Thursday, February 10, 2011

who are the egyptian protestors and what do they want?

Foreign Affairs | Americans have proven remarkably sympathetic to Egypt’s protests, which are now entering their third week. But in trying to make sense of a complex situation, most commentators have glossed over the varying demands of the opposition’s different elements.

Egypt’s reform factions share a belief in an orderly transition to representative government but reflect wildly divergent political ideologies. At the head of the movement stands Mohamed El Baradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and his National Association for Change. The NAC is not a legal political party but rather an umbrella group organized around El Baradei’s demands for an end to Egypt’s decades-long state of emergency and for the introduction of democratic and constitutional reforms. Although it is relatively small and not well organized it has recently gained popularity among Egyptians everywhere.

Groups that have rallied around the NAC include the April 6 Movement and Kefaya (Enough). For the last two years the April 6 Movement has organized demonstrations in support of workers’ rights and is now calling for increasing Egypt’s minimum wage. In 2008, it supported Egypt’s first major labor strikes in decades, in the industrial town of Mahalla, on the Nile Delta.

Kefaya -- founded in 2004 to protest Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s candidacy for yet another term -- wants the government to amend the constitution to liberalize the political system. Led by the leftist activist George Ishak, the former head of the country’s union of Catholic schools, it has blossomed into a coalition that includes leftists, liberals, and Islamists. It serves as an umbrella movement for protests against Mubarak’s continued rule and in favor of an independent judiciary.

These have been joined by the Khaled Said Group (named for a young blogger beaten to death by the Egyptian police), which advocates an end to police brutality across the country, and the March 9 Movement, which strives to make universities independent from state interference. The liberal El-Ghad party (led by Ayman Nour), the liberal Democratic Front (led by Osama Ghazali Harb), and the Nasserite Arab nationalist Karama party (led by Hamden El-Sabahi), have all called for a more democratic system. None of these groups is more than eight years old, and El Baradei’s NAC was formed only last year.

Meanwhile, the traditional parties and movements that have existed for most of the Mubarak era -- such as the liberal Wafd Party, the socialist National Progressive Union, and the Muslim Brotherhood -- continue to call for political reforms as they have for almost three decades. The Brotherhood is the best organized and funded of the three, and its status as an illegal but tolerated organization gives it more autonomy in its finances and internal structure. None of these groups instigated the protests in Egypt, but all have helped sustain them.

The most immediate disagreement among the protest groups is whether they should negotiate with the current regime or demand its ouster. Indeed, the protest movement began to splinter on February 1, when Mubarak announced that he would not run for office in September and would enter dialogue with opposition parties.

Over the past several days, the newly installed vice president and a former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, has been meeting with opposition leaders to persuade them to allow Mubarak to remain in office and carry out political reforms. The opposition groups disagree about whether they can compel the government to implement reform, given that country’s cabinet, parliament, and security forces are all still controlled by Mubarak. So some key elements of the opposition -- including El Baradei, Nour, Harb, and the protesters in Tahrir Square -- have refused the government’s plan of allowing the Mubarak regime to enact reforms at its own pace.

What will happen next is difficult to predict.

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