construction. Two: defining what Kifaya is is genuinely difficult. It fits none of the available models found in the (admittedly dessicated) Egyptian political landscape. It’s not an “opposition party”, it’s not an NGO, it’s not a professional association, it’s not a solidarity committee, it’s not a party-in-waiting (like Wasat and Karama), and it’s not a grassroots initiative. It’s none of these even as it borrows personnel, tactics, and organizational repertoires from all of them. The ever-observant Amina Khairy of al-Hayat lyrically reflects on the Kifaya conundrum here.

Kifaya’s maddeningly paradoxical status tempts partisan claims of ownership. To socialists, Kifaya is their cherished moment in the sun, their long-doubted proof of relevance to the Egyptian street. For Nasserists Kifaya is their baby, buoyed by their newspaper and their leading lights. To communists, Kifaya holds the potential to reclaim their 1960s-era mystique and centrality on the national political stage. To “liberals”, Kifaya is a home away from the inhospitable Wafd and businessmen’s outfits tainted by pro-U.S., pro-normalization stances. To sundry Islamists, Kifaya is a redeemable entity ripe for the infusion of an Islamic ethos, while the Ikhwan in particular see the movement as yet another platform where they must flex their muscles and establish their presence.

All the more reason to be clear about how we approach this movement. Instead of fighting over labels, see how it incorporates all labels. Instead of bickering about its “strength,” trace its actions and development of its strategy. Instead of bombastic claims and cynical dismissals, understand how this movement piggybacks on earlier initiatives yet strikes out in genuinely new directions. And don’t get lost in details and forget the big picture: yes, Kifaya has no clear program, no headquarters, and no coherent alternative vision of a post-Mubarak order. But the big picture is that Kifaya has been established and manages to survive in a political system designed to kill politics. That's a remarkable fact.

The movement has no powerful patrons, no big guns, and no money to speak of. It has no grant writers or savvy entrepreneurs to rake in lucrative foreign funds and support. Holding it up to the standards of an organized opposition in a democratic regime is ludicrous, disingenuous, or ignorant, as the case may be. Need we belabor this obvious point? The balance of power between the Mubarak regime and Kifaya is stupendously skewed, and the regime has scary guns aplenty, but this embryonic thing somehow coordinated a 15-city demonstration against the regime and its leader. How did it happen?


Kifaya owes much to earlier gatherings of pro-democracy intellectuals that date back to the 1970s. The wonderful Abdel Ghaffar Shukr, a walking encyclopedia of Egyptian political life, wrote an important book on this titled al-Tahalufat al-Siyasiyya wa al-‘Amal al-Mushtarak fi Misr, 1976-1993 (Political Alliances and Joint Action in Egypt, 1976-1993) (Markaz al-Buhuth al-Arabiyya 1994), complete with appendices of these forgotten alliances’ fascinating ephemera.

The most recent incarnation of these roundtables came in September 1999, with a call for constitutional reform made from the headquarters of the EOHR by a ragtag coalition of human rights groups and political parties. Slated to coincide with the referendum on Hosni Mubarak’s fourth term, the call received some polite media coverage but that was about it. The Mubarak Port Said incident in the same month (billed as a nefarious assassination attempt) hogged all attention, and the constitutionalist initiative soon fell into a desultory state as the usual squabbles erupted between Islamists and leftists, Wafdists and Nasserists, and everyone in between.

Noteworthy: at the press conference announcing the initiative, al-Wafd’s loose cannon Ibrahim Desuqi Abaza vowed to mount a civil disobedience campaign if their demands for a new constitution were not met, drawing snickers from observers and swiftly delivered emollients from other panel members. How times have changed. In 1999, civil disobedience was laughable and shunned, completely outside the accepted script of remonstrating with elites. In 2004, former judge Tareq al-Bishri invited Egyptians to respond to state violence with non-violent resistance, propping the emergent Kifaya movement with intellectual ammunition from an impeccable and widely respected source.

