Seeking bedouin support

Al-Masry Al-Youm

May 27 20011

Heba Afify

Just one day after his meeting in the upscale Gezira Club on Wednesday, business tycoon-turned-political-organizer Naguib Sawiris met with representatives of Bedouin tribes from all over Egypt as part of his effort to change perceptions about his party, The Free Egyptians. The meeting took place in Abou Regeila, a poor neighborhood on the desert outskirts of Cairo, as Sawiris sought to transform his party from an elitist and disproportionately Christian group into one that could represent all of Egypt.

Sawiris launched the party in early April but says he will not run as a political candidate. On Thursday, he expressed the party’s desire to have different tribes representing themselves in parliament as the party candidates.

Former President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) employed an extensive patronage network to keep tribal leaders allied with the ruling party. After the dissolution of the NDP in mid April, tribal allegiances are considered up for grabs before the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for September.

The meeting was attended by Bedouin tribe leaders from Cairo, Qalyubiya, Sharqiya, Ismailia governorates and Abou Regeila. Youth representatives from the areas Khanka and Wasta also joined.

“This is the happiest meeting that I’ve had because people are trying to say that this party is for gentlemen and that we’re non-believers, even though this is not true, we are religious and we pray and fast,” said Sawiris, seeking to change the perception that liberal parties oppose religion.

Keeping with the tribal traditions of the attendees, the meeting was held in a tent where refreshments were served. The party allowed a local leader, Saeed Mes’ed, to organize and finance the meeting in order to avoid offending tribal traditions of hospitality.

“Don’t let someone from above who doesn’t know your problems represent you, we want people from you to be the party’s representatives in the parliament,” said one of the party’s founders Khaled Kandil, encouraging people to join the party.

Sawiris blamed the whole of Egyptian society, himself included, for marginalizing Egypt’s Bedouin community and promised to change the situation.

“The Bedouins were neglected, not only by the government but also by the people, I’m here to meet you for the first time because I need you and because there are upcoming elections, but when I sat with tribal leaders for the first time I discovered that we had one thing in common: We were both perceived as traitors before,” said Sawiris, finding a common ground in being a minority.

When asked about whether he would run for parliamentary or presidential elections, Sawiris answered that he would not, and affirmed that he would not even seek to become president of his own party, in order to demonstrate to the people that he does not intend to reap personal gains from his political activities.

“None of us have anything to gain, except that I want a country where my father, my children and myself can live and not feel like second class citizens and not have anyone dictate to me how to live,” said Sawiris.

The telecom tycoon also promised that he would pay visits to the tribes and meet attendees’ demands for establishing a party headquarters in their area. He also asked the heads of the tribes present to prepare a list of their grievances and demands to give him.

“We don’t know all your problems so we need your help to get together and prepare a list of your demands, and we are responsible for meeting them. We want to come back here in a few years to find a school and a club,” said Sawiris.

Easing concerns about going against social customs, Kandil reassured attendees that the liberal party intends to obey societal norms.

“Every society decides limits to its freedom through traditions and norms, we all live an Egyptian society and no one intends to break its rules,” said Kandil, holding the party’s competition responsible for using dishonest tactics in order to pin liberals as threats to society.

At the end of the meeting, dozens of attendees filled out applications to join the party.

The Free Egyptian party has made significant progress in its stated goal to reach everyone in Egypt. Besides its upper-class and Christian supporters, the party held meetings in Upper Egypt and took part in Islamic celebrations.

Sawiris announced that the party has already recruited 40,000 members and will soon apply for formal recognition from the government.

© Al Masry Alyoum

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