Can Winds of Change Still Be Heard in Egypt?
Egypt had the world’s attention in 2005. That year witnessed the country’s first ever contested presidential election in September, followed, two months later, by a landmark parliamentary election, in which the banned Muslim Brotherhood group made unprecedented gains, winning a record 88 seats in the 445-member People’s Assembly.
But after making headlines in both the local and international press last year, Egypt’s “winds of change” do not seem to be blowing as loudly in 2006.
Municipal elections, which were scheduled to take place in April 2006, have been postponed for two years. Ghad Party’s Ayman Nur, who came second to President Hosni Mubarak in the presidential election, has been sentenced to five years in prison.
The leader of the old, well-established Wafd party has been toppled, leading to fresh divisions inside the party. Three judges often critical of Mubarak have been stripped of their judicial immunity and are currently facing interrogation. And a Kifaya demonstration has been cracked down on.
The “winds of change” have been hijacked, according to Khaled Salah, a contributing liberal columnist with the Egyptian independent daily Al Masry Al Youm.
“They are now being capitalized on by the current regime to keep the system as is – and the considerable reform attempts of last year are being contained to the current regime’s advantage,” Salah says.
There is an “elected” president and a parliament with a large opposition minority, Salah explains.
“Also, the NDP is claiming to be the party that is leading reform, starting from its internal institutions,” which gives the system more legitimacy in making decisions that tighten its grip on power and preserve the status quo.
“Dictatorship has been legalized. The way dictatorship is practiced has been modified, but dictatorship still remains,” Salah adds.
The regime’s strategy, Salah believes, is to leave democracy advocates with two choices: Islamists or regime authoritarians – fundamentalism or dictatorship.
The goal is to shut up secular, pro-democracy liberals – whose calls for reform have risen lately – by widening the margin within which Islamists work.
Journalist and analyst Mohammed Gamal Arafa rules out Salah’s theory:
“Things don’t work that way in Egypt. The Egyptian government takes such issues more seriously. With such a strategy, the regime risks having Islamists take over, and to the Egyptian government, this is a matter of national security,” he says.
Salah points out that it would not be the first time that the Egyptian regime has used the Muslim Brotherhood to strengthen its rule.
“The Brotherhood have played suspicious roles throughout Egypt’s history: They allied with the 1952 Revolution and agreed to strike a blow against the parties until the Revolution turned against the Brotherhood; then they allied with Sadat until he turned against them.”
And since history repeats itself, the Muslim Brotherhood, in Salah’s opinion, is once again being used by the regime, this time to weaken Egypt’s secular, pro-democracy liberals and hence impede reform prospects.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Issam Al Aryan is confident about his group.
“Whether or not this is truly the government’s plan, what matters is the people’s response, and the Egyptian people back the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says. “This is evident,” he adds, referring to the banned group’s unprecedented gains in the recent parliamentary elections, which overshadowed the country’s secular parties.
Also disagreeing with Salah, Gehad Auda of the National Democratic Party hails the Brotherhood’s longtime struggle and puts the blame on liberal secularists themselves.
“They are not active whereas Islamists are,” says Auda, a member of the NDP’s Policies Committee and a Helwan University political scientist. Identifying himself as a liberal, he admits that it is the Islamists who have suffered throughout Egypt’s history when liberal secularists stood still.
Auda blames the current stagnation of reform efforts on both the opposition and the Egyptian people.
“The regime has taken very good reform initiatives and also started carrying out reform procedures but it doesn’t find enough reaction to its actions,” he says. “No matter how hard it tries, people have to interact with the government. The discontinuity of pressure [on the parts of the people and the political forces] influences the ruling elite greatly.”
“Even Kifaya started out strongly but waned after the elections,” he adds
“Kifaya didn’t stop working,” argues a member of Kifaya’s executive committee Hani Anani. “It’s just that people were expecting change to come very quickly. It doesn’t, it takes time,” he explains.
“Look at Ukraine and Poland,” he adds. “With popular development [for reform], there is usually one decisive year at first, like 2005 in Egypt, then a freeze, then reform is reached throughout five to six years.”
Kifaya’s plan for 2006, according to Anani, is to strengthen its organization, as a movement – not a political party; set up centers in governorates outside of Cairo, present a concrete program to train people to ask for their rights and resort to civil disobedience if need be; and build relationships with all pro-democracy political forces in Egypt and the world.
So “change is coming, no doubt; no retreat – the genie is out of the bottle and there is no way it can be put in again”, Anani affirms.
The Brotherhood’s Aryan concurs. “People now feel that reform touches their daily lives,” he says.
He explains the regime’s decision to postpone municipal elections through a regional perspective by highlighting the relationship between his group’s outstanding performance and Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian Territories.
“The Brotherhood’s success in Egypt led to popular support for Hamas in Palestine and Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections made the Egyptian government fear the reflection of Palestine’s events in Egypt’s municipal elections,” he explains.
“Arab governments are buying time,” he adds, referring to Arab regimes’ stalling on reform due to fears that Islamists might take over if democracy takes root.
The fear of Islamists democratically coming to power is also haunting the West.
Over the past two years, the Bush administration has been reiterating its democracy promotion policy in the Middle East. But many believe that the United States is now faced with the paradox of Islamists’ empowerment as a result of democratization efforts. The fact is that Arabs vote for Islamists whenever they are allowed to cast their ballots freely.
American analyst Steven A. Cook, the Douglas Dillon fellow with the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, describes the Bush administration as “confused, undecided and unclear about what it wants to do [regarding Islamists and democracy in the region]”.
Saleh theorizes that “at first, the US had a sincere intention to promote democracy in Egypt, then it realized in the middle of the road that this can lead to [Islamism]”.
Cook still does not expect significant changes in US policy.
“The administration will continue to speak out openly about democracy and reform in Egypt,” he says, stressing that the US is interested in seeing Egypt become democratic.
Many Arab analysts see the US position as “hypocritical”, Arafa says.
“Inside the United States, American officials make strong statements about democracy promotion in Egypt, then, when they come to Cairo and meet with Egyptian officials, they actually discuss their regional interests and disregard democratic reform,” he says.
Cook responds: “[Those who call the United States hypocritical] have to decide what they want – they criticize the United States for interfering in Egyptian internal affairs when the Bush administration speaks out openly about democracy in Egypt; at the same time, they accuse the administration of being hypocritical for not speaking out openly enough to promote democracy.”
Opposition forces such as Kifaya, the Muslim Brotherhood and secular political parties constantly make it clear that they do not rely on the United States in their quest for democracy.
It is debatable whose role is more decisive – the US administration or internal opposition, the masses or the elite, and the current system or a new one.
Cook believes that it is “a combination of both internal and external forces” that activates reform dynamics.
“[Besides internal opposition] the US has played a role that in some cases has been constructive,” he says.
Kifaya’s Anani insists that reform cannot take root under the current regime. And Salah bets on the young generation of activists, hoping that they inherit opposition and form a strong movement against the ruling party in the next five years.
One young Egyptian activist, Fathi Abu Hatab, views reform prospects differently.
“For democracy to take root in Egypt,” he says, “it is the people who have to blow the winds of change”.