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

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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.

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"Every time I travel and meet with the poor people in this country, I am the one who learns and is educated, not the other way around," Kamel said, to rousing applause. Afterward, many audience members posed for pictures with him.

The public event over, Kamel's entourage and the local activists drove across town to the Social Democrats new provincial office, a crammed fourth-floor walk-up in an building full of doctors' offices overlooking the railroad tracks. "What a great view," Kamel said. "What a wonderful breeze."

There were a few chairs and two desks inside. The electricity was out, as is often the case in the provinces, and the party members huddled around two flickering candles.

The hurried discussion revolved around tactics. Sweat dripped onto the floor, and a single communal glass of water was passed around. Kamel wanted the local activists to quickly divide their province into target areas, draw a map that depicted existing levels of support for all the competing political parties, and recruit new candidates. There was lots of arguing about arcane but critical questions of party governance, like the drafting of bylaws and the scheduling of internal elections.

The leaders from Cairo explained that they wouldn't use handouts, like medical supplies, "to buy loyalty," and said they were counting on the initiative of local activists in places like Kafr Sheikh whose local structures are dominated by the Islamists and the former ruling National Democratic Party.

So far the party has signed up 50,000 members. "Our demands are the demands of the street," Kamel says.

An engineer and artist named Khaled El Barky, a lifelong leftist who now supports the Social Democrats, complained that the party was hampered by its elitist roots, despite the egalitarian intentions of Kamel and other founders.

"The problem with all the liberal parties is that they still don't know how to work with people in the street," El Barky said. "Here in the Delta, the working people face economic hardship and they don't like change."

At the late-night tactical meeting, he warned his companions: "We need to work fast in order to gain power on the streets. We're wasting time on these internal matters."

That sense of urgency is lost on none of the liberals, especially as they contemplate the formidable power of the old regime, the military junta that governs Egypt, and the spectrum of Islamists.

Several existing parties claim a liberal pedigree (including the Wafd, Tagammu, Gabha, and Ghad), and at least three new ones have formed that have important constituencies: the Social Democrats, the Egyptian Current, founded by dissident members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Free Egyptians Party, founded by Coptic billionaire Naguib Sawiris. They all agree on questions of freedoms and rights, but the Social Democrats have by far a much more leftist, and redistributive, view of what they call "social justice."

The plurality of Egypt's elite traditionally has hailed from Cairo, Alexandria or the Delta. Today, the agricultural towns appear to be strongholds of the Islamists - Muslim Brothers, Salafists, and other flavors in between. But Egypt, especially rural and agricultural Egypt, always has been religious and socially conservative - a fact that didn't always render it inimical to liberalism. Kafr El-Sheikh province was the birthplace of Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, but also, and perhaps more importantly, of Egyptian political hero Saad Zaghloul, the charismatic reformer who founded the Wafd nearly a century ago. Zaghloul crossed his former British colonialist friends, helped spark a revolution, and took office as the country's first liberal prime minister in 1924.

In a measure of how the liberals play to the heartland crowd, a group of local conservatives attended the Social Democrats' coming out party in Kafr El Sheikh and pronounced themselves pleasantly intrigued by their pitch.

Noora Yadak, a 23-year-old English teacher wearing a tightly-wrapped brown headscarf and a dress with a lively red and brown floral pattern, said she already had attended several events organized by Salafist Islamist parties, and had not yet made up her mind who to support. Rallies in the capital have focused on whether Egypt should have a civil or religious constitution, but that debate was of no interest to Yadak. "I want to see unemployment go down," she said. "That is how I will judge the parties."

It's small consolation to Kamel and his colleagues, who are vastly outnumbered in terms of resources and institutional capacity by forces that they would describe as illiberal. But it's somewhere to start. If national trends reflect the enthusiasm of the local Social Democrats, and the receptivity to their message of their religious, socially conservative neighbors, then the liberals have a fighting chance in this fall's parliamentary elections.

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After the rally in Kafr El-Sheikh, Bassem Kamel and other party leaders returned to Tahrir Square in Cairo, where a sit-in was underway with several thousands in attendance/ Thanassis Cambanis