Outmatched Liberals Stump in Rural Egypt

If liberals are to have any traction in the country after Mubarak, they are going to have to sway voters away from Islamist parties

Bassem speaks.jpg

Bassem Kamel addresses about 150 supporters at the inaugural rally of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party in Kafr El-Sheikh, a provincial town, before Ramadan / Thanassis Cambanis

KAFR EL-SHEIKH, Egypt -- Bassem Kamel was running late for the official launch of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party in this provincial capital at the marshy edge of the Nile Delta.

Kamel is a busy man. He sits on the executive committee of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, the most important forum representing the organizations that sparked Egypt's January 25 uprising. He's a key organizer of Mohammed El-Baradei's presidential campaign. And he's a founder, and likely parliamentary candidate, for the Social Democratic Party, one of the most compelling of the new parties that can credibly lay claim to the liberal Revolutionary political center.

On this summer night, however, Kamel's top priority was this remote farming entrepôt near the Mediterranean coast, where his party hopes to challenge the better-established Islamist parties in the upcoming elections with a message of equality, social justice, and prosperity delivered by a transparent, liberal, civilian-controlled, secular state.

The Democracy ReportIf liberals are to have any traction in Egypt after Mubarak, they're going to have to win a following in neglected but not forgotten towns like this one. They're not shirking from the challenge, and contrary to some caricatures of the revolutionaries here, they haven't obsessed with the politics of protest and the symbolism of Tahrir Square to the exclusion of other political avenues. How well they're doing is another matter, and a crucial one for judging the chances of liberalism in Egypt's next stage.

Islamists always seem to outgun liberals in the contest for mass support, routinely drawing thousands to their rallies, and relying on existing networks of mosques and charities that long pre-date Hosni Mubarak's resignation.

The Social Democrats, by contrast, operate on a shoestring and are starting from zero. Kamel and the other founders have drafted a careful platform that adapts the vision of Europe's social democrats to Egypt's vast population, endemic poverty, and state-dominated economy. Put simply, the Social Democrats want to help the poor without stifling the market; they want to create wealth as well as redistribute it. Add to the mix a deep respect for pluralism, religious freedom and individual liberties, and you've got a potent - if not yet popular - liberal brew.

A who's-who of Kafr El-Sheikh's liberal elite had gathered shortly before the start of Ramadan at the decommissioned headquarters of the former ruling party, now open to all as a "People's Hall." They numbered just over a hundred, and were joined by a few curious locals, including a few dozen religious men and women who said they were attending every party event in town to see whose platform they liked best.

A 26-year-old doctor named Mohammed Saleh paced, waiting for Kamel and the other party notables from Cairo. Eventually he and the other local activists repaired to a nearby square for Pepsi and mint tea.

"We need charismatic members if we're going to reach the common people," Saleh said, explaining that his party's ideological appeal was limited to the intelligentsia.

"The Muslim Brotherhood will take the parliament because they're the best organized," his friend Tarek Nofal observed glumly.

"We are in the first grade of democracy. We have a long way to go," said another friend, Mahmoud Nasr. "Maybe in ten years we will achieve some of our goals."

As darkness set in, another activist, Ahmed Mansoor, weighed in with his own analysis of public opinion: "Most Egyptian people only use their remote control. All they do is talk."

It was time for the main event and the group returned to the air-conditioned, wood-paneled hall. The party leaders lined up on the dais facing the small crowd. Kamel spoke last. An avatar of Egypt's new liberal political class, Kamel is a baby-faced architect of 42. Until last year, his primary pursuits were his business and his three children. Inspired by Mohammed ElBaradei's return to Egypt, he started collected signatures in a petition drive demanding that Mubarak open the political system to meaningful competition rather than bequeathing the presidency to his detested son. A year later, politics has become Kamel's life, but he projects an unstudied sincerity that seems to resonate with people.

"I was in a pickle today about joining the sit-in in Tahrir Square, or coming to you," Kamel said. "But the chance to meet you here was even more important than a protest in Tahrir."

He spoke of his great optimism for Egypt, and about how Mubarak's system still persisted even though the president had departed; the country, Kamel said, needed dedicated and sustained effort to reform. A civil state would protect the rights of Salafists as well as Christians and secular Egyptians, he argued. Until now, the people of Egypt had been failed by their leaders.

Presented by

Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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