Years before Tahrir Square became an international symbol of people power against tyranny, a group of activists known as Kefaya (Enough), broke the barrier of fear by when they held an unprecedented silent protest in front of Egypt’s majestic High Court. While Egyptians were gripped by feelings of helplessness as the Mubarak machine diligently prepared to pass the presidency from father to son, the Kefaya movement had the courage to take a stand. And Egyptians could not believe their eyes.
That was when George Ishak, Kefaya’s charismatic spokesman, became a household name and a fearless role model for aspiring young Egyptian activists. Ishak and Kefaya, not only were forerunners of the January 25th revolution that led to the fall of Mubarak’s dictatorship, they were part of the revolution itself. eniGma’s contributing writer, Dr. Tamer Fawzy, a long time admirer of these pioneers, met with the godfather of Kefaya, to find out how his courageous movement came about…
You are known as the face of the Kefaya movement, can you give us an account of your journey before Kefaya took to the streets?
Before Kefaya, I was one of the founders of the Tagammu’ (National Progressive Unionist) leftist party. I stayed in this party until 1976 when I realised there were a lot of hidden agendas and things were not very clear. Then an old friend, Mr. Adel Hussein, who was a member of Al ‘Amal Aleshteraki (Socialist Labor) party, which later became an Islamist political party, convinced me to join this party. He convinced me that it wasn’t an Islamist party but rather a party advocating Islamic civilisation, which I embrace wholeheartedly. It was a good experience that gave me a different perspective on issues.
Yet after a while, I felt I wasn’t right for this party, so I left. Eventually, the party and the its newspaper were shut down. This did not stop our struggle against the regime especially against the Camp David agreement. I personally didn’t agree with the late President Sadat, and was convinced we could have achieved much more than we did through the Camp David agreement. But Sadat was in a hurry and wanted his name to go down in history. No agreement should last for 30 years without being reviewed. Camp David is not a sacred cow and it must be reopened.
After Sadat, Mubarak came to power and famously began his tenure by saying, “coffins have no pockets”, an indication of his determination to uphold a clean government, free of corruption and the illegal enrichment of public officials. We all believed him, until around the mid-nineties when we began to see the real ugly face of the regime.
So how did Kefaya start?
It began in 2003 at a Ramadan iftar held by Abou El Ela Maady (founder of ‘El Wasat’ [Centre] political party.) The ifar was attended by 35 diverse public figures, including Dr. Abdel Moneim Abul Fetouh (a current presidential candidate), Dr. Sayed Abdel Satar, Samir Morkos, Hamdeen Sabahi (also a current presidential candidate), Amin Eskandar, and the late Dr. Abdel Wahab El Messeiry. As the presidential and parliamentary elections were coming up in 2005, we selected six of us to write a report outlining our demands. The six were: Amin Eskandar, representing the Nasserites, Dr. Sayed Abdel Sattar, representing the Muslim Brotherhood, Ahmed Bahaa Shabaan, representing the Communists, Aboul Ela Maady, representing the Islamists , Mohamed El Saeed Idrees, representing the Arab Nationalists, and myself.
After about six months, journalist Gamal Fahmy, and lawyer Essam Eslamboly joined us. Those eight are the real founders of the Kefaya movement. We spent a whole year in discussions and then issued a report, containing the points we are still asking for today, including: ending the emergency law, changing the constitution, and having free and fair elections. We posted it online, asked people to sign it and hoped for the best. Then one day I was watching Al Jazeera and saw the news strip stating: “300 Egyptian personalities sign a report issued by Egyptian intellectuals”. I couldn’t believe it! We decided to bring those 300 together and form a general assembly. I convinced my friends in the Upper Egypt Association to allow us to meet in their premises, which caused them a lot of harm, since after that meeting they were basically finished and not allowed to operate anymore. As we came out of the meeting, with public figures like Ayman Nour and Abdel Halim Kandil among us, we found six State Security Police (Amn Markazi) trucks waiting! And we definitely thought that would be the end of us. In any case it was in that meeting that we chose the Coordinating Committee of the Kefaya Movement. After that, Gamal Fahmy arranged for us to meet at the Syndicate of Journalists, until the head of the syndicate found out and kicked us out. We then decided we couldn’t keep meeting only behind closed doors so we decided to go out to the streets.
