Election in Egypt: The Opposition's Bitter Struggle

Despite a brief period of optimism, the NAC failed its first major test. ElBaradei called for a boycott of Sunday's elections, but few heeded his cry.

Among the few NAC members following the boycott was 33 year-old design company owner Tarkey Nowar, who joined the association four months ago. Nowar, who wore glasses and teal blue when I met him, leads an NAC 'Street Squad,' a group of 40 activists who collect signatures for the group's petition. Nowar may be one of the opposition's scant successes, a previously apathetic youth now motivated to agitate for change on the streets.

Nowar says he fights frequently with his mother about his newfound passion. "I was telling her, we have been ordered to do this by the Koran and by Islam. I'm not just doing it for fun. It's obligatory. I was telling her again and again -- I will gain the freedom of my country."

Activists from his group are routinely detained by security forces for anywhere between a few hours to a few days. But what makes pounding the pavement night after night so draining, he says, is that few believe the NAC can change anything. "When I go to talk to people, they are not saying, 'No, this is bullshit, we are not with you.' On the contrary, they say, 'We are so with you, but who cares?'" he recounts. The most common refrain Nowar hears is that people will pray for him.

And maybe they should. He worries that his work will bring financial problems -- lost tenders or a sudden discovery of 'discrepancies' in his tax records. "I think maybe sooner or later it will happen, I hope it won't," he says.

In the past, some opposition activists have lost their jobs or, as discrediting government attacks mount, even the support of their families and friends.

For every eager new reformer, there is someone like Ahmed Maher. Maher is one of the most prominent faces of April Sixth, a pro-democratic youth group. Since joining the opposition in 2005, Maher has been repeatedly detained and tortured. He lost his management job at an engineering firm and dropped out of a master's degree program. "I tolerate it as much as I can because I'm writing a new sentence in history. After me, people will come, continue and finish what I'm doing," he says.

Maher says he is fighting a bigger opponent than just Mubarak's government. "The problem isn't with Mubarak's policies," Maher surmises. "The problem is with the American policy and what the American government wants Mubarak to do. His existence is totally in their hands."

Under George W. Bush's "Freedom Agenda," Egypt's 2005 parliamentary elections were held under a far freer atmosphere than Sunday's embarrassing contests. But after the Muslim Brotherhood flew to electoral victory, and after Hamas found even greater success in Gaza, the U.S. dropped its pressure on the Mubarak regime. That has not changed with Barack Obama.

Even as the regime tightens its grip, the U.S. refuses to resume its pressure on Mubarak, and this week's election returns blanket victories for the ruling party, the opposition fights on.

"It has to happen, it has to happen. Any country that developed democracy, people like me started somewhere. This is what is keeping me going," Maher says. But I can't tell if he is trying to convince me or himself.

See also: Election in Egypt: Inside Cairo's Women-Only Voting Stations.

Image: Parliamentary opposition candidate Gameela Ismail, while at her campaign office, talks to reporters. By Patrick Baz for Getty Images.

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Sarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist. She has reported from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel and Palestine, Libya, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, GQ, the New Republic, Newsweek, and Slate, among others.

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