Life after Mubarak’s iron rule: Egypt faces uncertain future

Life after Mubarak’s iron rule: Egypt faces uncertain future

By putting off until tomorrow the problems that cannot be solved today, Egypt has managed to sustain itself through 6000 years of turbulent history.

Today, with an ageing president, and a population of 80 million, many of whom are tired of decades of repressive dictatorial rule, Egypt is on the brink of a far-reaching transformation.

In a region where presidential or royal succession is arranged well in advance of the incumbent’s departure, as in countries like Syria or Jordan, it is often assumed outside Egypt that President Hosni Mubarak, 81, will be able to install his son Gamal, 46, as the next president.

Gamal is ”a potential leader whose views are guaranteed not to rupture the political status quo in the region, and who promises not to collide with Western interests,” says Dr Dina Shehata, a senior political analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political & Strategic Studies in Cairo.

”The Mubarak family is not a dynasty. They are a father, a mother and two children. I don’t know who will succeed Mubarak, but I can be fairly sure that it will be decided by a small group of men.”

Whoever takes over from Mr Mubarak, the succession will represent a critical turning point in Egypt’s history.

Radical change, the long-feared emergence of an Islamic government willing to sever Egypt’s traditional accommodation of foreign interests, would almost certainly reshape the Middle East.

It is to prevent such change that the United States gives Egypt about $1.7 billion in military and civilian aid every year.

But what suits the West in Egypt comes at a huge price for ordinary people who live without relief from debilitating poverty, endemic corruption, and repression of human rights.

Take the story of Ibrahim Abdel Rahman, 30, a blogger who was released from a prison south of Cairo in September after being held for 20 months without charge.

Abdel Rahman’s arrest and subsequent torture is common to those who dare to challenge Mr Mubarak’s regime.

According to official court records, which were shown to the Herald by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Abdel Rahman was arrested in March 2008.

But his detention began two months earlier, when he was picked up without warning at his Cairo apartment by plain clothes members of the General Security Services.

”I was at home, and the men asked me to come with them to answer some questions. They didn’t seem angry or upset, and they told me I hadn’t done anything wrong.”

Abdel Rahman, an engineering graduate from Cairo University, was working in a clerical job at a trading company.

In his spare time he kept what he described as an ”entertaining blog focusing on life in Cairo”.

”This was nothing political on its own. I was not pushing things, but I pointed to a lot of things going around me and the political discussion people have. Mainly, I was trying to focus on my writing, to tell stories in an interesting way.”

As with tens of thousands of other Cairo bloggers, Abdel Rahman was using the web to say what he thought about life under Mr Mubarak, from things such as corruption and invasive government control of most aspects of life, to the country’s huge wealth disparities and crumbling architecture.

Led to a car outside, Abdel Rahman was taken to an unexceptional government building in Nasr City, a modern district of mostly shopping malls and middle class housing in eastern Cairo.

”Before we got inside the building I was blindfolded, taken to a cell, strapped to a steel bed and then they asked me some questions about my blogging,” Abdel Rahman said.

”They wanted to know everything that I knew. And when they believed that I wasn’t telling them something I was electrocuted [given an electric shock].” He says this pattern was repeated every day for the next 70 days.

”They kept asking me, ‘Are you an activist?’ and I kept telling them that the blog has nothing to do with politics on the inside.”

Eventually, Abdel Rahman said, his interrogators were satisfied. ”’We don’t think you are an activist.’ That is what they told me.”

Thanks to his father, a former middle-ranking military officer, and a brother with some good contacts in the Egyptian civil service, Abdel Rahman was freed.

”This is Mubarak’s Egypt,” said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. ”We are a democracy in name, but not in practice.”

Eid, who helps to defend writers and artists being harassed by Egypt’s security police, wants foreigners to understand that this compromise of human rights in favour of regional security is a price being paid by ordinary Egyptians.

In the first years of his presidency, after he succeeded Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamic radicals in 1981, Mr Mubarak received praise for his disavowal of the use of secret police and his moves towards strengthening civil liberties.

Now, almost into the fourth decade of his rule, he is better known for his repression of human rights and ruthless treatment of political opponents.

In downtown Cairo, at a building known formally as the headquarters of the Doctor’s Syndicate, but unofficially as one of several office buildings owned by the Muslim Brotherhood, is Dr Essam El-Erian.

A man of unfailing politeness, warm humour and well honed English, Dr El-Erian is the Brotherhood’s most prominent leading public face.

At the last parliamentary elections in 2005 Muslim Brotherhood candidates, officially listed as independent, won 20 per cent of the vote and ended up with 88 seats in the lower house, making them the single largest block in parliament.

”The Muslim Brotherhood is an easy thing for people in the West to fear, because they don’t understand us,” Dr El-Erian said. ”But look at what we do. We participate in elections, we respect the rule of law, we are fighting for a democratic society that grants people basic human rights such as freedom of expression and choosing their own political party.”

Mr Mubarak’s going will mark a significant change for Egypt.

Moataz El Fegiery, executive director of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights, said: ”Our best hope is that change would come about by the gradual build up of a democratic infrastructure.

”The law courts and the judiciary are places where Mubarak does not have complete control. The newspapers are gradually finding a more independent voice. We are making small steps of progress towards a truly vibrant democracy, but it will take time.’