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Egyptian reform always seems at least a year away

By Vivian Salama
June 30, 2006

Given the political atmosphere in Egypt these days, it's hard for me not to feel nostalgic. It was around this time last year that I was already running out of words to describe in my articles the "political reform" sweeping the nation - and the region.

I have a confession to make. As unbiased as I tried to remain in my coverage of Egypt's first ever presidential election last year, the truth is, I wanted to believe that the incumbent, Hosni Mubarak, and his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) were as committed to transforming the country as they suggested in their campaign. After all, "Old Party Turns a New Leaf"; "Dictator Becomes A Democrat;" what great headlines these would have made.

At the height of last summer, journalists were dragging themselves out of bed at pre-dawn hours, battling the grueling heat, and sitting through speeches where spectators offered to sacrifice themselves for the candidates. I covered the three major campaigns - that of Wafd candidate Naaman Gomaa, Al-Ghad leader Ayman Nour, and Mubarak. However, it was with the NDP that I spent the bulk of my time, and so it was natural to warm up to some of the faces behind the campaign.

Month after month, we listened to members of the ruling party tout their strategies for revamping the nation - economically and politically. They talked of abolishing the controversial Emergency Law that has been in effect since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 - which authorizes sweeping arrests and detentions by the security services, without due process. Most shockingly, the once exclusive presidential press pass was temporarily abolished, turning presidential coverage into a useful free-for-all. The Egyptian government was opening its heart and its doors to the world and, despite the criticism, it all seemed genuine enough.

Here we are, nearly a year later. Ayman Nour, who came a distant second in the presidential election, is behind bars and is likely to stay there for the next five years. Naaman Gomaa was released from jail after allegedly plotting a massacre against his rivals within the Wafd. The emergency law was extended for an additional two-year period. Two judges were arrested but later released for sounding the alarm on fraud during last year's parliamentary elections. Police crackdowns against dissidents have grown more brutal and less apologetic.

So much for reform.

In a recent interview with Egypt's Al-Ahram newspaper, Mubarak spoke of a future of unprecedented reform. "The year 2007 will witness a surge in constitutional reforms that coincide with political progress," he was quoted as saying. He insisted he was committed to fostering "all the laws and legislation that forward political and economic reform, with the hope of completing the process by the end of 2006."

Ideally, that might give Egyptians something to look forward to. The only problem is that the vast majority of them no longer believe it. 

However, there still are a few groups that support Mubarak and his regime. The private-sector business community likes having anyone in power who can maintain strong ties with the West. In 2004, the Egyptian Cabinet was revamped - with Mubarak giving the boot to the ripened party members whose names were tied to an era of corruption, backward politics and economic regression. They were replaced by young, globalization-savvy technocrats, several of whom were seen as being associated with the president's son, Gamal.

Another group that backs Mubarak is the Coptic Christians, who make up approximately 12.5 percent of Egypt's 72 million inhabitants. Although Copts have complained of persecution since long before Mubarak came to power, they also believe that the current regime has sought to contain Islamic extremism that is spreading across the region. Indeed, this phenomenon of a Christian minority backing a supposedly secular nationalist regime because of the minority's fear of political Islam, regardless of the regime's commitment to democracy, has been familiar throughout the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria.

Noble as Mubarak's promises for a better tomorrow may be, the time for making promises has come and gone. Last year Egypt held a first-of-its-kind presidential election where the elderly Mubarak traveled from one corner of the country to the other, giving average citizens new hope. As time passed, though, so too did the notion of accountability for the man who has ruled Egypt for a quarter-century. Legitimate political reform, like so many other things, has been put on the backburner in Egypt. Now, not 2007, is the time to put reformist promises into action.


* Vivian Salama is a freelance reporter and political commentator based in Cairo. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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