- 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.

The Muslim Brotherhood is helping in the campaign, but it and Mr. ElBaradei’s supporters may seem like strange bedfellows.

So far, the petition has collected 800,000 signatures, nearly 700,000 of them secured through the Brotherhood website, a sign of how its network dwarfs that of the nascent group in this country of nearly 80 million.

Critics warn that the alliance with the Brotherhood may drown liberal voices and drive away potential supporters wary of Islamist ideology.

But the campaign’s organizers appear unfazed.

Coordinator Abdul-Rahman Youssef said keeping close to Egypt’s most organized group has its benefits, especially when the demands are as fundamental as a free ballot box.

“No one faction can organize civil disobedience alone,” he said.

Government-sanctioned opposition parties are more suspicious of Mr. ElBaradei. They have rejected his call for a boycott of November’s elections for the 500-seat parliament, which he says will surely be rigged. Some dismiss a boycott as a “risky” option that would benefit the government.

“ElBaradei is most responsible for confusing the situation,” said Rifaat Saeed, the octogenarian head of a left-leaning party with just two seats in parliament.

Another 9,000 volunteers are to be trained or have applied to join the campaign of ElBaradei supporters. After operating mainly online, volunteers have started going door to door to gather signatures and reach out to people, following Mr. Sharp’s ideas.

In his writings, Mr. Sharp offers nearly 200 methods for protesters to pressure authoritarian regimes, from adopting symbolic colors to staging mass strikes.

Egypt’s new movement has not implemented Mr. Sharp’s more dramatic steps yet, but Mr. ElBaradei said he won’t hesitate to call for civil disobedience if the government remains intransigent.

In the meantime, they have avoided heavy arrests by security services.

“So long as we appear weak, the security agencies will leave us alone,” said Ahmed Ezz, the lead trainer. “We just want a space to breathe, to be free, and we are looking to create a trend.”

Amr el-Shobaky, a political analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a think tank, said the signature campaign is impressive, and such steps to gauge public opinion and set up a structure are new for Egypt’s opposition.

But, he cautions, “no one has an answer to what the next step would be.”