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Egyptian activists rally against the government


Egyptian activist


By Betsy Hiel
Sunday, May 7, 2006  

CAIRO -- A day after Egypt's parliament extended a widely-reviled emergency law, several dozen political activists tried to protest against the government. The protest lasted a minute.  

Hundreds of truncheon-swinging riot police, plainclothes officers and swarms of street thugs attacked the demonstrators outside the Nasr Party headquarters downtown, pushing them inside the building or chasing them down the street.  

"It's crazy, just crazy!" activist Rajia Omran said breathlessly while running from the chaos. "They're so violent today!"  

Last year, unprecedented political relaxation brought dissenting voices onto Cairo's teeming streets ahead of the first -- and fairly clean -- multi-party presidential election.  

Then came flawed parliamentary elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood -- an Islamist party that is officially banned but largely tolerated by the government -- won 20 percent of the seats, becoming the largest elected opposition in decades.  

Today, many here feel that promised political reforms were merely a subterfuge to help President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal, take control.  

"The charade is over," said Samer Shehata, a professor of Middle East politics at Washington's Georgetown University, as he watched police break up the May 1 protest. Shehata was in Cairo on a research project.  

With 73 million people, this is the most populous Arab nation and a key U.S. ally in a region that grows ever more turbulent. It receives $1.8 billion yearly from Washington, the second-largest U.S. foreign-aid package.  

Events here have resounded across the region for 50 years, from the spread of Arab nationalism to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel to the rise of Islamic radicalism.  

In his 2005 State of the Union address, President Bush said he hoped Egypt will lead other Arab nations to democracy.  

While Egypt seemed to embark on that path last year, the past month has exposed serious problems that have festered over decades of authoritarian rule.  

In early April, Muslims and Christians clashed for the second time in six months in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city. Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of a Christian newsweekly, describes the sectarian unrest "as if the city is living on a volcano that can erupt at any time."  

A week later, bombings hit the quiet Red Sea town of Dahab, the third terror attack on a Sinai resort in 18 months. More than 100 Egyptians and foreign tourists died in those attacks.

Meanwhile, two reformist judges of Egypt's appellate court faced disciplinary action for exposing alleged fraud in 2005's parliamentary elections. When 50 judges and political activists staged a sit-in to support them, police beat one judge and arrested more than 40 people.  

The beating and arrests are "a message ... that the government will and can do anything against any person in Egypt, including the judges," said Nasser Amin, who directs a group promoting judicial reform in the Arab world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials have called on Egypt to liberalize its judiciary.  

By month's end, parliament extended the emergency law for two years, raising an outcry in the independent press and on the streets. The law, adopted in 1981 following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, was to end in June. Scores of political activists and several journalists have been imprisoned recently under its provisions. Other political opponents have been jailed, too.  

Ayman Nour, who placed a distant second in 2005's presidential election, is serving a term for forgery, despite a government witness recanting his testimony. The diabetic Nour's slender wife, Gamila Ismail, has been charged with attacking a muscular state security officer and putting him in the hospital for three weeks.  

Ismail accuses the Mubarak government of "trying to break links and lines of unity between the judges' movement and other political forces, by any means."  

Gasser Abdel-Razek, a board member of Egypt's Organization of Human Rights, said "a lot of little things" are occurring in the country. "They are not necessarily directly linked, but there is one obvious link - the conclusion is that the regime is falling apart and it cannot handle social, economic, political and security issues."  

Essam El-Erian, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, agrees: "All the people now are living ... in a period of uncertainty. It is very dangerous. Reform is now going backward." He blames the United States for "a very important role in supporting these military regimes. They have done this for 60 years."  

Yet Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and the ruling National Democratic Party's assistant secretary-general, denies political reform is at a standstill.  

"I have ample evidence ... that we are not turning back," he said Thursday at a press conference. "We are absolutely convinced and committed that the only way to move forward is to further open up and liberalize and introduce more competition to our system."  

He called 2005 "a turning point" for reform that produced "a parliament with the biggest number, in absolute terms, of opposition members since Egypt reinstated multi-party politics in the mid- to late '70s."  

A polished speaker in Arabic and English, Mubarak, 42, touted economic successes such as 6.1 percent growth, a large drop in inflation, and a one-year tripling of direct foreign investment, to $3.3 billion.  

He acknowledged that his party's communication skills can improve and that the emergency law is unpopular, but insisted that government sometimes must make unpopular decisions.

"We are committed to put in place a new anti-terror law to be a substitute for the state-of-emergency law," he said, after first amending "certain articles in the constitution."  

Of all Arab countries, Egypt is the most improved, according to David Welch, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and ambassador to Egypt from 2001 to 2005. "It does have social and economic concerns that it needs to address," he says, "but its reform team does have a command."  

However, some political analysts and activists here say reform has stalled in part because the United States has eased its pressure on Egypt's government.  

"They haven't abandoned us," Ismail, wife of the jailed presidential candidate, said of the Bush administration. But she thinks U.S. officials have other priorities -- Iraq, Iran, the Palestinian election of a Hamas-led government -- and asks: "Where is reform and democracy on your list now?"  

The Muslim Brotherhood's El-Erian disagrees. "I think it is clear, after the Palestinian elections, that the Americans are hypocrites about democracy. They can't accept democratic results unless they are pro-American, and mainly pro-Israeli."  

Welch insists U.S. policy "is to retain and emphasize a democracy agenda. Egypt is a complex country, but they are encouraging a reform agenda." Liberal reformers' expectations that "(we) should be ahead of where we are ... is the nature of activism, and they should hold their expectations at 110 percent, and we will meet those expectations for reform for them at probably 75 percent."  

Behind the debate over political reform, or lack thereof, swirl theories about who will follow President Mubarak, who celebrated his 78th birthday Thursday.

"The post-Mubarak era is creeping up," said Georgetown University's Shehata.  

Josh Stacher, an analyst of Egyptian politics and a Washington, Pa., native, says Egyptian and

U.S. officials "are trying to make sure that things go smoothly for the transition. The pressure is off so they can start laying the groundwork for the post-Mubarak day."  

The Muslim Brotherhood's El-Erian insists Gamal Mubarak is being groomed to replace his father -- and many Egyptians agree.  

Yet asked about that at his press conference, the younger Mubarak refused to respond, saying he has answered the question "over and over and over again." He previously has said he has no intention to seek the presidency.  

"Part of the perceived problem is that I think they are worried about their leader," the State Department's Welch said of Egyptians and their government. "He is older, they don't know who is up next, whose hand is on the curtain. ... Any concern like that is valid and natural. Unknown change has that effect.  

"I lived there for four years -- Egypt is a good friend to the United States. I have seen great changes in Egypt as well. ... Unfortunately, sometimes all we see is the bad coming out."  

Betsy Hiel can be reached at hielb@yahoo.com.

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