An observant reporter back in 1999 honed in on what the participants were trying to achieve: “People involved with the conference were at pains to explain that long term organization is really what is taking place here. More important than any conference or petition is the creation of a new political movement outside the traditional political structures in the country.” It’s this selfsame impulse that galvanized Kifaya organizers in the days after the July cabinet reshuffle. But even as they built on past ventures, Kifaya organizers repudiated the beseeching model and opted for action. Their audience shifted from state elites to the public at large. “Kifaya control, kifaya corruption, kifaya hypocrisy, kifaya negativism, kifaya talk,” read the links on the Egyptian Movement’s website. As al-Bishri exhorted, “There’s no exit from the condition of fragmentation except by going beyond the dictates of the personalized state. This breaching does not come about through demands addressed to the personalized leadership but through practice. Here, national groupings must realize that the legitimacy of action and movement does not derive from a personalized leadership and its decisions, but from societal organizations and constitutional provisions for liberties and human rights.”

Building on skills and contacts learned in earlier years, a hefty dose of personal friendships, and an opportunity to tap into a pervasive sense of social malaise and outrage, Kifaya moved to turn closed-door meetings into street action.


Organizers were adept at reading social cues. Between 1999 and 2005, three waves of protest marked Egyptian politics. First, the al-Aqsa Intifada in October 2000. Student protests rocked the country, midwifing cross-country Intifada popular solidarity committees that succeeded where other social movement had failed: mobilising ordinary Egyptians. The committees activated the palpable sympathy of everyday Egyptians for the Palestinian cause; solidarity was woven into the fabric of quotidian life. Housewives boycotted American cleaning agents and foodstuffs, even if it meant buying the crappier Egyptian brand. Rural Egyptians contributed livestock and other valuable assets, which were then sold by committee organizers at fundraising auctions. Middle-class students and truck drivers alike stuck boycott stickers and solidarity insignia on their respective vehicles. Islamists worked side by side with socialists to stock and send aid caravans to the Rafah border, not in perfect harmony to be sure and with a fair degree of friction, but guess what, that’s politics.

The second wave came in spring 2002 with Israel’s reinvasion of the West Bank and massacre at Jenin. By that time solidarity committees had established themselves on the political landscape, their organizers invariably harassed by the state: recall Farid Zahran’s arrest. It was impossible to separate Sharon’s brutality from the Mubarak government’s emasculated response. Student protestors and intellectuals alike castigated the Egyptian regime’s purely rhetorical, weak-kneed approach to the Israeli behemoth. Pregnant, unflattering comparisons were drawn: “Hosni Mubarak zayy Sharon, nafs al-shakl wa nafs al-lawn!” (Hosni Mubarak is like Sharon, same looks, same breed!” cried the demonstrators. The old canard that anti-Israel protests vent steam that would otherwise be directed at the government bears no relation to the lived reality of such protests. In 2002 as before, they served as incubators and not deflators of discontent with the government.

The twining of protest issues was on fabulous display in the third wave of protest, the 20 March 2003 anti-Iraq war demonstrations that brought thousands of citizens into Tahrir square, coordinated by mobile phone text messages sent out by Egyptian youth, those souls endlessly and baselessly maligned as apathetic, ignorant, or both. They tore down Mubarak’s huge poster from the NDP headquarters, ominously chanting: “Ya Ala’ ul l-Mubarak, il-manasa fi Intizarak!” (Ala’ tell Mubarak, the reviewing stand awaits you!). The chilling reference to Sadat’s assassination leaves no doubt as to how some young Egyptians feel about their current president. Normally staid and centrist intellectuals took the opportunity to disagree publicly with Mubarak. The chipping away at the untouchable halo surrounding the president had begun, while young people, especially women, were inducted into politics.

A little more than a year later, the nucleus of Kifaya was formed. The immediate context: weeks of speculation fed by the state-owned press about an impending significant change in government personnel. Writers and word on the street hoped against hope for a once-and-for-all purge of hated figures and a more aggressive stance on corruption, unemployment, rising prices, and sundry other facets of the Egyptian condition. When the cabinet reshuffle turned up nothing, bringing in Gamal Mubarak cronies instead, the stage was set for “enough.” Al-Wafd’s expressive Amr Okasha penned a sketch of an irate citizen throwing down a newspaper in disgust and delivering his bottom line, “Who cares new government or old government, are prices going to go down or not?!” The tease of public opinion, the patent disrespect for ordinary Egyptians’ myriad hardships, and the all-too-visible failures of domestic and foreign policies: all had piled up into a reservoir of public disgust ready to be tapped.


