In front of the gates of Cairo University last month, a disparate crowd of about 500 Islamists, Nasserists, secularists and activist pacifists calling itself the "Egyptian Movement for Change" demonstrated noisily before journalists and a surprisingly benign police force in 30 armored vehicles. The purpose of the protest was to bring pressure on President Hosni Mubarak. According to the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, one activist leader screamed out words like "poverty, torture, corruption," to which the crowd responded by shouting back one word: kifaya! At the rally's end, the protesters chanted new words to the music of the Egyptian national anthem. Instead of the Arabic for "My country, my country, my country, you have my loyalty and love," the words sung out were "Kifaya, kifaya, kifaya," the Arabic for "We have reached the end."
On that same day, Feb. 21, a far larger demonstration was taking place in Beirut, capital of Syrian-occupied Lebanon. The Arab, Druse and Christian protesters picked up the word that Egyptian groups had been using for months. To many Lebanese, kifaya encapsulates their desire to be free of domination from the dictatorial regime in Damascus.
The word means "enough." The Arabic verbal root is kafa, "to be satisfied." In Hans Wehr's Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, it has the senses of "sufficient amount" and "that which suffices for performing a duty." Munther Younes, coordinator of the Arabic program at Cornell, says that verbs derived from the same root are in the Koran, as in the sense of "it is enough for you to have God as a companion or protector."
David S. Powers, professor of Islamic history and law at Cornell, says he thinks that the word as used today is in the nature of what linguists call a calque, a borrowing from another language in literal translation (much as English borrowed ubermensch from the German and translated it as superman). "In politics, in modern culture," Powers says, "we say, 'Enough!' Kifaya is the Arabic equivalent of that. It's a standard word in Arabic now being used in a political context, probably a modern phenomenon. It suggests there may be some creative linguistic development."
In today's post-Saddam Hussein Arab politics, kifaya has become the peaceful battle cry of the fed-up, the one-word slogan of the long-frustrated. "The word is an all-purpose message to Mr. Mubarak," opined the Washington Post. "Enough of dictatorship; enough of a presidency that has endured 24 years and that would be extended by six if Mr. Mubarak chooses to present himself for re-election; enough of the president's maneuvering to place his son Gamal in position to succeed him."
It pays to get the pronunciation right because, if the world is lucky, this word may mark a political turning point. According to Amin Bonnah, who teaches Arabic at Georgetown, in the first syllable, ki, the i sounds like it does in the word bitter and not as an uh or an ee. The second syllable, fa, has a long vowel, sounding not like fay but like the English a in cat, only stretched out a little; some spell that middle syllable faa. The final ya is the short a in cat or man.
In English, enough grew out of enow to become an adjective synonymous with "sufficient." It can also be used as an adverb to disparage, as in Shakespeare's "An honest fellow enough...but he has not so much brain as ear-wax." In politics, when Theodore Roosevelt declined nomination for a third term in 1908, the New York Times reported that he'd "had enough." (Teddy later changed his mind.) And the GOP used the slogan "Had Enough?" against Harry Truman in the midterm election of 1946 and elected the first Republican Congress since Hoover.