Half way along the Alexandria desert highway –” one encounters a massive block of buildings surrounded by barbed wire. It is the penitentiary that currently serves as the new home of Ayman Nour –” a prosperous lawyer who had the bright idea of challenging Mubarak in “free and fair” elections. For the supreme crime of winning 7% of the presidential ballots –” he now rots away in an Egyptian mini gulag with plenty of time to repent for the political miscalculation that last year was a good year to challenge Mubarak’s grip on power.
Over the last few weeks, more than a thousand members of the Egyptian opposition have been rounded up by state security and unceremoniously dispatched to keep Ayman Nour company. Most of these ‘criminal elements’ were caught red-handed protesting the trial of two judges who had the audacity to claim that the recent National Assembly elections were plagued with fraud and vote rigging.
The bad news from Cairo keeps pouring in. A few days ago, a prominent opposition journalist and three of his colleagues were charged with felonies for committing ‘publishing crimes.’ Here again, the state had a close and shut case against Wael Al Abarashi –” the editor of Sawt Al Omah, a secular weekly. His daring articles challenging the regime and the results of the elections should be more than enough to seal his fate. Targeting Al Abarashi makes perfect sense –” if only because of his militant stand against the idea of hereditary rule. That means he doesn’t think much of the president’s kid and says as much.
Since winning a fifth term in office, Mubarak has systematically and methodically gone about the business of reigning in the opposition. The reviled Emergency Laws have been extended. Previously scheduled municipal elections have been postponed and the casually attired state sponsored goons have violently confronted peaceful demonstrators. With typical Egyptian humor, the opposition has taken to calling the regime’s musclemen ‘the karate kids.’
You would think that a man who had just swept into office with a whopping 93% of the vote would be more than happy to indulge a little criticism from the opposition. Following that ‘spectacular’ result of the presidential elections, Mubarak’s party managed to retain 80% of the seats in the National Assembly. To an outside observer, Mubarak’s crack down on the opposition seems unwarranted and even rash. But, then again, what they don’t see is the nature of the challenge that is being posed to a regime that knows its days are numbered.
What we are witnessing in Egypt is the revolt of the elite –” Intifadit al Safwa. This is not a movement made up of students and workers. A member of the opposition is just as likely to be a lawyer, a judge, a doctor, a journalist, an engineer or a university professor. The average age of these ‘agitators’ is probably in the mid-forties. They are family men and professional women with prestigious social positions and –” by Egyptian standards –” fairly comfortable life styles.
Unlike other countries in the Middle East, retaining power in Egypt requires co-opting the professional elite. In terms of importance, this essential pre-requisite to political dominance takes second priority only to controlling state security forces.
Now, that the professional classes are taking to the streets, who can blame Mubarak for over-reacting. Last week, a few thousand members of the Engineering syndicate were confronted by state security forces and physically prevented from holding a board election at their own headquarters. Supporters of an independent judiciary were brazenly beaten and hauled off to jail by undercover state security operatives. The headquarters of the journalists’ union and the lawyers’ syndicate are under a 24/7 state of siege.
A visitor to any major University in Cairo can’t help but notice the convoys of paddy wagons and mobile jails that are always parked and ready to accommodate student agitators along with their professors. The massive and pervasive security presence on campuses across the country is a sure sign of a paranoid regime living in a state of panic.
This is but part of the scandal in Mubarak’s Egypt. The opposition papers are full of accounts of the misappropriation of state funds. Corruption is so epidemic that even Ibrahim Nafie – the former publisher of Al Ahram and the ‘dean of Arab journalists’ –” has been caught with his hands in the cookie jar. The man stands accused of embezzling tens of millions of dollars from his own newspaper. But even in retirement, he still gets to write his own personal column in a state owned publication that was once considered the most influential government operated rag in the Middle East.
The revolt of the Egyptian elite comes at an inconvenient time for Mubarak. At this stage of the game, his son was supposed to be well situated to take over the family business in a manner that had a few trappings of legitimacy. If there is one single focus of the opposition –” which includes leftists, liberals and religious fundamentalists – it is a determination to prevent such an eventuality. The underlying sub-text is that Egypt is not Syria and there will be no succession. So, the opposition to Hosni Mubarak is in reality a movement targeted at Gamal Mubarak –” the self-anointed crown prince of the Nile Valley.
Now, what’s a loving father to do when people stand in the way of his son’s political ambitions? Well, in Egypt, Mubarak has decided to criminalize the naysayers.
Mubarak’s risky crack down should be seen as the rational act of a dictator who has few alternatives. He can either let the opposition grow or suffocate it in the cradle. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have the option to stand back and watch the Egyptian elite systematically dismantle the regime he has laboriously constructed during twenty-five years of authoritarian rule. So, caught between a rock and a hard place, he is doing what comes naturally and deploying his state security forces in an attempt to patch up the holes in the wall of fear.
It all comes down to a question of time and numbers. Mubarak’s calculation –” which might prove correct in the short term –” is that opposition is made up of a tiny and finite number of professionals that are only willing to do so much time in jail. If he can manage to humiliate enough of them and lock up a few thousand of his more zealous opponents –” he gets more space to ease his son into the presidential palace.
Things can go either way in a hurry. Mubarak may very well win this round and build a better wall to insulate his regime from the winds of change blowing across the ancient banks of the Nile. But even if the opposition goes dormant for a year or two, it will have succeeded in impregnating the air with its valor and its courage.
On the other hand, the revolt of the Egyptian professional elite could quickly resonate among mid-level police and military officers –” who are largely recruited from the middle and upper middle classes. The Egyptian security forces are not from Mars and the professional classes are not from Venus. The typical officer has a second cousin or a sister who is an engineer –” a distant uncle who is judge and a neighbor who teaches at the university. My point is that there is only so much force the regime can use before the security elite refuses to participate.
It’s also worth noting that the opposition press is not toning down its voice. As for the general public, they have fallen in love with the rebellious judges who are standing their ground against the regime.
Many of the honorable men who are fighting the good fight to retire the aging dictator will probably do some hard time next to Ayman Nour. As a consequence, their families will suffer and their careers will be ruined. But they will not walk away from this historic confrontation empty handed. For one thing, they have already shaken the moral foundations and legitimacy of a regime that is now entirely dependent on a monopoly of the means to inflict violence on peaceful dissidents.
It’s going to be a very hot summer in Egypt.