Mubarak’s reform promises backslide

Egyptian government delays lifting of emergency law, disciplines ’dissident’ judges, persecutes journalists.

After a period of hope and mounting calls for political reform in Egypt, analysts say the regime is now seeking to systematically gag dissident voices as Washington turns its attention to other issues.

“The reform process has backslided because the United States, busy with other issues in the region like Iraq and Iran, has eased the pressure,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, an analyst from the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies.

The regime of President Hosni Mubarak had somewhat loosened its 25-year-old grip on power, under pressure from a US administration aggressively pursuing a pro-democracy agenda in the Middle East.

The year 2005 saw the country’s first ever contested presidential poll, the rise of stronger opposition movements, unprecedented street demonstrations and increased freedom of expression.

But analysts argue the recent clampdown on members of Egypt’s Islamist opposition Muslim Brotherhood and the threatened dismissal this week of two reformist judges is the backlash that critics had predicted.

“The reform process is taking backward steps, the government is clearly procrastinating on the legal reforms promised by Mubarak in his election campaign,” said Abdel Fattah.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially banned but controls one fifth of the seats in parliament, had dozens of its members arrested in the last two weeks.

The Islamist movement has been repeatedly calling for the lifting of the decades-old emergency law which grants security forces sweeping powers of arrest and restricts non-governmental political activity.

Mubarak recently told the satellite channel Al-Arabiya that the emergency law will be lifted once a new terrorism law is passed, adding that drafting it could take two years.

And this week, two pro-reform judges were summoned to a disciplinary board for alleging the judiciary helped rig last year’s parliamentary polls that saw the ruling party retain a firm grip on power.

The judges’ syndicate has become one of the most potent symbols of the drive for reform in Egypt and Amr Hamzawy, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the regime’s message was clear.

“It’s a lesson to everyone who dares to cross the red lines,” said the Washington-based analyst. “The ruling elite know how important state institutions are and there is no space for dissent in them.”

Since Mubarak’s re-election for a fifth six-year term in office last September, the government has seesawed between promises of reform and restrictions.

The government promised to decriminalise libel and turn it into a civil offense but recent months were also marked by what the press syndicate says is stepped persecution of independent journalists.

A major blow was also dealt to hopes of change when the government announced that local elections that had been due to take place this spring were postponed by two years.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which achieved spectacular gains in the legislative poll despite widespread irregularities, charged the move was aimed at breaking its momentum.

In December 2005, opposition Ghad party leader Ayman Nur was jailed on forgery charges which he claims were fabricated to punish him for having dared to challenge Mubarak in the presidential election and criticise his son Gamal.

He had said before being jailed that Washington had agreed to ease its pressure for reform in exchange for Egypt’s stepped up cooperation in solving the region’s many crises.

“The Arab regimes know that Washington is in a tight spot and therefore feel like they can maintain the status quo, at least for a little while longer,” said Abdel Fattah.