Egypt Looks Ahead to Portentous Year

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Not so long ago in Egypt, elections for the parliament, bar association and press syndicate, as well as presidential referenda, were dismissed as mere beautifying accessories for an incorrigibly authoritarian regime. In 2005, several developments promise to accentuate the significance of these once nugatory rituals.

First and foremost is an economy beset by recession, double-digit unemployment, sluggish exports, puny investor confidence and glaring inequality. Economic woes have fueled public anger at government policies and personnel, including the once indomitable figure of the president. For the first time in President Husni Mubarak’s 24-year tenure, Egyptians are publicly debating their desired alternatives to his incumbency and demanding a more democratic, competitive selection mechanism to replace the current plebiscite. Three prominent citizens have put themselves forward as symbolic challengers. Further contributing to the rapid erosion of regime legitimacy is a recent series of abrupt policy overtures cementing economic ties with the US and Israel, on the heels of a puzzling yet unmistakable rapprochement between the Mubarak and Sharon governments.

THEN AND NOW

At the time of the last presidential and parliamentary vote in 1999-2000, the regime was buoyed by victory over radical Islamist insurgents and a stable economy. The Economist gushed, "The muddly, statist, sort-of-socialist Egypt of old has become the very model of a modern emerging market." The potentially disruptive effects of the July 2000 Supreme Constitutional Court ruling stipulating judicial supervision of the parliamentary vote were quickly contained; skirmishes between vigilant judges and security forces at polling stations were confined to the rarefied pages of legal journals. The drubbing of the ruling National Democratic Party’s (NDP) official candidates at the polls was neutralized when party power brokers quickly wooed triumphant independents back into the NDP fold to secure a comfortable 87.7 percent parliamentary majority.

The 2005 electoral contests unfold in less auspicious times. The Egyptian state is incoherent and battered, acutely responsive to the demands of its international and regional partners while unmoved by the needs of Egypt’s own citizens. Poor and middle-class Egyptians have once again begun to line up at bakeries and cooperatives dispensing bread and other rationed staples. Government figures report a 32.8 percent increase in the consumer price index from 1999/2000 to November 2004, a steady trend exacerbated by the devaluation of the Egyptian pound in January 2003. Even those fortunate enough to have secure employment moonlight or seek lucrative contracts in Gulf states simply to make ends meet. As a prominent law professor quipped, "If I lived only on the university salary I get on the first of the month, by the second day, after paying all the bills, I’d be out on the street corner begging."

Meanwhile, the target of state violence has shifted from insurgents to ordinary Egyptians. Once tranquil residential side streets in Cairo and Alexandria now serve as parking lots for the ubiquitous trucks of the Central Security Forces — "in case a demonstration breaks out or something," said an idle conscript. Activists and unsuspecting passersby alike have become accustomed to new levels of police brutality. Between April 2003 and April 2004, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) documented 15 cases of torture-inflicted death in police stations. An EOHR fact-finding mission to the northern Sinai town of al-Arish after the October 7 Taba bombings reported the indiscriminate roundup of 3,000 city residents. Security forces routinely held hostage and tortured the families of suspects.

On new Internet forums, the embittered young people who are leaving the country in droves in search of employment and dignity share their personal Mahfouzian tragedies of injustice and diminished life chances. From Canada, Italy and Latin America, they recount tales of everyday corruption, institutionalized nepotism and harrowing encounters with police. As one of them said in a formulation now familiar to many young Egyptians, "This country is not our country" (al-balad di mish baladna). Such domestic tensions, coupled with intense international scrutiny of Arab elections, have hemmed in the regime from all sides in this election year.

REGIME OVERTURES

In June 2004, while Mubarak was in Germany for slipped disc surgery, Cairo was rife with rumors of an impending cabinet reshuffle. Whose star was rising and whose head would roll? When the new cabinet was announced in early July, establishment pundits hailed the "new blood" coursing through the veins of government. Foreign observers joined in. The Economist pronounced the turnover "a breath of fresh air" and Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post, applauded the first-time promotion of businessmen to ministerial positions, even as many Egyptians outside business circles interpreted it as the direct assumption of political power by crony capitalists arrayed around the regime. Political scientist Magdy Sobhy noted the unprecedented ideological convergence of the new cabinet on monetarist, supply-side economics. The new government is slashing personal income and corporate taxes (the latter has been capped at 20 percent) and customs duties have been halved.

