Egyptian activists rally against the government
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.
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.
just crazy!" activist Rajia Omran said breathlessly while running from the
chaos. "They're so violent today!"
unprecedented political relaxation brought dissenting voices onto Cairo's
teeming streets ahead of the first -- and fairly clean -- multi-party
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.
here feel that promised political reforms were merely a subterfuge to help
President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal, take control.
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.
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.
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
In his 2005
State of the Union address, President Bush said he hoped Egypt will lead other
Arab nations to democracy.
seemed to embark on that path last year, the past month has exposed serious
problems that have festered over decades of authoritarian rule.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
accuses the Mubarak government of "trying to break links and lines of unity
between the judges' movement and other political forces, by any means."
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
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."
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
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."
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.
acknowledged that his party's communication skills can improve and that the
emergency law is unpopular, but insisted that government sometimes must make
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
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."
political analysts and activists here say reform has stalled in part because the
United States has eased its pressure on Egypt's government.
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?"
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."
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."
debate over political reform, or lack thereof, swirl theories about who will
follow President Mubarak, who celebrated his 78th birthday Thursday.
era is creeping up," said Georgetown University's Shehata.
an analyst of Egyptian politics and a Washington, Pa., native, says Egyptian and
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
Brotherhood's El-Erian insists Gamal Mubarak is being groomed to replace his
father -- and many Egyptians agree.
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.
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."
can be reached at