PUBLIC BOOKS | Go to July 15 Issue

Public Culture

An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies

You are viewing an article. Access the full version or browse recent articles .

The Egyptian Movement for Change — Kefaya: Redefining Politics in Egypt

Manar Shourbagy

The Egyptian Movement for Change (EMC), also known as Kefaya (Enough), was announced in 2004. Almost immediately its importance to Egyptian political life was recognized, though not understood. Both Egyptian and Western analysts have mischaracterized the movement. Interpretations have been either too narrow, focusing on specific details and ignoring the movement’s broad vision, or too broad, mistaking Kefaya for a generic social movement in the Western mode. All such approaches fail to appreciate Kefaya’s real contribution. This essay argues that Kefaya’s significance lies in its transformative potential as a broad political force that is uniquely suited to the needs of the moment in Egypt. It is at once a cross-ideological force that has the potential, in the long run, of creating a new mainstream and a movement of a new kind that is creating a distinctive and promising form of politics for Egypt.

Egypt’s political system has reached a dead end in the early twenty-first century. The opposition political parties are locked in their headquarters, unable to communicate with the public. Virtually acquiescing to the siege of an arsenal of restrictive laws, these political parties have for years suffered from an increasingly diminishing membership, a lack of operational funds, and internecine internal feuds. The “illegality” of the Muslim Brothers (MB) has paradoxically liberated that organization from restrictions that come with governmental licensing. However, the ideology, posture, secrecy, and political tactics of the grassroots-based MB engender the mistrust of many political forces, including some Islamists. At the same time, the secularist-Islamist polarization hinders the possibility of reaching any meaningful consensus on critical issues. This blockage is not lost on the regime, the clear beneficiary of such divisions among its adversaries, and it does not augur well for the future of the brothers in a lead role in shaping Egyptian political life.

Amid this political disarray, a new generation of Egyptians holds the promise for transforming politics in Egypt. They have found a home and an instrument in Kefaya and in the process have invented a new form of politics. Their innovations are historically grounded on the specifics of Egypt’s political life in recent decades. Unique Egyptian circumstances have shaped their experiences, aspirations, and vision for the future.

With the seething political discontent on the one hand and the ideologically based mistrust and mutual exclusion among the political forces on the other, Egypt needs today, more than ever, a new form of politics that pulls together diverse ideas from across the political spectrum to forge a new national project.

For more than a decade, a group of activists and intellectuals have interacted across ideological lines to reach a common ground. Kefaya emerged as one manifestation of these efforts and as an important illustration of the possibilities of this new politics. While such collaborative work across ideological lines is not unique in democratic experiences around the world, Kefaya represents the first successful effort of that sort in modern Egyptian politics.

This essay, based on primary sources, including open-ended interviews, statements, newspaper articles, and reports, as well as unpublished documents, is composed of three main parts. The first part explains in more detail the reasons why Kefaya has been widely mischaracterized; the second illustrates why and how Kefaya represents a new force with the potential of creating a new mainstream; and the third explores the new politics invented by Kefaya.

Misunderstanding Kefaya

Since its early days, there have been various critical interpretations of Kefaya by politicians and intellectuals alike, at times citing deficiencies in the movement’s profile, actions, and approach, while at other times dismissing the movement outright as being a “foreign puppet” or the pastime of “a bunch of kids.” The most serious and widely noted critique of Kefaya is that it has been essentially a mere protest movement, targeting President Mubarak personally, without putting forward an alternative candidate or articulating a constructive vision for political transformation.1

The critique along these lines has gained more momentum since the 2005 presidential election. Because Kefaya’s main slogan expressed the rejection of a fifth term for Mubarak as well as the succession of his son, the argument goes that Kefaya lost its raison d’etre with the end of the election. “Except for rejecting the election results, symbolized by the slogan of ‘Batel’ [invalid], nothing new was produced.” When Kefaya played a leading role in the formation of the National Front for Change on the eve of the subsequent parliamentary elections, it was criticized as “passing the torch to the old opposition parties, the very same entities whose inaction it has been formed to face.” The EMC had been “dragged into sitting together with the leaders of the tamed opposition, instead of putting forward a demand for changing the electoral system.”2

