The day the mask came off

The day the mask came off
Ahmed Nazif
On 25 May, Egyptians were told by their newspapers, by their radio and television stations, by their politicians that they would be going out to vote to change the destiny of their country. They were told that the amendment they were urged to approve in a referendum would open the way, for the first time ever, to the direct election of their leader among multiple candidates. In the week prior to the day of the referendum, banners on the street and on Cairo’s main buildings, such as the landmark building of the ministry of information called Maspero after its Italian architect, large advertisements were put up. They told people to “share your voice to build your future” by voting ‘yes’ in the referendum. In all of official Egypt -- the regime’s Egypt that ,dominates the airwaves, television screens and print media -- the message was clear: the referendum marks a real change for the better, the beginning of a long-awaited march towards democracy.
A few days before the referendum was held, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif had returned from a week-long trip to Washington, DC, were he had carried out a blitz of interviews with the American media and meetings with US officials, including President George W. Bush. Nazif, a technocrat who formerly headed the Ministry of Telecommunications and Technology, has been the new public face of Egypt since July 2004: that of a relatively young (he is about 20 years younger than his predecessor Atef Ebeid), dynamic, pro-business, economic liberal reformist who is finally forcing some change to the elephantine Egyptian state bureaucracy, particularly when it comes to more liberal tax regimes, cutting down bureaucracy and accelerating the country’s privatization program. Local and foreign businessmen have mostly been fawning over him since he came to office, largely because he is a businessman himself (as are many of his new colleagues) and because he has delivered reforms they have long demanded. During Nazif’s trip to Washington -- his first as prime minister -- it was this image of Egypt, an Egypt that is “open for business” (a phrase that has become his slogan) that was being pushed. It seems that the Americans bought it.
Bush commended Nazif during the closed meeting they held, congratulating him on the reforms the referendum will introduce. A few days later, US First Lady Laura Bush visited Cairo as part of a Middle East tour. She was taken by her Egyptian counterpart, Suzanne Mubarak, to tour women’s NGOs and projects that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) funds, such as the children’s show Alam Simsim, an Egyptian version of the hit American show Sesame Street that has received almost $9 million in USAID funding. She also took the opportunity to praise Mubarak for the amendment to article 76 of the constitution that Mubarak had promised.
"I think he's been very bold and wise to take the first step,” she said. “You know that each step is a small step, that you can't be quick. It's not always wise to be.”
The day the mask came off
Nawal Al Saadawi
In the meantime, on the other side of Cairo from the presidential palace, an international conference of feminist activists denounced her visit. Nawal Al Saadawi, a noted feminist and socialist activist, said that she and her colleagues represented the “antithesis of Laura Bush.”
The same could be said to the general perception among Egypt’s opposition of the 25 May referendum among the Bush administration and Egypt ‘s political elite. While state intellectuals and the official media waxed lyrical about the dawning of a new democratic age, virtually all of Egypt’s opposition was preparing for a boycott of a referendum they said had become meaningless. Although opposition movements had initially cautiously welcomed Mubarak’s proposal for an amendment on 26 February, by the time parliament issued the final phrasing of the amendment, it had lost most of its meaning. Political analysts and opposition politicians now say that the revised version of article 76, which requires parliament’s endorsement for any presidential candidate, really makes it impossible for anyone to stand if the ruling party does not want them to. The National Democratic Party controls about 88% of parliament, meaning opposition parties will have to secure support from it for their candidates. As a result, any candidate is likely to keep his campaign merely symbolic -- what some Egyptian analysts have said will create a situation similar to Tunisia, where President Zine Eddin Ben Ali was re-elected after running against candidates he had more or less chosen himself.

