A Weakening Grasp

In a nation where even holding hands in the park is frowned on, public displays of affection for democracy have become an acceptable and increasingly frequent passion in the street.

Egypt’s judges are the unlikely object of that passion, the new political sex symbol for activists in a nation whose authoritarian regime is slowly weakening.

“People see (the judges) and they get goose bumps,” says Hossam Bahgat, who heads the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of dozens of human rights groups that have sprung up in the largest Arab nation, a key U.S. ally. “What the judges have offered is a sense of collective leadership,” he said, for a reform movement that otherwise lacks compelling individual leaders.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Cairo in recent weeks to protest the government’s threatened punishment of two judges who had questioned the credibility of last fall’s elections. Police beat demonstrators as recently
as Thursday and arrested hundreds.

“There can be no reforms unless there is an independent judiciary,” Hesham El-Bastiwisy, one of the threatened judges told a group of visiting U.S. journalists on May 3. As Egyptians are subjected to government-controlled media, and petty corruption at almost every level, judges are “the one segment
of society they trust,” he said, a view backed by Bahgat and others.

El-Bastiwisy and another judge were arrested and faced the American equivalent of disbarment after they said judges shouldn’t rubber-stamp fraudulent election results. El-Bastiwisy was reprimanded Thursday; the other judge was cleared.

Both secular and Islamist opponents of the Egyptian government are united in their support of the judges.

“They blew the whistle” on the election, said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a professor at the American University in Cairo, who was jailed from 2000-2003 for activism. Government strong-arm tactics were widely seen as suppressing opposition to President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif dismisses the judges’ complaints, and said the government is considering many of the changes the judges have suggested.

“There is an independent judiciary in Egypt,” Nazif said, adding that it was other judges who had pressed for the discipline of El-Bastiwisy. “There’s no government interference whatsoever.”

Close ties to U.S.

The U.S. State Department was critical of Egypt’s heavy-handed response to the pro-judge demonstrations, but the judges, their supporters, and other activists are highly skeptical of what they say is America’s on-again, off-again encouragement of democracy here.

“We don’t believe they want to push reform in Egypt, really,” El-Bastiwisy said. “The position of the United States has not been consistent … it changes its stances all the time.”

His opinion was echoed by Amir Salem, who heads a lawyers’ human rights group and represents Ayman Nour, the jailed presidential candidate whose conviction for forgery was affirmed Thursday and who now is likely to serve a five-year
prison term.

“The United States is playing a tricky game in talking about human rights and freedom,” Salem said. “In fact, they are in deep business relations with our government.”

It is a relationship that is valued by both sides.

The United States provides nearly $1.8 billion in aid to Egypt, $1.3 billion of which is military aid. For its part, Egypt has been a staunch U.S. ally in a troubled region, particularly in the war on terror. It made an early peace with Israel and offers the potential for being a broker between Israel and the Palestinians. The nation’s pro-business stance is attracting American
businesses such as Microsoft, which has a building in the futuristic “Smart Village,” a high-tech business park just outside Cairo.

“It’s a pivotal country,” said Francis J. Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt. He said U.S. policy is to encourage democracy “in a way that shows respect … in a deliberate and careful way.”

If activists are dissatisfied with the pace of U.S. pressure on Egypt, its government cautions against an American-style democracy.

“Imposing democracy is a fallacy,” says Nazif, the prime minister. “Democracy has to come from within. I don’t think there’s a one size fits all.”

Looking ahead

Islamic fundamentalism is the wild card in Egypt’s move toward social and political change.

Religious parties are banned in Egypt, but the strongest opposition showing in last fall’s parliamentary elections came from members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed group that seeks to create an Islamic state. Running as independents, its members got 20 percent of the parliamentary vote, and
probably would have received more had police not interfered by keeping people away from the polls in districts where opposition candidates were popular.

If their strong showing gave the United State pause about the benefits of democracy in Egypt, it shouldn’t have, Islamists say.

“These fears are totally unfounded,” says Mohamed Habib, deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. He said Islam is the answer to the terrorist threat.

“Our principles reject violence in any form … where a moderate Islam prevails, this phenomenon (terrorism) will disappear.”