While critics clearly question Kefaya’s contribution to Egyptian politics, even the more positive assessments of the EMC mischaracterize it. For example, the American Left sees Kefaya as the beginning of “the process of rebuilding an Egyptian Left crushed by decades of police oppression” and a reverse of its “political marginalization caused by the rise of political Islam.” Some Egyptian analysts as well characterize Kefaya as a “secular” protest movement and thereby implicitly expect its role to be the containment of the Islamists.3

Kefaya has been so widely misunderstood in the West as well as among the Western-educated elite in Egypt because of the reliance on Western social scientific classifications, notably the social movement literature, to make sense of a phenomenon emerging from the very different Egyptian context. This shortcoming is compounded by looking at Kefaya with an ideologically selective eye. While Kefaya has indeed demonstrated several of the characteristics highlighted in the literature on new social movements, it is neither single issue – oriented nor concerned with identity — two of the most important features of new social movements. Shoehorning Kefaya into a category derived from the experience of postindustrial societies obscures more than it illuminates.

Nevertheless, the concept of the new social movement comes closest to capturing certain features of Kefaya. The movement is one of dissent, aiming in a constant and persistent endeavor toward the transformation of Egypt.4 It is a loose network of small groupings around the country. Like social movements, it aims at generating public attention and has emerged from a realization of the perils involved in conventional party politics in Egypt, marked by debilitating restrictions and dilemmas. In other words, Kefaya emerges out of realization that the institutional channels are neither neutral nor amenable to the demands for change. However, unlike conventional social movements and because of the specific necessities of the Egyptian context, Kefaya is not focused on a single issue. (The same, incidentally, is true of the Islamic movement whose platform also embraces a range of issues.) In addition to the breadth of the issues addressed by Kefaya, the movement is ideologically diverse. In this way, it differs from the Islamic movement. While the latter has a concrete ideology shaping its project, Kefaya goes beyond any single ideology to be the only movement in contemporary Egypt that emerged out of serious political interactions across ideological lines. Approaching Kefaya through the prism of the social movement literature, with its American scholarship emphasis on resource mobilization and political processes, blinds analysis to this distinctive feature, which is in fact one of the most important contributions of Kefaya to Egypt’s political life.5

End of Excerpt | access full version

Notes

All translations are the author’s.

  1. Wahid Abdel Maguid, “Al kharita al syassia al murtabika fi Misr” (“The Uncertain Political Map in Egypt”), Al Hayat, October 23, 2005; International Crisis Group, Reforming Egypt: In Search of a Strategy, Middle East/North Africa Report, no. 46, October 4, 2005, i and 10.
  2. Maguid, “Al kharita al syassia”; Iman Yehya, “Sana min omr Kefaya, sana helwa ya gamil” (“One Year Old, Happy Birthday Kefaya”), Al Karama, January 24, 2006.
  3. Issandr El Amrani, “Kifaya and the Politics of the Impossible,” ZNet, January 4, 2006, www .zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=22&ItemID=9463; Salah Issa, “Al asabe’i al Ikhwaneyya li harakat Kefaya” (“The Ikhwan Fingerprints of Kefaya”), Al Joumhouria, January 19, 2006.
  4. Joseph R. Gusfield, “The Reflexivity of Social Movements: Collective Behavior and Mass Society Theory Revisited,” in New Social Movements, From Ideology to Identity, ed. Enrique Larana, Hank Johnston, and Joseph R. Gusfield (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 58 – 78.
  5. Doug McAdam, “Culture and Social Movements,” in Larana, Johnston, and Gusfield, New Social Movements, 36 – 58.

Details

About the Journal

Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at Dukejournals.org.

© Copyright 2006–2009 Public Culture and Duke University Press. All Rights Reserved.

Contact Info

Public Culture

20 Cooper Square, Suite 517 New York, NY 10003

212-998-7866

212-998-8468 Fax

Download vCard