Street by street, Egypt activists face Old Guard

July 10, 2011 - 11:29 AM

CAIRO (AP) — After the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, a group of young activists quickly moved to bring the can-do spirit of Egypt's revolution down to the level of their neighborhood.

They began installing electricity poles in Mit Oqba's dim streets. They got gas pipes extended to the area. They did what local officials had long promised but never done, with the aim of showing 300,000 low-income residents the benefits of an uprising meant to end the corruption and stagnation under Mubarak.

Then the activists' parents started getting intimidating warnings: Your children are going to get beaten up by thugs. An official who helped them get papers signed for extending the gas pipes was suddenly transferred to another post.

The activists had run into a collision course with powerful local members of the former ruling party. It was a lesson about the new Egypt: The old regime is still in place and fighting change.

"The regime is not just Mubarak and his ministers. There are thousands still benefiting," said Mohammed Magdy, one of the activists in Mit Oqba.

Mubarak was ousted five months ago, along with top figures from his nearly 30-year regime. But the military generals who now rule have been slow in — or have outright resisted — dismantling the grip that members of his former ruling party hold on every level of the state, from senior government positions down to local administrations. In the meantime, public anger that real change has not come is growing explosive.

The experience in Mit Oqba illustrates the conflict between old and new being waged street by street and neighborhood by neighborhood.

Under Mubarak's regime, more than 1,700 Local Councils nationwide, with more than 50,000 members, were elected in theory to represent their neighborhoods. In practice, they were a cog in the patronage and corruption machine of Mubarak's National Democratic Party. Election rigging ensured nearly all council members belonged to the party.

Often they would push projects that lined their own pockets or those of friends. For example, a street would get a new sidewalk if a firm close to the council or ruling party profited. Council members steered services to residents willing to do them a favor later.

The system helped ensure the regime's hold. Come election time, officials used their patronage to drum out voters for party candidates or to hire thugs to beat up opponents.

Late last month, a court ordered all Local Councils dissolved, potentially a significant step toward reform. But former members retain their connections, backed with cash, giving them a strong tool for regaining seats when new municipal elections are held.

"They have lots of money going around to people. They have ties with big families in the area," said Heba Ghanem, an activist working with Mit Oqba's Popular Committee. "Some who want to run for parliament are already slaughtering cows and distributing (the meat) in the neighborhood" — a common way to curry votes.

The same fear holds for national politics, where many one-time officials in Mubarak's party are gearing up to run for election in September.

The activist neighborhood groups, known as Popular Committees, aim to break not just corruption but also the apathy of Egyptians who have given up trying to make things better. They were born from impromptu neighborhood watch groups that defended homes in a wave of looting during the anti-Mubarak uprising.

The watch groups were widely popular as an example of Egyptians working together on their own initiative, and they won support from the young people who had fueled the anti-Mubarak revolt. There are now nearly 50 "Popular Committees" nationwide, each with volunteers working in their home neighborhoods.

Their self-imposed mandate: Make things better and get things done. Many of them have taken the additional title of "in defense of the Revolution."

That can mean anything — fixing infrastructure and providing literacy classes, working with residents on rooftop gardens or on better water usage, or monitoring officials to keep them accountable. Some conduct "name and shame" campaigns to expose those who take bribes or embezzle — whether policemen or bakers who sell government-subsidized wheat on the black market. They catch perpetrators on mobile phone cameras and publicize the footage.

In Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, a gas company needed to repair a damaged valve. But it wanted protection, because its team had to work at night.

With a general police pullback from the streets, the Popular Committee volunteered to provide security instead. The gas company feared offending police by cooperating with the activists, so the committee had its patrol just pass by the work site to make it look coincidental.

The company made the repair.

Mit Oqba, Magdy's home district in Cairo, provided a unique challenge and opportunity. Ruling party networks were strong in the crowded district, which was used to provide manpower for pro-Mubarak rallies during the uprising.

Soon after Mubarak's fall, the 24-year-old Magdy and his committee drew up a plan to tackle 12 prominent problems in the long neglected neighborhood. They organized installation of light poles for a dozen streets. Drug dealing was rampant, so they're pressing officials for more police.

The district badly needed a low-fee government medical clinic. One was under way, but workers — paid by the day — were delaying finishing it. So a committee member is camping out at the construction site, doing everything from badgering them to bringing them daily tea to get it done.

Local officials promised two decades ago to extend natural gas pipelines to Mit Oqba homes. It never happened. So the committee followed the paper trail and got a few approvals signed. Now the main pipeline has been laid, and the committee is helping residents register for connections to their homes.

With the successes, the harassment began, according to the activists. Local Council supporters hacked into the committee's Facebook group and sent e-mails to its members that caused fights among them, Magdy said. They transferred the official who cooperated with Magdy to sign papers. They pressured a principal into barring the committee's literacy class from his school.

To scare the volunteers' families, they spread word that armed thugs were waiting to attack them, Magdy said.

When that didn't work, the Local Council tried to take credit. In its newsletter, it proclaimed that it "promised and delivered" on the gas lines. Former ruling party members posed in photos by the new streetlights.

Magdy's group countered with its own newsletter, "The People Want," reporting on their activities and on former regime members trying to buy off loyalties. They also praised officials who helped them bring services.

In a last-ditch attempt, a local bigwig who once sat in parliament for the ruling party met with volunteers. He told them bluntly they would fail.

"Who lied to you and told you this party is dead and buried?" he shouted, according to Magdy. "We are still here and we will win again, with your help."

Zaghloul Rashad, a member of Mit Oqba's local district council, denied that the council had harassed the young activists, and called them "arrogant" young meddlers. He said the influence of the activists was limited to a few streets. He also denied the activists were responsible for the new gas pipeline, saying it had been approved earlier.

"Does the Popular Committee have a magic wand to say 'extend gas pipelines' and it happens?" asked Rashad, who plans to run for election again and expressed confidence he would win.

At the same time, Rashad complained that the activists can in fact march into a local administrator's office and press him into action, and he'll comply for fear of seeming anti-revolutionary.

"They couldn't even enter his office before," he said. "It is chaos!"

The activists are unfazed. In a snub to Mit Oqba's Local Council, Magdy's group hung a banner on Al-Gharib Street, where several council members own homes. One side proclaims "Goals We Achieved" and the other "Goals We Want to Achieve." So far, they've checked off nearly half the original list of 12.

"These kids are good. They're cleaning up the streets," said Howeida Mohammed, a 40-year-old woman attending one of the committee's literacy classes this week. "I don't want anything to do with the local council."

The Popular Committees may not survive because of the sheer strength of the old system Mubarak set up, said Alia Mossallam, a doctorate student documenting the Popular Committees and helping them network. But they'll be a breeding ground for a new generation of politicians, experienced in actually serving a community.

"We have never had governance from below," she said. "(The experience) may die down...but everything they have learned will stick with them."