• Reports
  • April 23, 2006
  • 8 minutes read

Democracy slumbers, Egypt slowly becoming a family dynasty

Four years ago, Osama al Gazali Harb received an unexpected telephone call from Gamal Mubarak, the son of President Hosni Mubarak, inviting Harb to join a new committee dedicated to promoting political and economic reform in the Arab world’s largest country.

“I thought that if the genuine will to reform was there, Egypt could be transformed into total democracy in two or three years,” recalled Harb, editor of the nation’s leading foreign policy journal, Al Siyassa al Dawliyya. “This was my dream.”

So, Harb became a prominent face of the government-led reform effort, serving as an appointed member of the upper house of parliament and as secretary general of the Egyptian council of Foreign Affairs. But last month, he abruptly resigned from Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP). “There is no serious intention for full democratization of the country,” he said. “More and more people are losing trust in the whole process.”

Today, Harb finds himself attacked regularly as a political opportunist by the same pro-government media that once published his upbeat editorials. His experience, some political observers say, is a cautionary tale for would-be dissenters and a sign that Mubarak is shying away from democratic reforms.

“Anyone who speaks out about reform is accused,” said Hesham El-Bastawissi, a member of Egypt’s High Court, who has been referred to a disciplinary council for possible expulsion from the bench after speaking out against election fraud in the most recent presidential and parliamentary elections. “They don’t want fair elections,” said El-Bastawissi. “They just want to put on a show for the West.”

Hala Mustafa, another hand-picked member of Gamal Mubarak’s influential committee, says she has been marginalized by National Democratic Party members for publicly criticizing the pace of reforms and for complaining that the party is preparing 42-year-old Gamal to inherit his aging father’s presidency.

“There has not been any major, structural (political) change,” said Mustafa, who edits a journal called Democracy published by Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “I don’t see anything impeding Gamal Mubarak. The regime is just cloning itself.”

Hugh Roberts, an analyst for the Cairo chapter of the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to resolving conflict, says the debate over democratic reform now focuses on what will happen after the death of President Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since 1981.

“People who express resistance to Gamal’s succession don’t have a boat to row in,” Roberts said. “A party has to have an inner life, there has to be debate, internal vitality and flexibility. The NDP has none of that. It is completely lifeless because party leadership has no ability to tolerate dissent.”

However, Mohamed Kamal, a high-ranking National Democratic Party official, says the government is serious about reform and argues its dissenters lack patience. He pointed to recent electoral gains by the Muslim Brotherhood — an illegal group that ran independent candidates — that were the largest by an opposition group in Egypt’s modern history and the party’s ambitious economic reform program.

“We are now studying ways to enhance the power of parliament,” said Kamal. (Reform) “won’t happen over night. Intellectuals (like Harb) … their ideas are usually far ahead of the reality of politics.”

Angie Rabei, a National Democratic Party militant, agreed. “Reform is going on, maybe not as fast as people expect,” she said. “But when you have a five- or six- year agenda, you can’t get it done in the first few months. It takes time.”

Even some opposition activists acknowledge democratic gains made in the past year, including street protests and an aggressive press willing to criticize Mubarak — both unheard of just a year ago. “We succeeded in changing the culture of fear,” said George Ishak, leader of a pro-democracy opposition group known as Kifaya — Arabic for Enough. “Before the president was half god, half president. Now he’s just a man.”

President Mubarak sparked hope for political reform last year after announcing he would support amending the constitution to allow Egypt’s first-ever multi-candidate presidential election. But critics say the election laws that followed created too many legal requirements for candidates, who were allowed only 19 days to campaign.

In September, the 77-year-old Mubarak, a close U.S. ally, trounced nine weak challengers, winning his sixth five-year term with 88.6 percent of the vote. Parliamentary elections that followed in November and December were marred by violence. Election observers say National Democratic Party thugs and riot police arrested and beat opposition supporters, closing polls in some districts to prevent voting. At least 12 people died and hundreds were injured in ensuing clashes.

Legal opposition parties won fewer than a dozen seats between them. Mubarak’s principal presidential challenger, Ayman Nour, was jailed in December on forgery charges that his critics say were a pretext to discredit him. He is now serving a five-year sentence at Cairo’s Tora prison.

And this month, Noaman Gomaa, who finished third in the presidential election, was jailed for 45 days amid accusations that he and his supporters allegedly shot at rivals at their party headquarters. Gomaa, 71, and 14 of his supporters were arrested after 28 people were injured and the headquarters of his Wafd party was set ablaze. Gomaa was later released.

Only the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood emerged with substantial electoral gains, increasing its representation six-fold. But the victory of 88 Brotherhood candidates, who ran as independents, left the Islamists far shy of being strong enough to challenge the National Democratic Party in the 454-seat parliament.

In a move that the Muslim Brotherhood says is designed to keep them from making further electoral inroads, the government announced in February that it would postpone local elections for two years. The announcement coincided with the arrest of about 100 people since March on suspicion of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the closure of Afaq Arabiya, an Islamist newspaper.

Some critics say the Brotherhood’s electoral gains gave Mubarak the pretext to put reform on the back burner. Gameela Ismail, Ayman Nour’s wife, says the government fears her husband and any other politician who appears acceptable to the West. “The regime is saying to America: ’You want democracy? Democracy means extremism, democracy means Islamic fundamentalism,’ ” she said.

Crisis Group’s Roberts says squelching the secular opposition has left the Muslim Brotherhood with little competition. “The regime has got to take the shackles off the legal parties and let them recover ground so the Brothers don’t have it to themselves,” he said.

In the meantime, Essam El-Erian, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, says he sees only a cloudy future.

“Even the rulers don’t know what they’re going to do,” he said. “They opened the windows and the storm came inside, and now they don’t know how to react. I fear we are gong backwards.”

Lindsay Wise is a member of the Chronicle Foreign Service. Contact us at [email protected].

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