Rice's push for Arab reform resonates with activists

A growing number of groups in Egypt are advocating greater freedoms and speedier reform.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's tough talk about democratic reform in Egypt Monday garnered both reassurance and skepticism among this country's growing reform movement.

"For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East - and we achieved neither," Ms. Rice told the crowd at the American University in Cairo. "Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

And those are words that may embolden Egypt's increasingly impatient - and vocal - democracy movement.

While the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and the secular Kifaya (or Enough) movement have been the most vocal and public groups demanding democratic reform in Egypt, a number of smaller groups have emerged to join the fray.

It's a sign that the stirrings for democratic reform are reaching beyond a few opposition groups and beginning to mobilize formerly apolitical professionals to demand many of the same reforms that Rice called for: fair elections, freedom of expression, and women's rights.

It seems that every day a new organization emerges. There are Writers for Change, Journalists for Change, and Workers for Change, among others.

An ex-prime minister, Aziz Sedki, even formed a group of former government officials, journalists, and academics earlier this month, denouncing the Egyptian regime's corruption and despotism.

Some analysts thank American pressure for the growth of this civil movement, saying that it was this pressure on the Egyptian government that encouraged these groups to demonstrate, to demand democracy and to refuse another term for Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. Some also say that American pressure is helping to protect these organizations from Egypt's security forces.

But with disagreement over whether American pressure is actually what's needed for reform here, Rice's words didn't necessarily comfort everyone.

"American pressure will never bring real change to Egypt," says George Ishak, coordinator of Kifaya. "We shouldn't listen to voices from abroad. We must listen to the Egyptian people."

On the other hand, some say American pressure is the only way to push the Egyptian government to reform. "I cannot imagine any kind of democracy in Egypt without American pressure," says Emad Gad, senior researcher at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "Without it the government will not budge."

To many, Rice's comments made it clear that the US expects the Egyptian government's reform process to move ahead. In what was considered some of the strongest language from a US secretary of State, Rice also criticized Egypt and Saudi Arabia for cracking down on dissent. Rice flew to Riyadh after her Egyptian visit.

Following Mr. Mubarak's announcement earlier this year that he would hold unprecedented multiparty presidential elections in September, the government passed a constitutional amendment restricting the ability of independent candidates to run.

This left the opposition, reformists, and others concerned that the government was not serious about reform. Many also worried that the Bush administration had sided with the Egyptian government's calls for caution over opposition demands for faster change. These worries increased when First Lady Laura Bush called Mubarak's controversial election plans "a bold step" during her visit to Egypt last month.

Most analysts agree that for US pressure to succeed there has to be support for change inside the country. "For reform to progress in Egypt there has to be buy-in from the Egyptians themselves," says one Western diplomat. "It doesn't matter how much [an outside country] shouts. Unless governments want change, it's never going anywhere."

Some maintain that the Egyptian government does in fact support reform, albeit slowly. Besides Mubarak's announcement of multicandidate elections next fall, the regime has allowed the media to be more outspoken, criticizing Mubarak and the possible succession of his son, Gamal. Demonstrations vocally critical of the regime have also been taking place.

Indeed, during Rice's visit Kifaya was in the streets again chanting against Mubarak: "Give him a visa, Condoleezza, and take him with you." While this mocking language was also directed at Rice, it still represents the kind of change she is calling for.

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