Kifaya is an umbrella organization binding together all sorts of contradictory groups, organizations, ideologies, and visions. The only consensus is that Mubarak must go; everything else is up for debate. Hence the capacious yet pithy, deliberately indeterminate name. Kifaya wants change, but there are as many blueprints for change as there are individuals in the movement. How does such a thing organize? There’s no general assembly of voting members, as with a professional association. There’s no board of trustees, as with an NGO. Certainly no politburo as ostensibly exist in those structures generously dubbed “opposition parties” in Egypt. “There’s no set organizational framework, because the whole idea is to break down barriers and burst open closed doors,” says a Kifaya organizer.

As befits an emergent social movement, the main organizing structures are functional committees, each entrusted with a distinct task: media outreach, constitution drafting, development, and so on. A youth component is now ever more visible, as this perceptive press account makes clear. The functional committees are in daily contact with the core group of activists who staff the coordinating committee, the day-to-day operations room of Kifaya. Coordinating committee members plan, negotiate, seek out venues, negotiate, speak to the press, negotiate, brainstorm, negotiate, raise money, negotiate, go home and sleep, wake up, eat breakfast, negotiate, maneuver, negotiate. You get the idea. If nothing else, Kifaya is that rare opportunity to watch up close, in real time, how social movements happen. All the more reason to try and understand what this new organism is rather than try to shoehorn it into our stale, inadequate categories.

The Cairo-based structure piggybacks on and networks with distinct, autonomous structures in the provinces developed out of the Palestine solidarity committees, which are in turn residues of earlier organizational incarnations forged out of earlier struggles, the 1997 land law protests being a prime example. The magical cell phone, beloved by us garrulous Egyptians, is the glue binding it all together. Not to mention an even more binding mechanism: a core of 1970s generation activists who’ve grown up together, campaigned and competed against each other, were prison mates together, and have refused to settle into tranquil middle age without seeing at least some marginal payoff of a life’s worth of activism. They bring to the movement considerable organizational skills honed from years of sparring with the regime. At its best, Kifaya is a warehouse of the nation’s most creative political talents.

The conscious spurning of ossified and authoritarian forms of leadership makes Kifaya a truly collective-run enterprise. There’s no one familiar face of the movement, there are several. There’s not one spokesman, but several. There’s not one leader, but several. And to complicate matters even further: there’s not one ideology, but several. How many Egyptian organizations can we say that about? Even (no, especially) human rights groups are led by one boss who’s the go-to guy for everything. From the family to the state, there’s always a big man (sometimes woman). It's an open question how long Kifaya will continue to escape the social curse of shakhsanat al-sulta (personalization of power).

Faced with the awesome resources of the Egyptian state, every Kifaya demonstration is a logistical miracle in my eyes. A 15-city demonstration is an swesome feat. The movement’s porous structure makes it especially vulnerable to infiltration, factionalism, and disintegration. The infant movement’s self-professed desire to distinguish itself from anything familiar in Egyptian society earns it many enemies, and worse, trepidation from those it seeks to attract. Coordinating committee meetings are heated, loquacious, dramatic affairs where it’s often difficult to separate deliberately divisive grandstanding from genuine and productive disagreement. That anything gets planned at these gabfests is another miracle. Egyptians have been alienated from political action for so long it’s at once startling, jarring, and exhilarating to see them start it from scratch, together.


“Among citizens, there’s a widespread feeling that Hosni Mubarak has ruined their lives.” “Our most difficult task is to tie the issue of presidential election and term limits to the ordinary citizen’s daily problems.” Two different visions of the “Egyptian street,” and consequently two very different visions of how to act. Kifaya activists agree on a bare minimum set of demands, but like virtually everyone else, they disagree about the tendencies, proclivities, and desires of the Egyptian public. Are Egyptians congenitally passive, cowards as some claim? Are they the easiest people in the world to rule, as the nauseating Kamal El-Foly opines in Alaa’ al-Aswany’s Imarat Yacoubian? Or are they patiently storing up years of oppression set to explode at any moment, as the conventional wisdom holds? After years of enforced atomization, Egyptians don’t know much about themselves; organizing a movement courting your fellow citizens becomes a well-nigh impossible task.
As with the venture into the street without permission, Kifaya activists are determined to venture beyond the formulaic rhetorical constructions of elite reform initiatives. A new constitution, yes, but how do you translate that into something ordinary people can understand? How do you make the link between a lousy life bereft of dignity and the right to choose those who govern? How do you demystify the word “emergency law” and whittle it down to the bare bones essentials that Egyptians understand only too well: humiliation and beatings at police stations, random stop and search on the street, anyone in uniform lording it over anyone without one, a pattern of impunity and abuse woven into daily life. (Not an exaggeration: nearly every taxi driver I have talked to has had at least one horrible experience with police and amn al-dawla officers, from repeatedly being forced to drive them around gratis from one end of town to another to prison time on trumped up charges orchestrated by vengeful or sadistic officers).

