Something is in the air

  Something is in the air The event was an address on youth and scientific research. The place was a countryside university, far from the centers of learning of Cairo or Alexandria. It was in his hometown of Menouf, where he was born in 1928, that the president of Egypt announced that for the first time in his near quarter-century rule, he would actually run for re-election against someone. The date was Saturday 26 February 2005.

''I took the reins of this initiative in order to start a new era on the way of reform," President Hosni Mubarak said.

The reform that he introduced was asking parliament to amend article 76 of the Egyptian constitution. Since he became president in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Al Sadat, Mubarak has been reelected four times through the referendum system created by the current Egyptian constitution of 1971. Under this system, parliament endorses with a two-thirds majority a single candidate, who then must be approved by a majority in a yes/no popular referendum. Mubarak has always won with at least 95% of votes. The proposed amendment, whose details are still being decided by parliament, would allow direct, multi-candidate elections.

Local television channels carried live coverage of the event throughout the day, showing footage of jubilant pundits and politicians. TV presenters from across the country asked people on the streets how they felt about having become a democracy, and it seemed the citizens of Egypt were surprised and grateful. The opposition parties, who had long asked for such a move to be made, were so ecstatic that they spent the day praising the wise rule of their rival. For the next few days, acres of newspaper columns were dedicated to the “new age of reform” that the announcement had ushered in, and the tear-eyed sycophants of Egypt’s intelligentsia expressed their gratitude for having been propelled into an era of democracy.

The most predictably unctuous was Samir Ragab, the editor of the third best-selling daily Al Gomhouriya that Mubarak has said in the past is his favorite author. (The books that Ragab publishes and regularly win prizes at the Cairo International Book Fair are mostly about, er, Mubarak.) It was a moment reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984: from one moment to the next, Ragab went from condemning opposition calls for a constitutional amendment to lauding the president’s vision for democracy. Something is in the air “It is not surprising for Mubarak to have made yet another revolutionary initiative to broaden the nation’s sovereignty and free will. He was adamant that such a radical change in the country’s political life should take place ahead of this year’s referendum, to underline the fact that he was and will be the nation’s conscience, in touch with its ambitions and potential,” Ragab wrote the day after the announcement.

On the other end of the respectability scale, eminent political scientist Osama El Ghazali Harb, a member of the “reformist” coterie around presidential scion Gamal Mubarak, spoke of the beginnings of a “second Egyptian Republic” – a reference to the France’s successive forms of government. “The July Republic has exhausted his purpose,” he wrote in Al Ahram. “We are now in need of radical changes that will create a genuinely democratic second republic. President Mubarak is in an excellent position to lead this transformation, as he basically inherited the system and was not party to its inception.”

No major editorialist dared to remind his readers that only a few weeks previously the president himself had dubbed the opposition’s calls for reform as “futile,” or that Gamal Mubarak – the president’s son and heir apparent – had told the press only week earlier that the constitution “needs no amendment.” Like countless other officials, he had opposed constitutional reform, at least before September’s presidential referendum. Yet none of this was mentioned in the initial coverage of Mubaraks’s announcement.

It actually took a few days before people started asking questions. At first, they were rather timid. Magdi Mehanna, the star columnist of the independent daily Masri Al Youm, wrote that Mubarak’s step “demolished the largest obstacle of dictatorship which prevented the Egyptian people to choose their leaders.” But he also added: “Mister president, this is not enough. It must be followed by other measures. I ask you to also amend article 77 to limit [presidential mandates] to two terms, although it need not apply to you. I also wish that any amendment limit the powers of the head of state to allow parliament to better control the acts of government.” Today, a month after the original announcement, the debate has become livelier. As the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which controls 85% of parliament, tried to impose more and more restrictions on the eligibility of candidates, opposition parties are considering boycotting the elections. The Muslim Brotherhood, which although banned from participating in elections has the largest number of non-NDP MPs in parliament, is unhappy because it seemed at first only the heads of existing parties would be able to run. Then other opposition leaders expressed their discontent when it looked like candidates would have to be endorsed by at least 20% of MPs – meaning they would have to get the support of NDP MPs.

“We refuse to follow the Tunisian model,” said Noman Gomaa, the leader of the historic Wafd party. There is an increasing feeling that the presidential elections, which will be held in September or October, risk turning into the same type of travesty the recent re-election of Tunisia’s Zin Eddin Ben Ali was. The dilemma for the opposition is that they know they won’t win. As a leading member of the Wafd recently said, “Why should we spend money and energy on running if it’s only to be humiliated?”

The issue of political reform in Egypt has been complicated by widespread opposition not only to Mubarak’s regime, but also to the Bush administration’s discourse on spreading democracy in the Arab world. Virtually every political personality in Egypt, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum, has condemned US interference in regional affairs and rejected the notion that democracy could come from abroad. And, of course, no one dares suggest that Mubarak’s own announcement came because of foreign pressure – even though only five days beforehand the American president had urged, for the second time, Egypt to act on reform.

“The great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East,” Bush said in a speech in Brussels on 21 February.

One of the most promising candidates who want to run against Mubarak is the leader of the newly created Al Ghad (Tomorrow) party, Ayman Nour. Nour was recently released – on bail – from prison and will soon stand trial on charges of forging the signatures he needed to get his party started. With six MPs in parliament, Al Ghad is the largest official opposition party. And the government press is running a campaign against it, accusing it of receiving funding from the US. In Nour’s own district of Bab Al Sharqeya in Cairo, where he has tremendous popularity, the NDP is already preparing a huge campaign to unseat him and is forcing local shopkeepers to carry pro-NDP banners accusing him of being a foreign agent.

In the meantime, it is becoming increasingly clear that the generally apolitical Egyptians have had enough. The real historic date is not 26 February 2005, but 11 December 2004. That was the day that, for the first time ever not only during Mubarak’s rule but since the military coup of July 1952, that protestors took to the streets specifically against the president. Two grassroots movements, Kefaya (Enough) and the Popular Committee for Change – are calling for full constitutional reform and campaigning against Mubarak’s reelection or the inheritance of power by his son Gamal. Opposition and civil society activists lead both groups. Although small, these unprecedented protests opened the way for a wider debate in the media about the prospect of a Gamal Mubarak presidency and the need for constitutional reform.

The two groups have had four demonstrations so far, each bigger than the previous. Every time, security forces outnumber them about ten to one. During their latest demonstration on 20 March, timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the Iraq war, an odd thing happened. Perhaps inspired by recent events in Lebanon, the regime staged a pro-Mubarak counter-demonstration. It seemed that many of the participants were plainclothes security officials, and indeed the police handed them sandwiches and water bottles. Until now, the regime never had to care about the small demonstrations that only a few hundred people would ever attend. Most Egyptians I have spoken too were either too afraid to participate or to preoccupied with earning a living in an increasingly difficult economy.

Yet the desire for change is becoming pervasive enough that the regime thought it had better act. That could be the first sign of desperation for a regime that, having failed to provide either good governance or national dignity, long ago lost its legitimacy. Issandr Elamrani

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