x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Professional and working-class Egyptians find alternative on streets

'No one can say that the Muslim Brotherhood, or Kefaya, or any other group is in charge. The protests in Egypt are less about politics and more about asking for freedom, for jobs, and for an end to corruption.'

CAIRO // Before this week, Ahmed Hishmat, a 28-year-old lawyer, wanted nothing to do with either protests or politics. Neither did Mohammed Adeeb, a 20-year-old actor.

But both came out of their homes in the Egyptian capital to join tens of thousands of Egyptians in massive protests and bolster a youth-led opposition movement that has mounted the biggest public challenge to the government in at least two decades.

The movement has swelled mainly because it has disavowed the sectarian and political ties of other opposition parties, and benefitted from popular disgust with the government's crackdown, analysts and activists say.

"I feel more enthusiasm because I found people who are playing politics for the first time in their lives," said Mr Adeeb, who attended rallies in Cairo on Wednesday after five of his friends were arrested the day before in the country's biggest protest rally in at least a decade.

"It's my first time to participate in demonstrations, before I would only talk about my opinion."

Mr Hishmat, the lawyer, joined in the protests because he said he saw a movement that is unified in its opposition to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak but "doesn't have any political leaders".

Instead, this week's protests have been co-ordinated by anonymous figures using Facebook, Twitter and SMS, but none has emerged in the public spotlight.

The most prominent opponent of the government, Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was not in the country for the large rally on Tuesday. He returned to Egypt last night.

Some of the organisers were due to meet yesterday evening to plan large demonstrations for today after prayers, said George Ishaq, a veteran of the Egyptian secular opposition who said he is helping co-ordinate the protests. The identities of the other organisers are secret, he said.

"The young generation who rule now are very brave. They are very well organised," said Mr Ishaq, who co-founded Kefaya, a secular opposition group, six years ago. "We have been working since 2004, and we didn't get anywhere, but now the situation is very potent. This comes amidst the election of the false parliament, corruption, unemployment and a failing health system."

He added: "No one can say that the Muslim Brotherhood, or Kefaya, or any other group is in charge."

Demonstrations are not new in a country with a history of political turmoil, including a bread riot in 1977 in which large sections of the police force defected and joined tens of thousands of protesters.

But for the last 10 years, the secular opposition, comprised mostly of university graduates, has failed to attract more than a few thousand people to its rallies in the country's biggest cities. The Muslim Brotherhood, the country's outlawed Islamist movement, has focused on building its grassroots network and campaigning for seats in parliament.

Professional and working-class Egyptians are attracted to the current wave of protests precisely because it is an alternative to these other groups, said Emad Gad, an analyst at the government-funded Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"Now we are seeing a non-ideological, non-political generation in Egypt," he said. "The main difference is there is no political interest behind these demonstrations. They are demonstrating for their own reasons. They are asking for freedom, for jobs, for an end to corruption."

The government's response, which has emphasised the use of security forces over conciliatory public statements, has only attracted more youth to the movement, Mr Gad said. The secretary general of the ruling National Democratic Party, Safwat el Sharif, said yesterday that the party is ready to open a dialogue with protesters, but he did not offer any concessions.

In terse statements, government officials have suggested that the demonstrations were led by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yesterday, a spokesman urged youth to be aware of the "hidden agendas" of Islamists and others exploiting the protests.

But that warning is unlikely to resonate with average Egyptians who see a movement that is signing up more of their neighbours every day, said Shadi Hamid, an Egyptian politics expert and fellow at the Doha-based Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.

"What's different about this is it's not the Muslim Brotherhood - that would have helped because the regime would have been able to demonise them, describe them as different from other Egyptians," he said.