Mideast politics: Egypt on the brink

Mideast politics: Egypt on the brink

The king is old and sick, perhaps dying. The queen is said to want their second son as successor. But the old guard in the military and intelligence circles think the young man is not ready. Until he is, they want one of their own as interim leader.

There’s much uncertainty aboard the land. There always is towards the end of autocratic one-man rule.

Hosni Mubarak, 83, has been president of Egypt for 29 years. The nation of 83 million, the most populous in the Arab world, is waiting for a new pharaoh.

Yet periodically word is sent down from the palace that Mubarak may not be ready to retire yet, having recovered from gall-bladder surgery in Germany in March. Indeed, he looked fit at a rare public appearance last week.

If he does run next year for his sixth six-year term, he would no doubt win, big. He always does. The state sees to it.

Meanwhile, a national election for parliament is underway. It, too, is a sham. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party will sweep the Nov. 28 vote.

“The outcome will be the same as it always is,” I am told by Hala Mustafa, editor in chief of Democracy Review, a political quarterly. It’s a commonly held view but it’s significant that she says it, her publication being part of the Al-Ahram newspaper conglomerate, a government entity.

The regime has even let it be known who the opposition will be. It won’t be the Muslim Brotherhood, which in the 2005 election won 88 of the 444 seats. This time a secular left-of-centre party may be anointed the opposition.

Welcome to America’s biggest ally in the Arab world, the recipient of $2 billion a year aid — a total of nearly $60 billion since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

Fixing elections and running a virtual one-party state is only one of the many sins of the regime that’s routinely referred to by the North American media as a “moderate,” battling evil anti-American, anti-Israeli forces.

No one is calling for regime change, even as Egypt continues to be one of the worst violators of human rights. It presides over discrimination against religious minorities, disappearances of political opponents and widespread torture. Indeed, it has been a preferred post-9/11 destination for “extraordinary renditions,” a.k.a. American sub-contracting of torture abroad.

Since the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, Egypt has been under de facto martial law. “Emergency rule” permits indefinite detentions without trials, limits on freedom of speech and assembly, restrictions on unions and NGOs, and an overly broad definition of terrorism.

The one million-strong security and intelligence apparatus is ubiquitous. No sooner do you leave Cairo airport than you see agents at street corners and government buildings. (You also see that other ingredient of dictatorships — giant billboards of The Leader, inevitably looking young and robust.)

The regime is said to employ another one million informants, who have infiltrated universities, mosques and other institutions.

“The government is controlling every aspect of our lives,” says Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist honoured in Toronto last week by Human Rights Watch for his advocacy work.

And it has incarcerated about 18,000 political prisoners.

Yet this is not a police state of the Cold War kind. There is an emerging civil society, including about 50 NGOs with an independent voice. They are byproducts of the brief Cairo spring that followed George W. Bush’s post-9/11 push for democracy.

Scores of independent newspapers and satellite TV channels were started. Social media flourished. There are ongoing sit-ins and demonstrations over high food prices, low wages, police brutality, corruption and other ills.

But dissent is only as effective as the regime allows it to be, which is not much. The security services have elevated control to an art form. They are as repressive as they need be and no more.

“They inject controlled doses of democracy as a means of acquiring legitimacy,” says Bahey el-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo institute for Human Rights Studies, in his office in a dilapidated building where the elevator takes me to the third floor and I walk up the next four.

The security services, in fact, run the state, says Mustafa.

They “secretly manipulate the entire system,” the way the army-controlled Deep State used to in Turkey but no longer does, given increasing democratization there.

“We are not just talking about police on campuses but something more sophisticated,” says Mustafa. “It’s has got worse, especially in the last five years.”

Does she worry for her own safety?

A long pause.

“No, but I am not comfortable. Being a liberal is not easy — you are targeted by the security forces as well as the religious extremists.” (More about the latter later).

Elections are a selection. Many opposition candidates are rejected, as they are in Iran, but here it’s with a twist: The mullahs in Tehran reject non-Islamists. The Mubarak regime rejects Islamists. The other day, there were 10,000 people at a Muslim Brotherhood demonstration in Alexandria, protesting that its candidates had been barred from registering.

Further, on Election Days, many voters are routinely turned away — their ID papers found wanting, or polling stations are said to be too full or busy to receive them. And, just to be sure, ballot boxes are “stuffed.” “It doesn’t matter what goes into the box but rather what comes out,” a Western diplomat tells me.

The regime has taken extra precautions for this election.

“This election is about next year’s presidential election,” says Hassan. The government faces “a crisis of legitimacy with the end of the Mubarak era. Even if he runs again next year, the question remains: Who will replace him? There is no obvious successor. And whoever emerges, what legitimacy would he have? This is a great source of fear inside the regime.”

