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
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.
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.