Renowned philosopher to head Kifaya movement

A few days ago, Kifaya announced that George Ishaq, its general coordinator for the last two year, will be stepping down. His replacement is Abdel Wahab al-Messiri, a renowned philosopher best-known for his Encyclopedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism -- the most comprehensive and serious study of these issues in Arabic. When I first read about this a couple of days ago in the Daily Star, I couldn't believe it. Al-Messiri is a heavy caliber academic known, among other things, for being a critic of Arab anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial (although there is some controversy on his views on the Holocaust and Zionism, since he is an anti-Zionist, but I am not familiar with the arguments - update). He has lectured widely in the West, notably the US. This would suggest a major change in Kifaya's direction is possible.

I spoke to al-Messiri briefly a few minutes ago -- he confirmed the appointment but declined to give me an interview before Kifaya drafts its new policy next week. (Watch this space.) I haven't been reading a lot of Arabic newspapers for the past week so it's quite possible I missed coverage in Arabic, but the Daily Star and other English-language outlets have not really grasped the potential significance of al-Messiri's appointment.

Last month, Kifaya, a rag-tag collection of socialist, Nasserist, anti-globalisation and human rights activists, held a protest on to celebrate its two-year anniversary. As per usual, a small number of demonstrators were pinned down to the Press Syndicate building, outnumbered by Central Security Forces by at least five to one. The protest was a far cry from the founding outing of Kifaya, on 12 December 2004, which marked the birth of the first overtly anti-Mubarak non-violent movement. Although that protest was even smaller, it was groundbreaking in that it was Egypt’s first movement that overtly campaigned against President Hosni Mubarak’s re-election and against the prospect of an inheritance of power scenario for his son Gamal.

Over the next year, Kifaya jolted the Egyptian political class out of its complacency and pushed back the margins for political activity. Its message, that Egyptians had enough (“kifaya” in Arabic) of poor governance and one-man rule, reverberated across the country and was partly embraced by Egypt’s traditionally cautious opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood and liberal parties such as al-Ghad.

Fast forward two years later and Kifaya seems to be heading nowhere. Its primary goal, preventing Mubarak’s re-election, has clearly failed and Gamal Mubarak’s ascendancy continues. Kifaya never reached enough critical mass to become a genuine popular movement, with the same activist faces seen at most protests. It has tried to widen its campaign to include social issues such as rising prices, unemployment and poverty, but to no avail. Neither political party nor underground revolutionary movement, Kifaya has stagnated.

In early December, Egyptian newspapers reported that at least seven senior figures in the movement quit over what they say is the dominance of Kifaya by a few personalities. While this will have a negative impact on its organisational efforts, core Kifaya members are frequently members of several groups and may redirect their efforts towards other activities, such as supporting activists or taking an interest in opposition party politics, since several left-wing parties are expected to undergo a change of leadership early next year. Another alternative is the establishment of new specialized institutions, such as the “Union of the Unemployed” created in mid-December, that campaign on specific issues.

It will be interesting to see what al-Messiri's leadership brings to Kifaya.

Also read: a 1999 profile of al-Messiri by Fayza Hassan.
6 Comments

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.