- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

CAIRO | Inside a small apartment tucked away in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood, a trainer teaches a dozen volunteers of a budding opposition movement the basics of political organization — communicating, recruiting, gathering signatures.

The instructors draw inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and download books from American scholar Gene Sharp, whose tactics of civil disobedience influenced public uprisings against authoritarian regimes in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, Iran and elsewhere.

Over the past six months, about 15,000 of these volunteers have formed the kernel of a burgeoning youth opposition movement in Egypt; they are pinning their hopes for leadership on Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace laureate and former chief of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog agency.

Mr. ElBaradei’s return to his homeland, Egypt, in February infused opponents of President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly three-decade rule with a new energy. They hoped that with his calls for democratic reform, he could compete for the presidency in the elections expected in fall 2011.

But they have come up against a hard reality: Egypt’s opposition is fractious and co-opted, and not even a respected figure like Mr. ElBaradei stands much chance of uniting them into a real force for change ahead of a parliamentary vote just months away or even in time for the presidential elections.

So Mr. ElBaradei’s followers are trying something new: harnessing people power.

“We need an overarching dream to make us feel part of something,” said 18-year-old Abdul-Rahman Salah, who was among volunteers receiving training in political organization. “People are starting to change.”

Next year’s presidential vote is heavy with uncertainty. It is far from clear whether the ailing 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak will run again or push forward his son, Gamal, 46. The powerful intelligence chief — Mubarak aide Omar Suleiman — also is cited as another possibility.

Mr. ElBaradei has said he won’t run unless conditions for the race are made more fair. But he says he hopes that by 2011 his campaign will be an effective force in the country’s politics.

Few groups in Egypt have ever managed to channel widespread popular dissatisfaction into a credible political challenge. Egypt’s recognized opposition parties are paper facades, funded by the government with almost no popular base and only a few token parliament seats. The ruling party, which monopolizes power, operates by patronage and backroom deals.

Hampering the creation of any popular movement is a pervasive security apparatus that keeps close tabs on dissent, often disperses protests by force and co-opts party leaders.

Also, change is locked out by the political process. Rigging ensures ruling-party victories in elections. No party can be created without government permission. Recognized parties can field candidates for president, but independents — like Mr. ElBaradei — can run only after an approval process that effectively gives the ruling party a veto.

People power has only really been used with any success in Egypt by the opposition Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which is technically outlawed but possesses an extensive social-services network and grass-roots organization.

But coordinators say they intend their new campaign, managed from the small office in Cairo’s Mohandiseen neighborhood, to be at the heart of a civil-disobedience movement that one day will take on the Mubarak regime.

So far, they have focused on gathering signatures online for a petition Mr. ElBaradei launched four months ago. The aim is to show the extent of public support behind his call for electoral reforms and constitutional amendments to allow for fair elections.

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