The less legitimacy, the harder the regime prepares the ground for a trouble-free re-election of Mubarak — or a smooth transition.

In recent weeks, hundreds have been jailed, critical journalists fired.

Media have been ordered to get permits for uplinks for live coverage Nov. 28. That means no on-the-spot reporting from the electoral frontlines and, crucially, no footage of the kind seen in the 2005 election, when cameras caught much chicanery at the polling stations.

There are new Iran-like restrictions on mobile phones and text messaging. SMS aggregators must obtain new licences.

“This election is a joke,” says Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election and was marched off to jail on what were seen as trumped-up charges. He now leads a political party that is boycotting the election.

There will be no international monitors. The government does not allow them.

Judicial oversight has also been dispensed with, the responsibility transferred to the government’s Supreme Electoral Commission.

Hassan has a theory about why the Muslim Brotherhood is about to be bounced as the opposition.

It was allowed to do well in 2005 in order to “shock the international community and convince it that the sole alternative to the regime were the Islamists.”

That, along with the election of Hamas a year later in the Gaza Strip, did the trick. The Bush administration and the European Union backed off calling for political reform.

Even Barack Obama has been muted. While he refused to be photographed with Mubarak when he came here in June 2009 to deliver his famous speech to the Muslim world, he has granted the Mubarak regime a veto on American funding to Egyptian pro-democracy NGOs.

Now “the regime faces no serious pressure” from the West, only a critical statement here and there, says Hassan. “It realizes that these statements are merely attempts by American and European officials to mollify their own constituencies.”

Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak have two sons, Alaa and Gamal, whose reputations are tarnished by allegations they benefit from government contacts.

Gamal (“Jimmy”), the heir-presumptive, is 47. He studied and worked abroad as a banker. In 2002, he was made head of the ruling party’s policy wing, and has been credited with ushering in a liberalized business environment — cutting taxes and tariffs, and attracting foreign investment (mostly in real estate).

Exports are up, especially from the nine Qualified Industrial Zones, products of which get tariff-free entry to the United States if they have 11 per cent Israeli content. It’s part of the Israel-United States free trade deal, into which Egypt was brought in.

The economy, growing at 7 per cent, has thrown up a new class of super-rich. You see them partying at five-star hotels or in gated communities outside Cairo. One I visited on an 18-hole golf course, with monster homes and a lovely club house, draws millions of gallons of water from the receding Nile.

Such unconscionable deeds are resented even more when the economic pie remains relatively small — a GDP of $150 billion (a tenth of Canada’s, with two-and-a-half times our population).

The poor are getting poorer. Unemployment is around 25 per cent, inflation at 11 per cent (but double that for those who don’t access subsidized bread, fruit and vegetables — and schools).

Nearly 40 per cent of Egyptians live on $2 a day. A quarter of the population lives in shanty towns, most of them in Cairo, which has grown to at least 20 million.

The city, once a jewel, is crumbling. Paint and plaster are peeling from grand old buildings. Roads are clogged. So are public hospitals. Infrastructure is collapsing. The government has other priorities or, as most people think, politicians, civil servants and contractors are pocketing the sums allocated for public works.

Much of the public wrath is directed at Gamal for ushering in crony capitalism and not caring for ordinary Egyptians.

The old guard around Mubarak opposes Gamal partly because he is a civilian, whereas every president since the 1952 overthrow of monarchy has come from the army — Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak.

The army and security establishment favours Omar Suleiman, chief of intelligence. He is also valued by Washington, for having the most detailed dossiers on Mohammed Atta, the ring leader of 9/11, Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy to Osama bin Laden, and other al Qaeda figures.

The most credible candidate would be Mohamed ElBaradei, the retired chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who won the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. It is too early to tell whether he can rally the nation — and even if he does, whether he’d be allowed to run.

Is revolution brewing? There certainly are parallels to the Shah’s Iran in the 1970s, including growing anti-Americanism.

One view is that “the Egyptians don’t have it in them,” as one diplomat put it. The other is that there’s no charismatic leader to lead them.

“I don’t sense a revolution brewing,” says Bahgat. “But I cannot miss the rising anger of the public over economic hardship, corruption, injustice, daily harassment by police.

“Nasser had a lot to show for his years, whether you agreed or not.

“Sadat made war and he made peace.

“Mubarak’s greatest achievement is that he has maintained ‘stability.’ But in the process, he has completely destroyed all the institutions and sucked the oxygen out of the system.

“He calls it stability; we call it stagnation. The current situation is untenable.

“The public want Washington to withdraw its support of the regime. The public thinks: ‘Minus U.S. support, we can take on the regime.’”