Street by street, Egypt activists face Old Guard

By Sarah El Deeb

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, July 10 2011 10:31 a.m. MDT

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, JULY 11, 2011 AND THEREAFTER - In this Wednesday, July 6, 2011 photo, a man drinks tea in front of his house in an alley in the crowded neighborhood of Mit Oqba in Cairo. All over Egypt, dozens of Popular Committees have sprouted, each dedicated to bringing the can-do spirit of Egypt's revolution to a neighborhood. But the committees are running up against former local officials under the Mubarak regime who still hold considerable power, showing that the old regime is alive and well in the new Egypt.

Khalil Hamra, Associated Press

CAIRO — 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."

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