In the few days before the referendum, a broad-base opposition movement had called for a boycott. It included the mostly left-wing Kifaya (Enough) movement that has called for Mubarak to step down, the main official opposition parties and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which is arguably the most popular opposition movement in the country. In stark contrast to the state-controlled press, opposition and independent publications highlighted that the proposed amendment was flawed and supported the boycott. The normally timid Al Wafd daily, for instance, called referendum day a “day of national mourning” urged its readers to “stay at home.” In another edition, it called the referendum a new naqsa, a term meaning defeat usually reserved for the 1967 war against Israel. In the independent daily Al Masri Al Yawm, columnist Suliman Gouda wrote that the referendum “is in fact a deceitful trap laid for the Egyptian voter. The difference between Mubarak’s initiative [of February] and the final phrasing of the amendment is enormous.” His colleague Magdi Mehanna, in his popular “fil mamnou’” (“The Forbidden”) column, added that “the amendment was drafted to satisfy the interests of specific people,” meaning the NDP elite such as potential presidential successor Gamal Mubarak, the current party strongman and the president’s son.
The day the mask came off
Separating Kifaya from the NDP
The events of referendum day itself seems to have confirmed that. Reports by journalists, activists and other witnesses suggest that there may have been massive fraud and vote-rigging. For one, the regime used its usual technique of bussing civil servants to polling stations and pressuring them to vote. Some of these civil servants said that they were threatened with cuts in their monthly bonuses if they did not show enthusiasm for the referendum. The heads of the big press organs of the state, such as Al Ahram, Al Akhbar and Al Gomhouriya, led processions from their offices to the polling stations. Ministers did the same, such Minister of Health Muhammad Tag Eddin who came to vote along with ministry and hospital employees. Furthermore, there was much scope for fraud: there were only enough judges to cover about a quarter of polling stations at most, and eyewitnesses said many ballot boxes were unsealed and unprotected. Two journalists from Al Wafd reported that they were able to vote eight times in the Giza area of Cairo -- one of many instances of fraud that was reported. The final results published by the state media on the following day, suggested that 54% of the 32.5 million eligible voters had turned out, with 82.8% voting “yes.” These numbers are already been termed as a “black comedy” by opposition leaders.
To some extent, this was expected. What came as a shock was the brutal tactics used by NDP supporters and the police to suppress demonstrators that came out to spread their call for a boycott. On the morning of the referendum, the state papers published that there had been a general ban on demonstrations for the day. But the Kifaya movement, among others, had promised a “wave of civil disobedience” across the country. Usually, these demonstrations took place under heavy security presence -- the black-clad troops of Central Security, Egypt’s riot control police, generally outnumber protesters by at least three-to-one -- but with little violence. Even recent standoffs between Kifaya demonstrators and pro-Mubarak ones took place with little violence and police keeping the two groups apart.
But on 25 May, police actively participated in a crackdown on protesters. Kifaya demonstrators had come out in relatively small numbers, often changing the location of their planned demonstration to go around security forces. But when they turned up in the Central Cairo district of Mounira, near a mausoleum to nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul, police opened up ranks to let in a contingent of young men carrying Mubarak posters. Most of these seemed to be baltaguia, hired thugs that were promised 20 Egyptian pounds (less than three euros), a quarter grilled chicken and a Coca Cola to come and beat up the opposition. These have frequently been used in the past during elections and large demonstrations such as the ones that took place during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (One witness said she heard one of these thugs argue with a security officer about the sum of money he should be paid, saying they had originally agreed to 40 Egyptian pounds.)
Then the unthinkable happened. As well as beating up on the activists in general, the thugs made it a priority to attack women. According to dozens of accounts, female activists who support Kifaya -- one of the few political movements in which women have a high degree of public participation -- were beaten, molested and pushed onto the ground as young men heaped on top of them. Their clothes were ripped off, their breasts and genitals were touched, their dignity and bodies violated. Women who were pulled out of these scrums were seen wandering the streets in a daze. One, her clothes in tatters, stopped to vomit on the pavement and fainted. Another took refuge in a nearby office, her body shaking and her face in tears.
"We were beaten up, people were arrested and women were sexually harassed," said Aida Seif Al Dowla, an award-winning human rights activist who is a leader of the pro-democracy movement. She said police pushed protestors, especially women, towards groups of thugs hired by the government to beat them up. At one point, she was locked in a pharmacy along with other women as police sent in thugs who ripped their clothes off, she said.
“Today was unprecedented,” Seif Al Dowla stated. “They tried beating us up and putting us in prison, but that didn’t work. So what they are trying to do now is to humiliate us, to make sure we think long and hard before we go back out on the street. "It shows what the government really means by reform."
Egypt’s still struggling democracy movement will have to draw some important lessons from the events of 25 May. Until then, the regime had more or less tolerated them. It had focused its attention on the Muslim Brotherhood, which broke off negotiations with the government about a month ago and since then has tried to reach out to other political movements. The price it had to pay was that some 2500 sympathizers of the moderate Islamist movement have been arrested, including its secretary-general. But now it seems that even the small Kifaya movement is fair game for the state’s rougher tactics. The violence used to quell the protests, and the fact that it seems to have been purposely directed against women, is a bad omen for what the situation might be when presidential and parliamentary elections are held this fall.
When Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif visited Washington a week ago, he asked that Egypt be given “the benefit of the doubt” about its commitment to democratization. Apparently, Egypt’s most important ally, the United States, had been prepared to do that. So had some of Egypt’s opposition, at least until it was revealed that the proposed amendment to the constitution was far from what had been promised by Mubarak in February. The events of the 25 May referendum should teach them that behind the official mask of reform and “small steps towards democracy,” the same old authoritarian impulses lurk.

Issandr El Amrani

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