INTERVIEW: Young lawyer inspires hope among activists

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By Dina Zayed / Reuters

CAIRO: Revolutionaries who forced Hosni Mubarak out of office last year are struggling to find a voice to represent them in the presidential race that will name his successor. But a young labor activist and rights lawyer hopes he may fit the bill.

Khaled Ali, 40, has attracted a dedicated youth following, buzzing media coverage and consideration as a serious contender, less than 10 days after announcing he would run for Egypt’s first real presidential election that starts on May 23.

It is still far from certain that the new entrant stands a chance. And with little financing and a requirement to register the support of 30,000 citizens, it is unsure he will even be able to run. But he says his bid is about showing that a new generation deserves a chance in power.

“My decision to run is not about filling a gap. It’s about being a different voice, from a different generation, presenting a different political discourse,” he told Reuters in an interview this week at his downtown Cairo campaign headquarters.

“Throughout these past years, I wasn’t talking, I was working, work that challenged the repressive authorities, work that defended the simple and the poor,” he said, speaking passionately of social justice and labor rights.

Ali said he would run in late February, much later than heavyweight politicians like former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, 75, or former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abol Fotoh, 60.

In a nation, a quarter of whose 80 million people are aged between 18 and 29 and steeped in poverty, Ali’s populist touch, humble roots and legacy of activism is causing ripples.

He is the youngest presidential hopeful — 40 is the minimum age for a candidate — and the volunteers around him say the “nation of the aged” must go. Mubarak was 82 when he lost power, the head of the army is 76 and the interim prime minister 79.

Critical of how the military has handled the transition, Ali says the generals have squandered much of the goodwill they enjoyed when Mubarak was toppled. Friends and supporters convinced him to run and he only agreed after deciding that the revolution they started had to be continued.

Egypt is not poor

Ali is a former head of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights who turned down a ministerial post in a post-Mubarak cabinet because he didn’t want to work under the generals and in what he described as a government that was biased towards the rich. He has a different vision for Egypt.

He says he wants to revive the public sector, which he believes has untapped potential. He also says he wants a competitive playing field for the private sector, departing from Mubarak-era crony capitalism. He eschews traditional left or right political labels.

He blames an unproductive economy that is too heavily reliant on tourism and remittances from Egyptians living abroad for not shielding the poor during a year of unrest.

“Egypt is not poor. Egypt has great resources. What we do have, however, is policies that create poverty,” Ali said.

“We need real education, we need healthcare and hospitals, we need homes, we need employment. Those will not be achieved except by a society moved by a national goal and that national goal should be to rebuild an economy.”

In a modest apartment, the dozens of volunteers working on Ali’s campaign agree with him and are racing against time to spread the word about a man little known to the majority of Egyptians, a man they see as emerging straight from the Tahrir Square protests.

Ali was behind a landmark court victory during Mubarak’s era that forced the government to acknowledge the need for a minimum wage. Labor unions know him well for his role in defending their cause when they were fighting against lay-off plans and protesting for higher wages.

But registering 30,000 supporters in a month is no easy task, especially for a man with little national profile.

“We are swimming against the current. All we have been able to do is produce a few posters,” he said, laughing as he recalled the excitement of the campaign when they printed brochures in color. “We are fighting against dinosaurs.”




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