New Arab rallying cry: 'Enough'
Wednesday's protest in Egypt shows how the growing push for democracy in the Middle East also has an anti-US streak.
CAIRO — At a demonstration here Wednesday, kifaya was the mantra. About 500 secular and democracy activists returned again and again to the one-word slogan - the Arabic word that translates to "enough" - at the heart of their invigorated campaign to bring democracy to Egypt.
Kifaya has become the name of a movement and the buzzword of what some Western commentators are calling the "Arab Spring" - the rise of democratic expression around the region. In rallies from tiny Bahrain to Egypt, demonstrators are shouting kifaya to dictators, kifaya to corruptions, and kifaya to the silence of Arabs eager for change.
There's no question that the freedom rhetoric of the US and President Bush has helped crack the door for political activism in the Middle East. A look behind the slogan, however, reveals a complex web of secular and Islamist activists who say they share Bush's zeal for democracy, but expect real political change will lead to a repudiation of the US.
In Lebanon, largely pro-Western demonstrators saying enough to the Syrian occupation of their country have been met by demonstrators led by Hizbullah, saying enough to what they view as US meddling in Lebanese politics.
In Bahrain last week, the largest protests in memory saw the country's politically disenfranchised Shiite majority saying enough to pro-American King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa's policies. And in Cairo Wednesday the chants included "Enough to Mubarak, Enough to Bush, Enough to Blair,'' along with "We will not be ruled by the CIA" and "Down with the White House."
It was a reminder that while the US has contributed to the shift in climate in the Middle East, a real democratic opening, in the short term at least, may not serve US interests. Most in the region appear angry at America's close relationship with Israel and its invasion of Iraq, and say that statements prodding allies to reform haven't overcome decades of support for Arab dictators.
"There seems to be this assumption that if you're pro-democracy then you're pro-US foreign policy, and that's incredibly misleading,'' says Marc Lynch, a political scientist and expert on the Middle East at Williams College in Massachusetts.
As a secular and modern Egyptian democrat, Jihan Shabaan is the very image of the Middle Eastern citizens President Bush hopes will take to the streets and demand the freedom.
She says a lifetime without political freedoms, in which she's watched average Egyptians drift deeper into poverty, has convinced her to risk everything at the forefront of Egypt's Kifaya movement, which is demanding that President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's long-time strong-man, step down and be replaced by a freely elected leader.
But for Ms. Shabaan and most of her colleagues in the movement, "enough" doesn't apply to President Mubarak alone. She expects a democratic Egypt would distance itself from the US, a long-time ally, and hit out at what she calls decades of "hypocritical" US policy in the Middle East.
"If things really change here, America's illusions that its interests in the region would be advanced by democracy will be laid bare,'' she says. "A real democratic government in Egypt would be strongly against the US occupation of Iraq and regional US policies, particularly over Palestine. We are strongly against US influence."
Despite apparently genuine sentiment, Kifaya organizers say there's also practical reasons to make the distance from the US clear. The government has tried to paint democracy activists as foreign puppets in the past, alleging they take foreign money. "The regime are the ones taking American money. But they always accuse us of having foreign money whenever there are calls for democracy," says Shabaan.
Attitudes like Shabaan's point to a frequently overlooked disconnect. America's conviction that its rhetoric will help secure its interests in the region often clash with the anti-US leanings of many of the Arab world's democracy activists, who generally belong either to Islamist parties or to left-leaning, anti-US groups.
"We want a transformation against America and all its projects in the region,'' says Abdel Halim Qandeel, an editor at the anti-regime Al Arabi newspaper and one of Kifaya's key activists. "There's a historical irony here. We have two kinds of resistance in the region - armed resistance as in Iraq and Palestine, and political resistance in the Arab capitals ... and all of the opposition movements are staunchly anti-imperialist, whether Islamists" or secular nationalists.
Wednesday's demonstration was the latest in a string of illegal protests by the Kifaya movement, with about 500 activists waving yellow banners emblazoned with their slogan and chanting slogans against Mubarak and his son, Gamal, who many here believe is being groomed to take over from the president.
The nucleus of what calls itself Kifaya today began organizing five years ago in response to the Palestinian uprising and picked up steam in March 2003 when about 10,000 Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo to protest the US invasion of Iraq. That protest quickly evolved into an anti-Mubarak demonstration, the first in his 25-year rule.
While those causes might seem far afield from demands for change inside Egypt, the country's activists see them as inextricably linked.
The US has provided about $2 billion a year in aid to Egypt since its 1980 peace agreement with Israel, and Egypt's activists see in the unpopular peace treaty and relative Egyptian silence over the invasion evidence that the country's foreign policy "has been colonized by the US,'' as Mr. Qandeel puts it.