Cairo faces barriers to democracy

07 November 2008

Cairo continues to stifle freedom of expression, political opposition and is accused of rolling back steps towards democracy, while seeking to reassert itself on the regional diplomatic stage.

Traditionally regarded as one of the key powerbrokers in the Middle East, Egypt continues to have a strong political influence in the region. Yet, despite being the most populous Arab nation in the world, Egypt is increasingly referred to as being a largely apolitical society.

A prevailing culture of fear among ordinary Egyptians, resulting from the 53-year ban on protests, along with an increasing number of clamp-downs on opposition activists, explains the country’s political inertia.

Although Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 80th birthday earlier this year has made the question of his successor a popular one, many people say that his son, Gamal, is already being groomed for the role.

A photograph of Gamal attending a ministerial meeting with his father was published on the front page of local papers in October - the first time such an event has occurred.

Leadership opposition

“Gamal is increasingly the main contender,” says Dr Neil Partrick, political science lecturer at the American University of Sharjah.

“But one hears talk about figures such as Omar Suleiman, the powerful intelligence chief who has a military background, being a contender.

All Egyptian leaders since 1952 have been senior military figures prior to becoming politicians; Gamal does not have that distinction.”

Aside from Suleiman, the Defence Minister Mohamed Tantawi has also been at the centre of speculation over the succession, and there were allegations in 2006-07 that some factions in the army were unhappy with the idea of Gamal succeeding his father.

While it is impossible to verify these allegations, Gamal remains an unpopular figure, whose reputation has been tarnished not only by his father’s legacy, but also by allegations of his own corrupt dealings.

Yet there remains little official political opposition to Mubarak’s regime and the ruling National Democratic Party that he chairs.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which has been the chief political opposition in Egypt since Gamal Nasser took power in 1952, is the only force that could stage a serious opposition to Gamal Mubarak’s succession, if its leadership chose to.

“The MB are popular and can mobilise tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, on the streets fairly quickly. But even so, it does not represent any serious threat or an alternative to the current regime,” says Dr Omar Ashour, politics lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in the UK.

Indeed, the resources invested by the regime in its multiple security agencies - State Security Investigations, Military Intelligence, General Intelligence, plus the 400,000 soldiers of the Central Security Forces - in addition to the standing army, are unmatched.

In the absence of the political will to democratise, these agencies become the ultimate arbiters of politics in the country.

“Gamal Mubarak is the only candidate at present,” says Essam el-Erian, chairman of the political bureau for the MB.

“The official opposition is very weak and nobody dares compete. We are the only organised group, but are prevented by law from competing in the election.”

This is because the MB is classed as a movement and not a political party.

However, George Ishak, the deputy general coordinator of the Kefaya movement, which rose to the public’s attention during the 2005 constitutional referendum and presidential election campaigns, remains defiant, saying that his organisation is working towards unifying all the opposition movements into one coalition, in order to have enough power to face the NDP.

Undermining democracy

“Kefaya succeeded in breaking the culture of fear and proving to Egyptians that they have the right to protest against any unfair laws or rules,” says Ishak.

“So we are trying to form a coalition among all opposition movements, to gather enough strength against the NDP.”

However, many believe that Kefaya is itself in the political doldrums and has become an elitist group without the ability to significantly mobilise supporters which, as much as they might want democracy, are not prepared to fight for it.

Furthermore, many believe that recent political reforms to the constitution, in 2006 in particular the removal of the judiciary from supervising future presidential elections, represents a reversal of previous gains towards democracy.

“Basically, the police force and the government will govern the elections. Or control the elections, to be precise,” says Dr Mohamed Kamel, the founding partner of Al-Kamel Law Office in Cairo.

The presidential and parliamentary elections of 2005 were presided over by Egypt’s judiciary, which helped limit the level of fraud.

It was considered a breakthrough compared with the usual presidential referendum, which invariably ended up with 90 per cent or more voting for Mubarak.

However, the runner-up, Ayman Nour was sentenced to five years imprisonment on charges of fraud, while the third-placed candidate, Numan Guma, had charges of bullying levelled against him.

“In addition to arrest and imprisonment, both candidates lost their seats in the parliaments, and even the leading positions in their own parties, and were replaced by opposition figures loyal to the regime,” says Ashour.

