Something has changed in Egypt

Sleeping giant of the Arab world awakes to democracy

By Richard Beeston
The Times

Hosni Mubarak may defeat the challengers to his presidency but something has changed in Egypt

HIS hair has turned white, his children have grown up and George Ishaq should, like other Egyptian men of his age, be gossiping in Cairo coffee-shops and dozing over the newspaper.

But there is a youthful bounce to this former communist, aged 66, who behaves more like a student activist than a retired school teacher. Whether organising a demonstration or speaking out to visiting journalists against the regime of President Mubarak, the co-founder of the Kefaya (Enough) movement feels that his time has finally come.

“I have been waiting a quarter of a century for this moment,” said Mr Ishaq, whose flat in Cairo has become a centre, if a chaotic one, for a broad spectrum of opposition figures, who troop in and out, organising protests and picking up leaflets.

“We have finally broken the culture of fear in this country. People thought Mubarak was a half-president, half-god, that he was a Pharaoh, that he was untouchable. Now we have the right to challenge him and say 24 years of Mubarak and his regime is enough,” he said, punching the air with satisfaction.

Government ministers are probably right to dismiss the small and disparate opposition challenge, and say that Mr Mubarak will be easily re-elected to a fifth presidential term in September; yet everyone agrees that something has changed in the Arab world’s largest and most influential nation.

Half a dozen independent newspapers feel free to criticise Mr Mubarak, his Government and even his family, when once that could have meant prison. Where the ruling National Democratic Party had a monopoly on power for three decades, now dozens of parties and political movements are springing to life. Where it was assumed that Mr Mubarak, 77, would rule for ever, now the main debate in Egypt is who will succeed him.

Egypt’s version of the “Arab Spring”, as the democratic changes sweeping the region are known, is particularly significant because it has the strong encouragement of Washington. President Bush has stated repeatedly that he wants Cairo to set the example for democracy and is putting pressure on his key Arab ally to introduce the necessary reforms.

Mr Mubarak does not have much choice. America provides nearly $2 billion annually in aid to Egypt. Its embassy in Cairo, the largest American mission in the world, is openly supporting pro-democratic forces. When Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, arrives in Cairo this month, democracy will be at the top of her agenda. Not long ago Cairo would look forward to such a visit; now there is unease. “I am sure they are dreading Condoleezza Rice coming out,” a Western diplomat said.

The apprehension is well founded. This month Mr Bush telephoned Mr Mubarak to berate him over the attack by activists of his ruling party on an opposition demonstration where women protesters were sexually assaulted. The Americans are pressing Cairo to accept international observers to monitor the elections. They intervened to help to secure the release from jail of Ayman Nour, a liberal politician who shot to fame after announcing that he would challenge Mr Mubarak in Egypt’s first multi-candidate elections in September.

At his penthouse flat in Cairo’s fashionable Zamalek district, the softly spoken 40-year-old leader of the al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party cuts an unlikely alternative to Mr Mubarak, who is a former Air Force officer and one of the world’s longest-serving heads of state. Mr Nour’s critics dismiss him as an opportunist with no hope of winning. But he has probably correctly judged that he is destined to play an historic role, if only in changing the way Egypt chooses its future leaders.

“I can’t convey to you how fed up the ordinary Egyptian is that we have had one ruler for our nation for 24 years,” he said. “It is an ugly thought that Mubarak thinks he can rule for another six years and then bequeath the leadership to his son. Someone has to stand against him.”

Talk of a father-to-son succession infuriates the President’s Western-educated son Gamal, 42. This former banker, with clear political ambitions, is the driving force behind efforts to reform the Egyptian economy and modernise the ruling party. But he insists that he has no intention of becoming the next Egyptian leader. “This fallacy should be put to rest,” he said. “I have no ambition to become the next President.”

Any hopes of easing the son into the father’s job, as Arab leaders have done in Syria and Jordan, has been greatly complicated by President Mubarak’s announcement in February that he would allow candidates to challenge him for the presidency. No one doubts that he will win the next presidential elections, where he can count on the support of a huge party machine, millions of public sector employees and government workers and, crucially, the backing of the Armed Forces.

What happens next is less clear. Under the constitutional amendments being introduced, more political parties will be allowed to contest seats in parliament and then put forward presidential candidates in any future presidential race.

Soleiman Awaad, the presidential spokesman, said that Mr Mubarak was intent on leaving a democratic legacy for his country and making a break with the military rulers who have run Egypt since the coup in 1952. “He wants to establish a new doctrine. He will appoint a civilian vice-president to succeed him. He said: ‘When I die I want Egypt to remember me as the one who did this.’ ” Mr Awaad said. Yet there are grave doubts that the country’s experiment in democracy is irreversible. Most of the opposition parties remain small and weak and appeal only to the urban middle classes. Most of Egypt’s 70 million people, many living on £20 a month, are far removed from the political debate.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s 77-year-old Islamist movement and indisputably the most organised and popular opposition group, remains banned from mainstream politics. Over the past few weeks of heightened political activity hundreds of its members were rounded up and imprisoned by the authorities.

Muhammad Morsy al-Aiat, a member of the Brotherhood who sits in parliament as an independent, said that the regime’s attempt at reforms was a diversion aimed at perpetuating its rule. He said that unless real democracy was introduced violence could follow.

“The changes are intended to leave things in Egypt exactly the way they are. But people in Egypt, like any other country, want to be treated in a democratic way. They want the right to choose their President,” he said. “We hope and pray for permission from the Government to take part in this democratic process. Otherwise Egypt will go through a bloody conflict.”

With violence sweeping the Arab world, such warnings have many Egyptians worried.

Emad Adeeb, a leading television journalist, said that the country should follow an old Arab proverb: “If you are in a hurry you should tell your driver to go slowly. That way you will avoid having an accident.”


December 12: Opposition Kefaya (Enough) movement launches anti-Mubarak campaign
January 29: Ayman Nour, an opposition presidential candidate, is arrested by police
February 2: Bush calls on Egypt to set a democratic example in the Middle East
February 26: Mubarak announces multicandidate presidential elections
March 27: Authorities begin to arrest hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members
May 25: Referendum approves election reform; opposition demonstration is attacked in Cairo
June 1: Bush tells Mubarak to halt the crackdown on opposition and allow political freedom


Currently holding its first elections in the absence of Syrian troops for 30 years

58 per cent of registered Iraqis turned out to vote in January in the country’s first free elections in more than 50 years. Further elections were expected in December but may be delayed by wrangling over a constitution

Mahmoud Abbas won elections praised for their openness in January after Yassir Arafat’s death in November. Elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council are due in July

Women were granted the vote and full political rights in May

The absolute monarchy held its first ever elections in February when voters were able to choose half the members of the country’s municipal council. Women were barred from voting in this election but may be able to take part in 2009

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected without opposition in 1999, but observers say his re-election in 2004 was the fairest poll in the country since multi-party politics was introduced in 1989

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