On the road to democracy in the Middle East, Egypt’s Mubarak regime has once again declared an all-out war against my country’s small contingent of liberals.
Small in number as these liberals may be, five of them — including myself — recently declared their intention to run in the presidential elections scheduled for September. They are challenging President Hosni Mubarak to amend the constitution to allow for direct competitive elections. The reformists are also demanding term limits for the president, an end to a quarter-century of martial law, freedom of the press, and the right to freely establish political parties and civil society organizations.
Egyptians reformists have been emboldened by the recent Palestinian and Iraqi elections, which some of them participated in as observers. One group, the Egyptian Popular Movement for Change, has defiantly organized rallies, marches and demonstrations against the Mubarak regime.
As these acts of collective protest have grown, the regime’s nerves have gotten noticeably more edgy. Anyone questioning to what lengths the Mubarak government is willing to go to silence dissident voices need only look back on the brutal methods it has employed during the last 20 months.
In August 2003, Reda Helal, a prominent journalist with the semi-official Al Ahram daily, was kidnapped from his apartment in a Cairo suburb and has not been heard from since. Close associates claim that Helal’s forced disappearance was caused by statements he made about Gamal Mubarak, who is being groomed to succeed his father as Egyptian president.
This past November, the executive editor of the Al Arabi opposition weekly, Abdel Halim Kandil, was abducted late at night by four masked men and taken in an unmarked van to an isolated desert area 50 miles outside Cairo, where he was stripped naked, beaten and abandoned. Kandil — who has been a fiercely vocal critic of Mubarak running for a fifth consecutive six-year term — wandered in the desert until he found a military police unit that administered first aid, gave him clothing and contacted his family. Egypt’s press syndicate strongly condemned the incident, demanding an immediate investigation. When the regime dragged its feet on the matter, several voices in the opposition papers and on independent Arab satellite networks pointed accusing fingers directly at Mubarak.
The most flagrant assault on democracy activists, however, took place January 29, when Egypt’s rubber-stamp parliament was convened in an emergency session in order to suspend the parliamentary immunity of one of its members, Ayman Nour. He had not been notified beforehand of any wrongdoing or of a request to suspend immunity. The regime justified its request by the need to investigate allegations of forgeries related to the registration of the Al Ghad Party, which Nour heads.
The emergency session was over in fewer than 30 minutes. As Nour was leaving the parliament building, he was arrested by the notorious State Security Agency. With unprecedented judicial speed, a prosecution order was issued detaining Nour — not for the normal four or the unusual 14 days pending interrogation, but for 45 days without bail.
Mubarak’s wrath, according to the influential English-language Al Ahram Weekly, had been incurred by a recent meeting that Nour and other Al Ghad Party members had held with former American secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former congressman Vin Weber, and because of Nour’s active lobbying in parliament to amend the Constitution. The Mubarak regime is quite touchy about both matters.
The government is keen on presenting Egypt to the West as having only two alternatives: a Mubarak or the Islamists. With people like Nour and his new but fast-growing Al-Ghad Party, a third peaceful, liberal alternative has been looming on the horizon for all to see. That is why Mubarak is determined to eliminate Egypt’s liberals.
But Mubarak may have miscalculated the reaction to the heavy-handed incarceration of Nour, much like Syrian President Bashar Assad did in Lebanon and Saddam Hussein did before the American invasion of Iraq. The protestation was swift and intense, both at home and around world. Though relatively unknown, Nour’s case provided an opportunity to settle long-standing accounts with the Mubarak regime.
The most vehement reaction came from the United States. Mubarak’s move came days after President Bush, in his inaugural speech, made promoting liberty and democracy in the Middle East the cornerstone of his second term’s foreign policy. Mubarak appeared to be directly challenging the American president — in the words of The Washington Post, “Mr. Mubarak is no longer testing Mr. Bush; he is spitting in his face.”
The administration’s anger was hard to conceal. The joint press conference held in February by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, was icy at best. Soon afterward, Rice canceled an official visit to Cairo scheduled for early March.
While pressure from abroad was building, small but steadily growing demonstrations took place with increasing frequency — in clear defiance of the martial law in effect since 1981 and of the State Security Forces’s fierce anti-riot squads. The demonstrations made it clear that Mubarak’s out-worn excuses for delaying political reform were being dismissed both at home and abroad.
Presumably to placate his critics, Mubarak announced to the Egyptian parliament on February 26 his belief in the need to amend the Egyptian constitution. Presidential elections, he declared, should be open and competitive rather than the one-party rule and uncontested referenda that have been Egyptian politics for the last half-century.
Most Egyptians hailed the announcement as a victory for democracy. But as they began to read the fine print, it became clear that Mubarak’s move was no more than a ploy in which a few handpicked contenders with no access to state-controlled media would graciously lose to the incumbent.
A better indicator of the president’s views on political reform is last week’s arrest of about 100 demonstrators from the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The detentions, coming a day after 84 Brotherhood members were picked up by police across the country, is a reminder of Mubarak’s long-standing strategy of scare politics. Islamic militants, he has warned in both words and deeds, are always ready to take over power.
Every six months to a year, he makes a move sure to focus world attention on the Brotherhood’s presence in Egypt. It plays into his strategy of “either me or the Islamists.” In the battle between autocrats and theocrats, Mubarak has shown, time and again, there’s no room for democrats.