Egypt Confronts Double-edged Sword of Reform

By Oren Rawls

Published October 08, 2004, issue of October 08, 2004.
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CAIRO — In a spartan office within sight of the Great Pyramids at Giza, the civic education clubs of the Taha Hussein Association are busy working to instill the values of citizenship in today’s Egyptian schoolchildren. With a glossy 48-page booklet already in classrooms, director Kamal Mougheeth and his colleagues are trying to mold model citizens, one child at a time.

Such lofty goals were presumably what President Bush had in mind when he unveiled his Greater Middle East and North Africa Initiative in June. The benefits of democracy, so Washington reasoned, will dry up the well of discontent from which terrorism receives sustenance, stabilizing the region and perhaps even dampening Arab animosity toward Israel.

But here in Egypt, which is as close to an ally as Israel has in the Middle East, many citizens are wary of pinning their hopes on the future when the present offers so little promise. The average Egyptian is concerned about putting pita on the table, and a silent majority is putting its faith neither in America nor in its own government, but in the Muslim Brotherhood.

In this part of the world, democracy is a double-edged sword — one on which the Egyptian government, whether out of conviction or political necessity, is struggling to get a handle. Facing unprecedented pressure both at home and abroad for reform, Cairo is warning that shock therapy to the most populous Arab country may result in unwanted side effects.

“If we introduce lots of changes in a short period of time, the people cannot digest it,” Osama el Baz, the chief political adviser to President Hosni Mubarak and perhaps Egypt’s most respected political figure, told the Forward. “Suppose that somebody has a fever, and he has to take some antibiotics. He is told to take it every six or eight hours. Should he take 48 tablets at once to feel better?”

The long-ruling National Democratic Party offered up a full slate of reforms at its second annual conference, which was convened September 21 under the billing “New Thinking… Priorities for Reform.” In an opening-day, nationally-broadcast speech to party delegates, Gamal Mubarak — secretary of the policies committee and the odds-on favorite to succeed his father as president — cited a host of measures the government has taken: the establishment of a National Council for Human Rights, the abolishment of the state security courts and of a number of long-standing military decrees, the curtailment of powers accorded to public prosecutors and the abrogation of hard-labor sentences.

However, the policy changes did little to silence the rising cries in Egypt for reform. The demand topping most critics’ agendas — rescinding the emergency laws by which Cairo has governed since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 — was not met. Nor was the demand for an amendment to the 1971 constitution governing presidential selection and powers.

“We have not been able to establish with them a common vocabulary of what reform means, of what is needed,” Saad Eddin Ibrahim, director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and Egypt’s best-known democracy advocate, told the Forward.

One term heard often these days is multiparty elections. In a country governed since independence a half-century ago by what amounts to one-party rule, a growing chorus of critics is demanding the de-monopolization of the political establishment. Over the years, only a handful of small, ineffectual parties have received approval from the National Democratic Party-led committee that sanctions the formation of political parties.

Within the walls of government, the phrase of choice is separation of mosque and state. The staunch secularism of Egypt’s ruling elite has long been a matter of ideology as much as of power, and draws from a centuries-old liberal tradition. From the government’s perspective, the introduction of religion into the public arena is simply a nonstarter.

“When it comes to political parties, there should not be any restrictions except one: That political parties are not based upon religious orientation,” el Baz said.

In practice, that sole restriction means the official exclusion from government of the Muslim Brotherhood, known in Arabic as Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun. The Brotherhood, banned in 1954 by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, retains its place in many Western minds as the godfather of extremist Islamist groups, though it officially renounced violence a quarter-century ago. During the Mubarak presidency, the Brotherhood has earned widespread support among working-class Egyptians by bridging gaps in government services through its grass-roots network — a brand of social reformism that Hamas, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot, has emulated in Gaza.

Along with providing assistance with jobs, health care and food, however, the Brotherhood dispenses an Islamist message. The group’s ultimate aim is the adoption of Sharia, the code of Islamic law, as the law of the land. And therein lies the rub for political reform in Egypt: Given that the Brotherhood would likely carry the day in open elections, pushing for democracy effectively implies an Islamist government in Cairo.

It is not surprising, then, to hear calls from the Brotherhood to heed the word on the street.

“Give the people the right to change by giving them their freedom back to choose their representative, to choose their president, to build their political groups and parties, to be able to reform,” said Issam al-Arian, a member of the body that formulates Brotherhood policy, the General Guidance Bureau.

Critics here and abroad are quick to write off the Shakespeare-quoting al-Arian as an unrepentant Islamist who happens to have mastered CNN-speak. Perhaps surprisingly, he and other Islamist moderates have a defender in Ibrahim, the decidedly secular democracy advocate. Ibrahim says it is mainly the government that whips up fears of radical Islamicization by the Brotherhood, using scare tactics to ward off pressure from the West for reform.

Cairo, Ibrahim said, is trying “to scare the West that if they allow reform and democracy as usual, the Muslim Brothers will come in hordes.” It uses the same tactic to quiet restive secularists, women and minority Coptic Christians. “None of these fears, in my opinion, is warranted,” he said.

And yet, the specter of another Algeria — where Islamists’ success at the ballot box in 1991 set off a low-grade civil war that ended only a decade later after 100,000 deaths — lingers in the unfinished sentences heard off the record. Occasionally it surfaces in public conversation, even among those unlikely ever to raise a fist, let alone take up arms.

“I assure you,” said Mougheeth, the history teacher turned civic educator, “there will be violence if the government does not allow change.”

As the government weighs long-term political reform, it is aiming to win back public opinion by what appears to be an effort to take — and turn back — a page from the Brotherhood handbook. The Islamist group garnered widespread support by using its social network to plug gaps in government services. Revitalizing those social programs figures prominently in the government’s bid to restore public confidence, as evidenced by the slew of recent proposals for increased funding for education, health care and other public services.

“Our people have had enough of promises, of good wishes, of wishful thinking,” Mahmoud Mohieldin, Egypt’s minister of investment, told the Forward. “People are taking matters very seriously, and they are not satisfied. They cannot count by months and years anymore. They are counting things by days.”

The fight for the hearts and minds of Egyptian citizens plays out against the backdrop of heightened American pressure on Cairo and other Arab capitals for democratization. But while Bush’s initiative calls for reforms that in many respects mirror the demands of Cairo’s domestic critics — increased political choice, transparent governance, economic opportunity and personal freedoms — it is opposition to Washington’s impositions that may prove to be the one issue that can unite the country.

“Please,” al-Arian said, insisting that he was speaking as an Egyptian and not as a Muslim Brother, “tell the American people that we need one thing from them: Respect our will.”

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