Egypt: ‘clinically dead’ regime fumbles reform, harasses cyber-activists

Egypt: ‘clinically dead’ regime fumbles reform, harasses cyber-activists

Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party concluded its annual conference today with most commentators agreeing that it had failed to meet the meeting’s declared purpose of offering ‘New Thoughts for Egypt’s Future’.

President Hosni Mubarak’s government has promoted economic liberalization since 2004, cutting trade tariffs and privatizing state assets. The process has been guided by Mubarak’s son and likely heir apparent, Gamal Mubarak, and his technocratic and business allies. But the reforms, unmatched by corresponding political liberalization (leading dissidents have been jailed or exiled), have been deeply unpopular and marked by corruption.

“Popular perceptions of the NDP have never been worse,” said Amr Hashem Rabie of Cairo’s al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “The obvious coupling of wealth and authority hurt the party’s image as the guardian of public welfare.”

“Egyptians saw rich businessmen within the NDP receiving unfair advantages from their close associations with the party, including market monopolies and tax exemptions for their projects,” he notes.

Some liberals, like Hala Mustafa, editor of the Democracy Review, had pinned their hopes on Gamal’s NDP technocrats implementing incremental reform that would eventually open up political space for genuine democratization. But they have been frustrated and grown disillusioned.

“The whole conference … reflects more continuity than change and I think it will remain like that,” said Mustafa. She believes the old guard will fight to hold on to power.  “I believe that if Hosni Mubarak stays alive (till 2011), then he will run again.”

Mustafa, a member of the influential NDP policies committee member, has faced hostile criticism from the NDP old guard after voicing criticism of the party’s inertia in a forceful interview in the Al Masry Al Youm newspaper.  

Egypt has a record of start-and-stop liberalization, Carnegie’s Michelle Dunne notes, and the limited achievements of top-down reform have generated skepticism. “For Egypt to move toward democracy, the ruling establishment would have to share a great deal more power and open the system up to much more competition than it has to date,” she observes in a recent analysis. “It would require significant further changes to the Constitution and laws related to civic freedoms and the balance of powers.”

Some analysts believe the regime is “clinically dead” with no strategy for moving the country forward. A post-Mubarak regime would also need to accommodate Egypt’s influential Islamist movement, as The Economist recently suggested. “The country’s future administrators may be tempted to make populist gestures, and would likely reap a quick reward of loud public relief, after too long under familiar rule,” it noted. “They might even opt for a tactical alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

To coincide with the NDP conference, young activists launched a parallel cyber-conference to highlight and satirize the government’s failures. As the regime has stifled freedom of criticism, harassing journalists and seeking to curb satellite TV, the web has become a vital outlet for expressing grievances and criticism of the regime – and for confronting opposition elites too. A new generation of young Islamist bloggers is challenging Muslim Brotherhood orthodoxy.

The regime has become more adept and sophisticated at monitoring cyber-activists. A Muslim Brotherhood activist here describes measures applied equally to secular activists:  

A couple of months ago, I was waiting for a friend in a cafe when I tried to access my email. There was no connection, so I called the waiter and asked whether I have to pay a fee for the internet. He said that the internet was still free, but that I needed to register at the cashier and a password would be sent to my mobile phone. “These are orders from the state security apparatus,” he said. In other words, they need to have my phone number to identify me, and identify websites I decide to access.

A few days later I tried to use a new mobile phone line but it didn’t work. When I called customer service to complain, the operator apologized, and said they could only activate it when they have all my information. I told him I would rather stay anonymous and that this was specifically why I was using another line, because I wanted only a few people to access me though that line. He said that “these are orders from the state security apparatus” and that I could not use my phone otherwise.