Egypt Not too happy

A sour mood prevails in the Arab world’s most populous country

IF A surging economy could solve all ills, Egypt might be the brightest spot in an increasingly grim Middle East. Its GDP is growing by 7% a year. Foreign direct investment is up sixfold since 2003. In the year to last June, the value of Egypt’s commodity exports, excluding energy, leapt by nearly a half. With a capable team now running economic policy, a gear-shift towards the kind of sustained performance may lift the most populous Arab country, with its 79m-odd people, into mild prosperity.

Yet Egyptians, by and large, are not in a happy mood, not just because new wealth is only slowly trickling down to the country’s crowded and grubby streets. The freeing of markets is unmatched by any freeing of Egypt’s politics. In fact, freer forms of communication (including satellite TV and the internet) have only made clearer to Egyptians just how unfree they remain.

Take the case of Imad Kabir, a 21-year-old Cairo bus driver. Last year, he made the mistake of intervening in a row between his cousin and a policeman. He was arrested and taken to a police station, where officers beat him, then sodomised him with a broomstick. The affair might have passed as unremarked as myriad other routine incidents of police brutality, except that, perhaps inspired by the shaming tactics made infamous by American soldiers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, the officers recorded the fun on a mobile phone. In November, an Egyptian internet enthusiast posted the grainy film on his web log. Similar film clips soon emerged, including one of an unknown woman strapped to a pole slung between two chairs, confessing to murder and pleading for mercy.

Egypt’s Ministry of Interior says these are exceptional cases. It has arrested two officers charged with torturing Mr Kabir, and mounted a search for the unknown woman. But in the meantime a judge has sentenced Mr Kabir to three months in prison for “resisting authority”. Police have detained a journalist from the al-Jazeera satellite TV channel, confiscating tapes she had made in preparation for a documentary on human-rights abuse in Egypt.

Or take the less dramatic case of Abul Ela Madi, an engineer. In 1994, he left the Muslim Brotherhood to found his own more moderately Islamist party. Earlier this month, a government committee charged with vetting party applications rejected his fourth application for legal status.

The Brotherhood itself remains illegal, though it is by far Egypt’s largest and best-run opposition force. Its 88 MPs won their seats as independents, but since the general election of November 2005 it has come under increasing pressure. After a brief martial-arts demonstration by a few dozen black-clad Brotherhood members at one university last month, which the group’s leadership says was unauthorised and ill-judged, police arrested some 153 members, including a top deputy. Last week they arrested five prominent businessmen with close links to the group.

The crackdown suggests a renewed determination by the government to crush the group. President Hosni Mubarak, who usually ignores the Brotherhood, has upped the ante by labelling it “a danger to state security” and initiating a move to reform the constitution so as formally to ban the formation of parties based on religion. In response, the Brotherhood says it may simply declare itself a party. Other opposition groups, such as Mr Madi’s, may well follow suit, challenging the regime’s right to pick and choose its opponents.

This is unlikely to shake the 78-year-old Mr Mubarak, in power since 1981. But it comes amid a gathering wave of niggling challenges to government control. Despite intimidation by plainclothes thugs, university students have elected parallel free unions after government administrators banned hundreds of candidates from official student representative bodies. Ferment has mounted among professional groups, such as judges, lawyers and teachers. More widely, Egyptians voice rising concern over such issues as dismal state education and health services.

In an apparent attempt to address such worries, Mr Mubarak’s party is drumming up support for constitutional changes. In the past, demands for reform have often been silenced by such highly touted tinkering. But to most observers, the 34 proposed amendments to the cumbersome 1971 constitution look much like the move to ban religious parties: more of the same, veiled as progress.