Habib said that although Israel was “an occupier and an aggressor on Arab lands,” he would recognize Egypt’s peace with Israel – at least for a while. Peace treaties must be reviewed every five to 10 years.

Women, too, have nothing to fear, said Habib, who studied at the University of Missouri at Rolla in 1978-79. “We see women as equal partners as men … they will have new rights,” although becoming president won’t be one of them; their interpretation of Islamic law would prohibit it.

The prospect of an Islamist state worries many Egyptians. “If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over, it will destroy the country,” said Hafez Abou Saeda, of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights. He said Egypt would become another Sudan, with repression of the Christian minority.

Mubarak’s government is making good use of the apprehension in Egypt and in the west of an Islamic takeover.

“They say it’s either us … or the bearded guys,” noted Gamila Ismail, the wife of Nour, the imprisoned presidential candidate. Whether an Islamic state in Egypt would be in the restrictive mode of Saudi Arabia or more moderate one, such as Turkey, is anybody’s guess.

Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, says the world has little to fear from mainstream Muslims.

“We have never eliminated any peoples. We have never forced anyone out of their country. We have never invaded a country. When we read our history, it is a clean page,” said Gomaa, the nation’s senior Islamic jurist. “Muslims don’t try to change anything in non-Muslims.”

He added that democracy and religion can co-exist.

“I think Mr. Bush is very religious,” he said.

Some analysts think the appeal of the Islamists in Egypt is overstated.

“If there were full, free elections, the Muslim Brotherhood probably wouldn’t be a major factor,” American University’s Ibrahim said. Exit polling after last
fall’s elections showed that half of those who voted for the group’s candidates did so as a protest against the government, he said

Alaa al-Aswany is the author of “The Yacoubian Building,” the Arab world’s best-selling novel about life in Cairo. He thinks a preoccupation with the Islamists is distracting the West from the real problem, which he likens to an illness.

“The disease is a lack of democracy,” he says. “Fundamentalism is the complication. We must treat the disease.”

Education key for women

While Islam has a tangential role in Egyptian politics today, its social and cultural influence is what visitors notice first.

Many drivers tune their car radios to a station that constantly plays the Quran. The call to prayer is sounded several times a day, and many Egyptian men have bruises on their forehead from hitting the ground with their head when they kneel to pray.

But the most obvious mark of Islamic influence is the large number of women whose hair and neck are covered by scarves – otherwise known as “the veil.”
Although it is a religious practice, wearing the veil has seen a resurgence among young women as a social phenomenon.

“I see it more as a fashion,” said Inas al-Deghedi, a non-veiled filmmaker who has received death threats for her films about the repression of women.

“The Arab society is suffering from a dual personality” when it comes to things like premarital sex, she said. “They do everything they do in the West, but not in public. They do it themselves but criticize when other people do it.”

Al-Deghedi’s first film was about the double standard in Egypt on adultery. The maximum sentence for men who are convicted is six months in jail; for women, two years. For a man to be convicted, he must have committed the act in his home; for women no such limits exist.

Hossam Bahgat, the rights activist, noted that while women got the vote in 1956, there are fewer women members of parliament now than there were in the 1970s and 1980s. In the private sphere, women have worse problems. In a recent
survey, more than 90 percent of married women said they had been physically abused at least once.

Female genital mutilation is still widespread despite bans on the practice by the government and by Islamic authorities. Among married women, the rate is more than 90 percent; 70 percent among younger women.

Education is widely seen as a key for women, whose illiteracy rate is 50-60 percent. Egypt’s beleaguered education system has been trying to cope with a surge in enrollment due to a youth “bulge” that is only now stabilizing; 60 percent of Egyptians are under age 25.

The government is pushing national standards for education quality, more computer literacy and better teachers.

In Beni Suef, one of Egypt’s poorest provinces, the village of Tonsa al Malaq is tentatively embracing a new youth center designed to keep adolescent girls in school. Many drop out after primary school because their parents don’t want them walking to the middle schools that are farther away.

“We consider it an honor for us,” said the village’s leader, identified only as Raga’y. “Education is the entry to development. We consider it a new start for our girls.”

Parents who met with visiting editors echoed his enthusiasm. Many said education was important because it would enable their daughters to attract more successful husbands.

“An educated woman is an educated family,” Raga’y said.

[email protected] 314-240-8298