Charm offensive as Cairo comes to the Cape

Charm offensive as Cairo comes to the Cape

President Hosni Mubarak”s historic visit to South Africa could have provided President Thabo Mbeki with an opportunity to discuss the need for democratic reforms in Egypt.

But in light of the economic deals that the two countries are expected to sign and Egypt”s offer to provide South Africa with much-needed human resource capital — the question is whether Mbeki can afford to sacrifice urgent economic interests by criticising Mubarak on human rights abuses in Egypt.

Mbeki”s widely criticised strategy of quiet diplomacy in Zimbabwe has taken almost a decade to pave the way for negotiations for democratic rule in that country.

As in Zimbabwe, Egypt”s human rights record is one of the worst in the world. Mubarak like Robert Mugabe is one of the longest-serving presidents on the continent. Both were, at one time, heroes in their countries and in Africa at large.

But their unwillingness to relinquish power has led both men to use state machinery to suppress civil liberties.

Mubarak”s amendment of the Egyptian Constitution in July 2005, which allowed for multi-candidate presidential elections, and his announcement to scrap the Emergency Law by June 1 this year could be interpreted as turning points in Egyptian history and important strides towards democracy.

But these moves have not translated into tangible progress towards democratisation of the country. The low voter turnout of 23% in Mubarak”s fifth re-election in September 2005 and of 27% in the constitutional referendum of March 2007 reflect Egyptians” loss of hope.

Political party formation is still subject to government approval and the Emergency Law has not been scrapped in spite of Mubarak”s pledges to do so.

Egypt has been under a state of emergency since 1981. With the help of the Emergency Law the government managed to weed out terrorism after the assassination of Mubarak”s predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat, and to curb the anti-tourist terrorist attacks of the late 1990s.

The Emergency Law is now used to impinge on individual privacy and freedoms. Besides barring demonstrations and public gatherings that are not approved by the government, it enables the security services to search and detain people without charge for prolonged periods and allows the prosecution of civilians in military courts.

South Africa, with its strong stance against human rights abuses, may be expected to talk Mubarak into political reforms in Egypt.

But for now economic interests appear to prevail over political ones.

The two leaders were expected to witness the signing of a joint declaration of intent covering strategic cooperation in the fields of petroleum and natural gas.

Given the urgent need for skilled labour and the energy crisis, the nature of South Africa”s economic interest in Egypt seems to outweigh the need to push for political reforms.

Mbeki should be applauded for coaxing Mugabe to the negotiation table with Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of Movement for Democratic Change, despite the fact that it has taken him almost a decade to do so.

For the moment relations with Egypt should strike a good balance between securing good political and economic relations as well as a preamble that will set the tone for human rights reform.

Dr Zoleka Ndayi is an international relations lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand