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From Egypt petition drive, a new grassroot wave

Saturday - 6/29/2013, 12:28pm  ET

FILE - In this file photo taken Wednesday, June 26, 2013, an Egyptian man holds a banner with an Arabic word Tamarod, or "Rebel," a campaign calling for the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and for early presidential elections, during a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. No matter what happens in anti-Morsi protest planned for June 30, 2013, organizers of the petition campaign that led to it say they have created a grassroots network of new activists they hope will remain a voice for the public. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo, File)

Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Teenager Gehad Mustafa wears an ultraconservative veil over her face and was raised in a family of staunch Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Yet for the past weeks, she has been walking though chaotic street markets and crowded subway stations, collecting signatures on a petition demanding Islamist President Mohammed Morsi step down.

The months-long petition campaign by the group "Tamarod," Arabic for "rebel," is now culminating in nationwide protests Sunday in which the opposition hopes to bring out millions to force Morsi out of office, a year after his inauguration.

But Tamarod's organizers say they are not stopping there. No matter what happens on Sunday, they say they have created through their petition drive a real grassroots network, an opposition version in the spirit of the Islamists' expert street organizing, and have brought forth a sort of second generation of street activists, like Mustafa, after the first that led the revolt against autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

They want to use that network going ahead, to keep the public involved and to pressure the secular and liberal opposition parties, who the activists say have wasted opportunities through infighting and fragmentation, to get their act together.

On a recent day, Tamarod's main office, steps away from Cairo's Tahrir Square, was bustling with several dozen volunteers as young as 13 and as old as their 50s and 60s. University professors, government employees, students and housewives sipped tea, smoked and chatted while going through the organization's prize possession: the sheaves of signed petitions still coming in from around the country, filling the office.

The pages of signatures, they say, are proof of how deeply the country of 90 million has turned against the Muslim Brotherhood. They plan to announce their full count ahead of Sunday's protests but have claimed to have as many as 20 million signatures, which they collate, confirm and record in a database in a precise operation, knowing their count will be questioned.

Among the volunteers was 17-year-old Mustafa. She said she turned against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood after the first protesters were killed under his administration in late 2012. "I saw the reality," she said. "You told us that the blood of the martyrs will not go in vain. But there were more ... falling under your rule."

She joined Tamarod, which launched in late April, and volunteered to canvas the street for signatures. At one point, while passing out petitions in the subway, a man wearing the beard of a Muslim conservative attacked her, pulling the veil off her face. But other commuters then wrestled the man away in support of her.

"This strengthened me. I felt what I am doing is right," she said.

Organizers say Tamarod mushroomed across the country. Founded by five activists, its leadership is a central group of about 25, connected to a network of coordinators in Egypt's 27 provinces, each with a team of volunteers in towns and villages.

The signatures are effectively a database of the dissatisfied: Each signatory puts his or her name, province of residence and national ID number.

Collecting signatures in itself is a breakthrough, overcoming Egyptians' engrained resistance to signing onto any paper presented by a stranger, especially political, from the Mubarak days when doing so could get you a visit from state security or even arrested. Volunteers carrying the petitions brought politics into every corner -- weddings, slum alleys, buses and subways. Volunteers included strangers to political campaigning, from men selling cigarettes in kiosks to impoverished women selling in vegetable markets.

Ahmed el-Masry, one of the founders of Tamarod, calls the success "astonishing."

"I can't tell how many members out there. I can think that millions of Egyptians are members," he said.

"At one point, people gave up (on Morsi) ... it reached a point where a new class of Brothers are gaining higher status in society that to join them, you have to let your beard grow. We reached a point where no one is heard but the president and his tribe."

Brotherhood officials cast doubt on the signatures, claiming forgeries and multiple names. While Morsi says peaceful demonstrations are a legitimate form of expression, he and his allies also say Mubarak loyalists are behind the campaign and protests, trying to use the streets to topple an elected leader.

A spokesman for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party said he sympathizes with some activists in Tamarod -- "the young revolutionaries who had great expectations out of the revolution. Due to their inexperience and age, they wanted to see change too fast and too soon and that is what I call frustration."

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