Critics and boosters alike noted that a slew of new ministers are fixtures in the retinue of Mubarak’s son Gamal, head of the NDP’s very influential Policies Secretariat. They include the McGill-educated prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, Industry Minister Rashid Mohamed Rashid (CEO of Unilever Egypt), Tourism Minister Ahmed El-Maghrabi (CEO of the French tourism group Accor), Youth Minister Anas al-Fiqqi and the purported economic whiz kid Mahmoud Mohieddine, who leads the newly created Investment Ministry. Ordinary Egyptians greeted the new cabinet with their trademark withering sarcasm. Jests lampooning Nazif’s much-touted "e-government" initiatives circulated on the Internet, announcing that citizens can now eschew long and exhausting queues by ordering loaves of bread online using assigned usernames and passwords.

The reshuffle was grist for the mill of Egyptian public debate, deepening contention on two pivotal issues: Gamal’s political future and the increasingly pro-Israel slant of the Egyptian government. Egyptians wondered whether Gamal’s political rise was the quid pro quo for the realization of their long-standing demands for reform, akin to the once obligatory purchase of government soap along with sugar rations. The pro-Gamal juggernaut is less conspicuous but no less determined. New arguments are wrought hinting that a Gamal presidency is the signal condition for an exit from the modern Egyptian tradition of a military president. A curious little book authored by political scientist Gehad Auda, titled Gamal Mubarak: Renewing National Liberalism, argues that Mubarak the younger is a leader of "the peaceful change and capitalist transformation that contributes to the renaissance of great nations." Upon closer inspection, the book is a perfunctory rendition of the NDP’s "New Thought" manuals, mixed together with the author’s earlier research. As of January, clerks at one prominent downtown Cairo bookshop report that it has sold not a single copy.

The regime’s self-described "pragmatic" foreign policy predated the reshuffle but intensified in its wake. In June, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom informed a Knesset committee that Egypt has made a "strategic change" in its relations with Israel, referring to a deal where Israel agreed to purchase $2.5 billion worth of Egyptian natural gas over the next 15 years from the East Mediterranean Gas Corporation, an Egyptian-Israeli consortium. Around the same time, Egyptian and Israeli officials suggested that Egyptian forces might move into the Gaza Strip following Israel’s promised "disengagement." This talk continued despite significant opposition in both Egyptian and Palestinian public opinion. A June poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 51 percent of Gaza Palestinians favored an Egyptian presence, while 46 percent were opposed.

December capped the Egyptian-Israeli rapprochement with a series of arresting developments. On the second of the month, Mubarak stunned the world by asserting that Ariel Sharon is the Palestinians’ best chance for peace. A week later, the government relented on a once non-negotiable point and freed Israeli Druze Azzam Azzam, eight years into his 15-year sentence for espionage. In exchange, Israel freed six Egyptian students caught crossing the border into Israel and charged with conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks. But by far the most dramatic move came on December 14 with the breach of a deep-seated public taboo. Following in the footsteps of Jordan, Egypt signed a protocol with Israel establishing seven "Qualified Industrial Zones" (QIZs) where goods would gain free access to US markets on the condition that 11.7 percent of their content originates in Israel. US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick hailed the deal as "the most important economic agreement between Egypt and Israel in two decades," while Egyptian commentators rubbished it as "Camp David II" and the irrevocable insertion of Israel as a powerful third party in Egyptian-American relations. On February 8, Mubarak will host the first high-level summit since Sharon came to power, bringing him together with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdallah of Jordan.

THE HATRED OF POLITICS

Predictably, the weeks after the policy reversals saw state-controlled radio, television and newspapers offering ample space for after-the-fact justifications of regime behavior. In a string of interviews, Industry Minister Rashid trumpeted the QIZ agreement as Egypt’s ticket to prosperity, promising an increase in textile sector jobs from 161,000 to 250,000. He dismissed the charge that the QIZ privileges a handful of well-placed businessmen with the claim that 273 textile factories will benefit, and repeated that the protocol was but the first step in the government’s plan to secure a coveted free trade agreement with the US. For his part, new Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit reassured television viewers that Egypt’s unusually industrious foreign policy of late was but the outcome of "our dynamic diplomacy responding to fast-paced international developments."