Kifaya members are fully aware that they’re targeting an entire political culture, that in effect, they’re telling Egyptians: government is not a matter of fate but choice. The president is not king, but your public servant. He needs our permission to rule, we don’t need his permission to live. “We’re through with the idea of asking permission, we’re gaining the right not to ask permission,” is how a Kifaya organizer put it. To translate this requires considerable skill, understanding, and respect for the ordinary Egyptian, a rare commodity among intellectuals used to alternately improving or blaming the ignorant masses.

No one is more gifted at rendering the highfalutin concepts of politics into ordinary language than Kamal Khalil, the grizzled man with the bullhorn who riles up the crowds and draws furtive smiles from the hapless gendarmerie at every demonstration. Civil engineer, Trotskyist, inveterate protestor, lifelong activist: Kamal Khalil is a very Egyptian mix of boyish charm, genuine modesty, and strong convictions. He’s one of the most unpretentious creatures I have ever met. Born and raised in the poor interstices of the fashionable Dokki neighborhood, Khalil credits historian Mohamed Anis for his political awakening. “I’m the youngest of nine children, we really lived a miserable life. Until age 19, I had no interest in politics. Then one evening I was dressed nice and off to a date when Dr. Muhammad Anis stopped me and asked where I was going. He used to lead young people in community service work in the neighborhood, and then convened seminars in the qahwa at night. He spoke to me for a bit, I ended up picking a shovel and clearing garbage and didn’t go to my date! I’m forever indebted to him for this transition in my life.”

The organic intellectual soon developed a reputation as an inventive and effective sloganeer. He was first arrested in the January 1972 student protests, and 12 more times since (we listed and counted). Watching Khalil think up his ditties is a rare treat: here’s someone with his finger on the proverbial pulse of the proverbial street, who has a sense for mocking the powerful in layman’s terms, of giving moral outrage a political tweak. And he’s not afraid.

Changing minds and overturning concepts takes time, and Kifaya’s tack of borrowing Egyptians’ resonant everyday language to package complex and counterintuitive political ideas is an uphill, rocky road. Democracy is a strange, unnatural idea. Rule by the unqualified many is abhorrent to many people, including many in advanced and old democracies. Think how even more difficult it is in a system founded on decades of popular repression and oligarchic rule, in a society riddled with class bias and inequality in every corner. It’s not easy to convince Egyptians that they can and must choose their governors, when a huge propaganda machine and ambient social relations reinforce and sanctify obedience and fear of authority. Hence the importance of frequent, repeated protests, no matter how small, each time chipping away at elaborate ideological structures of manufactured fear and servility. As Kifaya organizer George Ishaq told al-Ahram Weekly of Wednesday's protest, “We don't care about the number of people who joined the protest, but rather about the fact that such acts of opposition are taking place.”

Given that they have set themselves the narrow, focused task of changing ordinary Egyptians’ views on the place and power of government in their lives, it’s nonsensical to criticize Kifaya for not forwarding a coherent program or alternative vision. Alternative visions are a dime a dozen, take your pick; every political group and party in Egypt has a written manifesto and blueprint, some wackier than others, all printed in nice booklets stacked up in the corner gathering dust. Every cabal calling itself a party starts by commissioning a pamphlet. What’s needed now is not yet another pamphlet to throw on the pile, but someone who’ll speak to the people, in plain language. “The problem in Egyptian politics is the lack of consistency between actions and words, and between even words and words. Qualitative transitions should be our focus now, not tit-for-tat statements in response to the government, the Ikhwan, or whoever else,” says a Kifaya organizer.

Significant Others

The government and the Ikhwan are indeed Kifaya’s two most formidable organized interlocutors. I think it’s safe to say that Kifaya has wrested the initiative from the regime, putting it on the defensive, in perpetually reactive mode. Because of the intense international scrutiny on many Arab regimes, the costs of repressing Kifaya are increasing by the day. The recent international furor over Ayman Nour might be repeated, and that would be the last thing the regime wants. But let’s be cautious: forecasting the Egyptian regime’s behavior is a fool’s errand. They’ve stepped in the shit many times before, and always seem game for more repression no matter how colossal a blunder it proves to be.

