Clampdown raises fears over first glimmers of democracy

Egypt seems to have forsaken reform in an attempt to stop radical Islamists gaining strength 
 THE Arab world’s tentative experiment with democracy has been dealt a serious blow by a backlash in the region’s largest and most influential country against elections, human rights and multiparty politics.
In the space of a few months President Mubarak of Egypt has dismayed his American allies and cowed his opponents with an unsubtle display of state authority that has included clamping down on the press, challenging the independence of the judiciary and jailing hundreds of opponents.

The atmosphere in Cairo today is in stark contrast to last year when, under pressure from the Bush Administration, Egypt held a referendum to change the constitution, its first multicandidate presidential race and three rounds of parliamentary elections in which record numbers of opposition MPs were elected.

For the first time since he took power a quarter of a century ago Mr Mubarak allowed his opponents to criticise him and campaign for alternative parties. But his regime has been shaken by the growing support for radical Islamic groups.

In Egypt the banned Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the largest opposition group in parliament, with 88 MPs who stood as independents. Soon afterwards the organisation’s soulmate, Hamas, the militant Palestinian movement, swept to power in a landslide victory in Gaza and the West Bank.

Western diplomats in Cairo said that the results led to a dramatic turnabout in Egypt, with the authorities reverting to the draconian measures that have kept Mr Mubarak in power since 1981.

Today Cairo is like a city suffering a collective hangover after a wild party. In some of the highest offices in the land, officials roll their eyes at the very mention of elections and many seem relieved that the pace of change has been slowed right down.

In the past few weeks hundreds of opposition supporters have been arrested and riot police have also cracked down on everyone from internet bloggers to outspoken judges. Local elections scheduled for this year have been postponed until 2008 and stern emergency laws extended for another two years.

Gamal Mubarak, the President’s son and a key figure in the ruling National Democratic Party, insists that Egypt is still committed to democratic reform and economic liberalisation.

“There is a perception that we are backtracking and reneging on our commitments of 2005, but that is not true,” he told The Times. He said that Egypt had an ambitious programme to reform the constitution and turn the country into a functioning democracy over the coming years.

However, opposition leaders are sceptical. Hamdy Hassan, an MP and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that the Government wanted democracy without the participation of the main opposition. “Seven hundred of our members have been arrested for participating in street demonstrations. Eight out of twelve members of our politburo are behind bars. The Government is trying to reduce the space in which we can move,” he said.

Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, the head of the liberal Wafd party, said that the pace of reform was now so slow that it might never produce democracy.

“The real political strength in this country lies with the army,” he said. “Egypt has been in transition for 30 years. If it continues at this pace, reform may never happen.”

Western governments have been openly critical of Egypt’s backsliding and its human rights abuses. But as America and the European Union struggle to deal with a Hamas Government in Palestine, there appears to be very little real pressure on Cairo to accelerate its experiment in democracy.

Washington is well on the way to approving Egypt’s annual £1 billion in economic and military aid for this year with few strings attached.

However, some believe that Mr Mubarak may find it impossible to turn the clock back.

Georgette Subhy, an independent MP, said that in spite of the recent setbacks democracy would eventually flourish in Egypt. “The genie is out of the bottle,” she said. “Once democracy has taken hold, it is impossible to turn the clock back. Egypt cannot exist in a bubble. States no longer have the luxury of isolating themselves from the rest of the world.”

Certainly the Mubarak regime cannot rule for ever. The Egyptian leader is 78 and has five years left to rule with no clear successor.

His son, often talked about as a possible future leader, insisted that he did not want the job. “I am playing a leading role on the policy side,” Gamal Mubarak said. “But, as I have said over and over again, I do not have any ambitions to become president.”


February 12 Egyptian parliament postpones local elections for two years

April 24 Riot police break up protest by judges over prosecution of two colleagues

April 30 Egypt extends emergency laws giving authorities right to arrest and detain without charge for another two years

May 7 Alaa Seif al-Islam, pro-reform blogger, arrested and held for six weeks charged with insulting President Mubarak

May 11 Thousands of riot police beat opposition protesters in Cairo

May 18 Court upholds five-year prison sentence against Ayman Nour, the opposition leader, for fraud

May 20 President Mubarak vows to be “firm and severe” against anyone threatening Egyptian interests

May 25 Riot police attack meeting of Journalists’ Syndicate

June 12 Police arrest 220 members of Muslim Brotherhood at protest rally

June 19 37 Muslim Brotherhood members arrested at coastal resort town of Marsa Matruh

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