An oft-circulated story has it that the cabinet reshuffle is the outcome of a fevered struggle within the NDP between nimble modernizers and entrenched "old guard" apparatchiks. But how different are the views of the "reformers" and the autocrats? The glossy booklets peddling the NDP reformers’ "New Thought" are chock-full of flowery paeans to democracy, "the empowerment of women" and "rights of the citizen." But discursive flourishes are one thing and political behavior another. The younger representatives of Egypt’s ruling class may be technologically savvy, US-educated and American-accented, and properly deferential to private sector dominance and the "laws of the market," but when it comes to institutionalizing binding consultation of citizens or protecting citizens from arbitrary state power, their silence is palpable. Egypt’s circulation of elites portends an economic transformation — but not a political one.

Egypt’s new managers and their self-anointed "liberal" spokespersons brook no interference with their plans. For them, politics is rational administration and technocratic professionalism; they have no patience with the nationalist and Islamist "populists" who clutter the landscape with bravado and infantile idealism. Politics is decidedly not the interaction of competing interests and conflicting visions to produce imperfect compromises. Democracy is not the institutionalization but the elimination of uncertainty, a glacial process of "acculturating" the vast majority of "undemocratic" Egyptians into democratic values first before allowing the many share in decision-making. After all, you can’t have democracy without democrats. As Gamal Mubarak told Cairo University faculty in July, constitutional reform and ending 23 years of continuous emergency rule "are not among the priorities of the National Democratic Party." He elaborated: "It is not wise to broach issues affecting domestic stability, and it is not possible to follow the wishes of the man on the street on everything and make them a reason for effecting foundational changes."

ENOUGH

In a law office in a begrimed, antique building in downtown Cairo, a group of activists and intellectuals strategize about how to dispel the fear keeping most Egyptians from publicly demanding that Mubarak step down after four six-year terms in office. What sets this gathering of counter-elites apart from earlier incarnations is a commitment to taking the issue to the public rather than confining it to cramped, smoke-filled rooms. On December 12, the Egyptian Movement for Change (al-Haraka al-Misriyya min ajl al-Taghyir), a loose-knit umbrella of diverse political trends, held an unprecedented protest on the steps of the High Court in Cairo. It was the first rally ever convened solely to demand that Mubarak step down and refrain from handing over power to his son. Turnout estimates range from 500 to 1,000, with twice as many riot police on hand to prevent curious onlookers from joining in. Protesters remained mostly silent, taping over their mouths a large yellow sticker emblazoned with "Kifaya" (Enough), the burgeoning movement’s pithy slogan.

At the center of the protest was veteran activist Kamal Khalil, who rose to prominence in the February 1968 student protests. He has been arrested and detained 13 times since then, and was nearly killed by prison torture in 1989. Joining him were a gallery of Egyptian activists and intellectuals, among them a handful of Muslim Brothers, as well as the Mubarak regime’s feistiest critic, Abd al-Halim Qandil, editor of the Nasserist al-Arabi. One of Egypt’s most felicitous prose stylists, the slight, chain-smoking former physician had already paid for his outspokenness in the wee hours of a November morning when four suited men swooped him off the street and into a speeding car. They blindfolded and beat him, stripped him naked, and tossed him on the Cairo-Suez highway, warning, "This will teach you to talk about your masters (asyadak)." Qandil responded by penning ever more defiant columns challenging the Mubarak family to reveal the source of its finances.

The Kifaya movement was born within days of the cabinet reshuffle in July, when organizers circulated a petition dismissing the government’s cosmetic change and demanding fundamental constitutional and economic reforms. The petition’s stress on direct presidential elections among competing candidates has so far garnered the signatures of 1,934 Egyptians from all walks of life — and drawn the government’s ire. State security officers blocked a Kifaya gathering on January 18 and are likely to scuttle a candlelight vigil planned for February 21. Establishment scribblers in outlets such as the unabashedly pro-government Ruz al-Yusuf have already taken to lambasting Kifaya activists as demagogues, media-hungry careerists and evildoers out to undermine Egypt’s envied stability. The magazine has also belittled independents who have put themselves forward as symbolic competitors to Mubarak: feminist Nawal al-Saadawi, sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim and former parliamentarian Muhammad Farid Hasanein.

In the past week, the regime has stepped up its harassment of anti-succession activists. On January 28, three activists were arrested at the annual Cairo Book Fair for distributing leaflets inviting the public to a rally for direct presidential elections. Prominent political scientist and Kifaya member Mohamed El-Sayed Said was peremptorily removed from the Fair’s panel discussions, reportedly for having the temerity to debate Mubarak in a meeting with intellectuals on the urgency of constitutional reform. In what appears to be a well-worn pre-election ritual, security forces arrested nine professionals from the Muslim Brothers. And in an escalation reminiscent of Ibrahim’s abrupt arrest in 2000, chairman of the newly minted Ghad (Tomorrow) Party Ayman Nour had his parliamentary immunity stripped and is being detained for 45 days. The official charge is forging signatures on his party petition, but rumor swirling in Cairo has it that in a recent meeting with Madeleine Albright, Nour appeared to backtrack on a deal with the government promising not to oppose Mubarak’s candidacy in exchange for the Ghad party license.