What’s clear is that Kifaya has earned the right to negotiate with the government, even if just at the street level with security chiefs, as the above photograph demonstrates. That’s a whole lot more than what “opposition party leaders” get. Kifaya has forced Hosni Mubarak to come up with reasons for what he thinks he’s accomplishing by running again. It’s forced the state-owned press to think up attacks on the fledgling movement, and it’s forced the Interior Minister to make statements about how he won’t tolerate demonstrators' “curses” and “profanity” at “state leaders.”

There’s no doubt that Kifaya has unmoored the Ikhwan, revealing as never before the multiple factions contending for influence within the presumptively hyper-organized group. The Ikhwan have sent mixed signals to Kifaya, keeping a cordial presence under the umbrella lest they be excluded but going it alone when it comes to demonstrations and street protest. It’s clear that influential Ikhwan leaders, General Guide Muhammad Mahdi Akef prime among them, are not ready to openly ally with the Movement, perhaps holding out for the repeatedly dashed hope that Hosni Mubarak will wake up tomorrow and reconcile with them, bringing them into the warm embrace of power.

Other Ikhwan members say Kifaya is very popular with the group’s rank and file, reinforcing the leadership-membership split widely rumored to be the Ikhwan’s Achilles Heel. Kifaya organizers echo this view, seeing Akef as the Ikhwan old guard’s last hurrah, after which the group will be run by a younger, more savvy cadre less interested in building privileged links to regime leaders and more interested in developing horizontal linkages with other social groups. Be that as it may, the curiously under-reported General Guide’s 27 April statement contains the Ikhwan’s first-ever explicit announcement of their intention to form a civil political party “with an Islamic reference,” a point of contention for years within the organization. Is this Ikhwan ripose to Hosni Mubarak's dismissal of religious parties on his TV "interview" emboldened by Kifaya?

Lifecycle of a Movement
If Kifaya is seen as a dynamic social movement in perpetual transformation, influencing and being influenced by its environment, then different sorts of questions need to be asked about its structure, functions, prospects, and strategies. It cannot be shoehorned into any one of the available political templates in Egypt because it transcends and defies them all, setting itself the task of mobilizing for change, tout court. If it evaporates from the scene tomorrow as social movements often do, it will still have wrought a significant change in the character of public politics in Egypt even before any regime change has taken place. It might be remembered as the first sustained effort to bring together ordinary and elite Egyptians under a common project of resisting native rather than foreign tutelage (as was the case in 1919). Historiographers might see in it a merging of their beloved, oft-sundered twin processes: the struggle for democracy and the struggle for national independence, the former always readily sacrificed once the latter was attained. Economic historians will detect changes in the structures of production and labor markets as catalysts for social mobilization, while historians of ideas might perhaps mark Kifaya as the beginning of the consolidation of the democratic idea in Egyptian popular politics.

As a work in progress, the Egyptian Movement for Change cues and is cued by its significant others: just as it has pushed the state and the Ikhwan to modify and adapt their modus operandi, so have these interlocutors structured Kifaya’s incremental, protest-centered strategies and orientation toward the vast, excluded though not indifferent Egyptian public. But its momentum is not unstoppable: if the state cracks down, if Kifaya’s tactics cease to capture the public’s imagination, if international attention is averted, then the movement will wither. It might fade from the scene, devolve into contending factions, or morph into one of the familiar slots in the current political mold. Just as it’s too soon to declare it a success, it’d be equally foolhardy to pronounce it a failure.

I can't resist ending on a rousing, perhaps farfetched, but still uncannily resonant note. An irascible, tendentious, cutting observer of Egyptian affairs once wrote: “For in the Land of Paradox grapes do grow from thorns and figs from thistles. If the conditions, under which the government of Egypt has to be carried on, seem like a nightmare, the revival of the country during the last few years, under and in spite of these conditions, is almost worthy of a fairy tale. Here, again, the spirit of the eccentric and the improbable, which seems inseparable from all things Egyptian, has rollicked in a new surprise.” Alfred Milner in his England in Egypt (1892) was referring to what he liked to think were the revivifying effects of British occupation. I like to think how horrified he would be to behold the current picture of contentious Egyptians agitating for self-rule from their own native sahibs.