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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 February 2006, 12:53 GMT
Egypt's bubbling cauldron
By Ian Pannell
BBC News, Cairo

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been touring the Middle East, stepping into Egypt's simmering cauldron of religion and politics. Some have welcomed her visit, while others say that it illustrates that the US is just meddling in the region.

Egyptian activists from the Kifaya movement protest in downtown Cairo 17 January 2006 against the visit by US Vice President Dick Cheney to Egypt (Photo:Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Image)
Many in Egypt still feel uneasy about political protest
The demonstration in Cairo the other day was something of a rag-tag affair.

A motley band of writers, thinkers and lawyers gathered in front of the main gates to the university, penned in by hundreds of riot police.

The protesters unfurled bright orange banners and chanted slogans calling for democracy, better education, an end to corruption and to Western interference in Arab affairs.

There was a time when this would have been a newsworthy event.

There were more people watching this demonstration than taking part
For decades, public dissent in Egypt simply was not tolerated.

The only thing it would guarantee was an express ticket to prison.

But in the past 12 months, the orange banners and catchy slogans of the pro-democracy Kifaya movement have become familiar to Cairenes.

Call to action

Kifaya means "enough".

It was established to try to change the country's political system.

But this is no Orange revolution - certainly not for now.

What was remarkable about the protest was the lack of, well, protest.

Forty or 50 people can make a lot of noise; they do not really make a difference.

In truth, there were more people watching this demonstration than taking part.

Most of Cairo University's fraternity either stayed at their desks or stood outside the police cordon, listening to - but not joining in - calls for the president to fall.

Silent majority

Egyptian riot police stand guard as students who support the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrate on International Students Day (Photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
President Mubarak cancelled local elections scheduled for later this year, many say out of fear that the winners would be the Brotherhood
It is not that Egyptians do not want a better life, or a radical change in their country. Most people want real job opportunities and an end to corruption.

I spoke to a small group of young men in their late teens and early 20s, dressed in jeans, T-shirts and trainers.

One of them was still wearing a thick red, woollen scarf commemorating Egypt's recent victory in the Africa Cup.

They were all dismissive of Kifaya.

They thought the group and its slogans were too extreme, in some way disrespectful.

One used the Arabic word for "outrageous" and he meant it in its fullest sense. Their actions were likely to cause outrage.

But their reticence, like that of many Egyptians, is tinged with fear.

One said: "They're chanting now but by the end of the day they'll be in prison, so what will be the benefit?"

It is not an unreasonable concern.

After all, there are thought to be many thousands of political prisoners in Egypt.

We should go back to religion
University student

Although the government has eased up considerably in the past year, the security services are still likely to pull people off the streets at random.

So are these students happy with the way things are?

"Not at all," they said.

"So what should be done?" I asked.

"We should go back to religion."

Power of religion

About 15 minutes before the Kifaya demonstration began, another one ended, on the very same site outside Cairo University.

This one was well attended - and by students - about 300 or so of them - organised, disciplined and highly motivated.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (L) and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Gheit give a joint press conference (Photo:Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Image)
The US secretary of state's visit got a mixed reaction
This was a Muslim Brotherhood protest.

The demonstrators also unfurled bright banners and chanted slogans calling for democracy, better education, an end to corruption and to Western interference in Arab affairs.

But they also held up pocket-sized copies of the Koran.

For this officially banned but tolerated group, Islam is the solution.

Their message has been so successful that they are now the largest opposition group in the Egyptian parliament.

They are also closely linked with Hamas, the militant group in the process of forming a new government in the Palestinian Authority.

The Brotherhood has more than 80 branches around the world and if you want a vision of what political Islam looks like, just look at the Brothers.

They are not wild-eyed, nor do they all sport beards.

Their leaders talk about democracy and equality, although many think this is simply a front and that the zealots will emerge once power is secured.

A few days ago, President Mubarak cancelled local elections scheduled for later this year, many say out of fear that the winners would be the Brotherhood.

Flag of Islam

Into this bubbling cauldron of religion and politics stepped America's Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

The US administration still talks about the power of what it calls "transformational democracy".

But it is not the small secular-leaning liberal democratic parties people are turning to. It is the Islamists.

And the beneficiaries of democratic change seem to be groups like the Brotherhood, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Shia in Iraq.

People who are unsympathetic, if not hostile, to US interests in the region.

The feeling on the streets of Cairo is that America is not really serious about democracy in the Middle East, where - if they are given the choice - people will opt for the green flag of Islam, not the orange one of Kifaya.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 25 February, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
Rice concludes talks with Mubarak
22 Feb 06 |  Middle East
Rice embarks on Middle East tour
21 Feb 06 |  Middle East
Egypt's young call for change
03 Aug 05 |  Middle East


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