“From 2006 onwards, democratisation has been rolled back in Egypt and human rights organisations have recorded an increase in the levels of state repression, especially directed against pro-democracy activists, such as Saad Eddine Ibrahim, who was sentenced for the second time, and Islamists.”

State repression

To mark such deterioration, Freedom House, which monitors human rights, posted a downward trend listing for Egypt in its 2008 report, due to the “suppression of journalists’ freedom of expression, repression of opposition groups, and the passage of constitutional amendments that hinder the judiciary’s ability to balance against executive excess”.

Of course, such events do not bode well for any rival to Gamal Mubarak in the next presidential election.

Aside from its own internal political wrangling, Egypt has been continuing to maintain its involvement in regional foreign policy, particularly in trying to broker an agreement between Hamas and Fatah.

The Palestinian rivals were due to meet in Cairo at the end of October, for talks aimed at forming a unity government.

A reasonable sense of optimism surrounded the anticipated meeting, but less than a fortnight before they were due to take place, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pulled out, stating that such negotiations must include all the Palestinian factions.

Many doubt Egypt’s ability to mediate successfully on this front. Aside from the continued sparring between Hamas and Fatah and their conflicting views on any proposed government - Fatah is proposing a transitional government of national consensus and refusing to form a national unity government with Hamas - there are other complications.

“So far, Hamas does not regard the Egyptian regime as a neutral player and there is deep mistrust between the two,” says Ashour.

While there have been some sub-ministerial meetings between Iran and Egypt, as well as some economic co-operation, the Egyptians are wary of Iran because of its recent dealings
in Lebanon.

But Egypt wants to reassert itself on the regional diplomatic stage, especially after Qatar’s much publicised success in hosting the Doha Agreement in May this year, which brought an end to the 18-month political crisis in Lebanon.

Egypt will also want to resolve the Israeli blockade on Gaza, due to its border with the Gaza strip, and the threat to its national security.

Like every other country, Egypt’s foreign policy is primarily motivated by self-interest and Cairo wants to try and prevent the intra-Palestinian conflict from entering the country.

Common objectives

“Geo-politics always matter,” says Partrick. In a bid to end the inter-Palestinian rift and regain its influence in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, Egypt has prepared a draft plan for resolving it ahead of a Palestinian national unity dialogue, which was due to be held in Cairo on 8 November.

In its desire to see a new Palestinian national unity government, Egypt shares common objectives with its neighbour Israel and, consequently, with the US. Egypt’s foreign diplomatic energies are also being largely consumed by the ongoing crisis in neighbouring Sudan, which Cairo has been responding to very seriously.

Egypt sent peacekeepers to Sudan to support the UN and US forces about six months ago, and Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, visited Sudan in October, along with the Arab League’s Secretary General Amr Moussa.

It has been said that while the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is regarded as being both a political and strategic issue, Egypt considers the crisis in Sudan to be a serious strategic matter.

“A possible creation of two separate countries from the current and fraught political process in Sudan is antithetic to Egyptian and wider Arab interests,” says Partrick.

“And Arab states, often aware of the limits to their historical legitimacy and integrity,
are very wary of anything that threatens the territorial status quo.”

Regarding its own internal security, the recent kidnapping of tourists in southern Egypt brought to the fore again the issue of how the government is dealing with its Islamist groups.

Egypt has an emergency law that is waiting to be replaced by the counter-terrorism law, which is awaiting approval in parliament.

This new law, according to the recent constitutional reforms in Article 179, stipulates that the government is allowed, in prosecuting offences related to terrorism, to bypass protections against arbitrary arrest, search without warrant, and violation of privacy.

To many observers, this is just a further reminder that any constitutional reforms seem to be working against progress towards democracy.

For the time being, the MB remains the only opposition to the regime with any possible impact. However, the limited political opening it secured in the 2005 election vastly under-represented the strength of this Islamist grouping in Egypt.

“The increasing Islamisation of political and cultural life in Egypt has created a public infrastructure that benefits the Brotherhood, who would undoubtedly hold a majority of parliamentary seats, should an election be truly open,” says Partrick.

“But neither Egypt nor any of its neighbours would want that, so Egyptian political sclerosis continues.”

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