Tell us about Kefaya’s first street protest.
Our first protest was on December 12th 2004. Until then, we had called ourselves ‘The Egyptian Movement for Change’. We then started looking for a single word that all Egyptians could use to express their discontent. Some people suggested ‘Zehe’na’, ‘Erefna’ and ‘Kefaya Araf’ (all basically meaning we’re fed up!). Then we decided on ‘Kefaya’, and my son created the yellow logo, with the word Kefaya surrounded by barbed wire. As we planned this protest, Abdel Halim Kandil said if 100 people joined us, it would be a great achievement. We decided to hold it on December 10th, International Human Rights Day, in front of Egypt’s High Court. But since it was a Friday, we moved it to Sunday December 12th. The Emergency Law was in effect so we were sure we were going to get beaten up. I remember Amin Eskandar walking firmly but my own knees were shaking! When we arrived we found thousands of policemen standing in front of the courthouse, but we were so happy to also find over 1000 protesters!
We had decided our first protest would be silent so we all had our mouths sealed with a paper with the word Kefaya written on it. Everyone thought we were crazy! But by the end of the protest people couldn’t take being silent anymore and started chanting slogans against Mubarak!
What happened after that first historic protest?
Our next move was a protest in front of the People’s Assembly, which was heavily protected by security. We were told not to stand in front of the building and to move to the opposite sidewalk. Then we were given three warnings, which we ignored, after which an officer called a police van to pick us up. Dr. Mohamed Aboul Ghar, who was with me said “let’s go.” At that point, the officer asked me, surprised, “where are you going?” I said, “We’re going to get in the police car.” Then he whispered; “Can’t you go protest in front of the Syndicate of Journalists instead?”
Another time, we rented Faisal Nada’s theatre on Kasr El Aini street for a conference during Ramadan. At about three pm on the day of the conference, the owner called to say he was sorry, but the government had reserved the theater that night. Since we had already alerted the media we decided to go anyway. It turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime. As we stood with our banners in the very busy Ramadan street, there were tons of people around asking us who we were and what we stood for, so we got fantastic exposure!
What did Kefaya do when it was time for the Presidential elections?
The May 2005 Presidential elections were the peak point of the Kefaya movement. We coordinated protests in Cairo and the rest of the governorates, which led to all sorts of disruptions with the police. And the police made us famous with their attempts to try and stop us.
We also filed a lawsuit in the State Council against the election, alleging it was illegal because only 4% of the judges attended, when the requirement was 50%. We obtained a signed report to that effect from the Judges’ Council. But the case is still on going until today! We protested on the streets of Cairo, and for the first time we walked to the doors of the State Security Building. That’s when the government started to feel threatened by us.
When the results of the elections came out and Mubarak was voted president again, we headed to the streets of Cairo and protested. The regime realised how dangerous Kefaya was to them. We would be standing in front of the Judges’ Council and the people from the National Democratic party would come and beat us up. I even have the former Minister of Information, Safwat Al Sherif’s voice on tape giving orders to beat the people from Kefaya up.
One of Kefaya’s most important mottos was, “No to Inheritance” which is what delayed Gamal Mubarak’s nomination for presidency. If Kefaya hadn’t appeared at that time, Gamal Mubarak would probably be our president now.
What about Kefaya’s role in the coming period?
Kefaya is an idea and ideas never die. If we start feeling that the situation is starting to get out of hand, we will come out and say Kefaya again. People feel that Kefaya is a safety net and if things get out of hand they can and will say Kefaya.