For the first time, dogged by increasingly bold queries both at home and abroad, the once secure incumbent finds himself compelled to explain the logic of running for president again. In a string of recent interviews, Mubarak informed the public that "ruling Egypt is no picnic" — he is compelled by presidential duty to sacrifice creature comforts such as dining out or frequenting the cinema. Recently, in a shift from his earlier blanket denials, Mubarak told the flagship semi-official daily al-Ahram that his son Gamal "assists" him in much the same way that French President Jacques Chirac’s daughter helps her father. To the drumbeat demanding direct presidential elections, Mubarak and his assistants have oscillated between appeals to "stability," pleading lack of time before the referendum in September, and arguing that direct presidential elections open the door to moneyed interests controlling politics.

Every budding movement has a manifesto. Kifaya’s foundational document came in October 2004, when the esteemed ex-judge Tariq al-Bishri wrote a long article inviting Egyptians to withdraw their long-abused consent to be governed. Bishri’s call for civil disobedience against a repressive, ultra-personalized state electrified political circles, coming as it did from a man who only rarely enters the carnivalesque fray of Egyptian public debate. Al-Bishri’s name tops the list of possible candidates Kifaya activists say they want to put forward as a "national consensus" alternative to Mubarak.

Revered public figures and intrepid activists notwithstanding, Kifaya faces the Sisyphean task of reaching and mobilizing the public after years of fear, atomization and state monopolization of public space. As Mohamed el-Sayed Said remarks, "Ordinary Egyptians want democracy but will not fight for it." To convince Egyptians to fight for it, Kifaya activists like to quote the late nationalist leader Fathi Radwan: "We just have to go out and protest, get beat up, and come back home with a little bit of democracy."

REALIZING CITIZENSHIP

Lectured for decades on the imperatives of delaying democracy, Egyptians today are being sent an updated version of the same message. Instead of young modernizing officers in khakis bent on reforming the rottenness of palace politics in 1952, today it is "young" modernizing technophiles in trim suits telling Egyptians to wait until the economy is liberalized and the population is safely democratic before embarking on any political experiments. Yet it appears that citizens will have no further truck with these arguments. Pollster Gamal Abd al-Gawad of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies reports that an April 2004 survey of 2,400 Egyptians aged 15-24 found that 63.3 percent believe democracy is a good form of government, compared to 24.5 percent who think it is inappropriate for some peoples and 12.3 percent who think it is a poor form of government.

On the popular level, participatory politics is alive and inching forward, particularly in the new phenomenon of consumer protection organizations resisting the rapid privatization of public services and arbitrary imposition of outlandish service fees. Two cases in point are the Popular Association for the Protection of the Citizen from Taxes and Corruption, headed by veteran activists Muhammad al-Ashqar and Karima al-Hefnawy, and the Citizens’ Rights Committee headed by journalists Farida al-Shubashi and Ahmad Taha. Cyber-activists have created new forums trafficking in everything from political jokes and rumors to a dizzying array of petition drives, consumer boycott initiatives and alternative constitutional models.

Activists are unearthing a persistent constitutionalist tradition in Egyptian history against an equally powerful presidential inheritance. "Giving Egyptians the right to choose their president will itself change citizens’ ideas about the domineering institution of the presidency, regardless of the occupant," says opposition parliamentarian Hamdeen Sabahy. While Egyptians have long sanctified or loathed the persons of their presidents, it is only during Mubarak’s tenure that specific demands to trim presidential powers have migrated from the pages of law journals into everyday conversation. The next few years in Egyptian politics will witness contests between the two traditions and two logics: the logic of political deferral at the level of government and the logic of political movement at the level of society.

Egypt’s rulers have always feared and loathed popular constitutionalism. Exasperated by contentious Egyptian students in 1908, Lord Cromer’s successor Sir Eldon Gorst sniffed, "During the last few months, they have assiduously seized every opportunity in season and out of season to clamor for a constitution, and if their methods of procedure have not had any effect in advancing the cause which they have at heart, they have at any rate added to the labors of the Cairo police in keeping order in the streets."

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