One Step Forward, Two Steps back

US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick believes Egypt is in the midst of self-made chaos. Massoud A. Derhally reports from Sharm El Sheikh.

When he enters the room, Robert Zoellick, the US Deputy Secretary of State, pulls no punches as he defines the chaotic state the Arab world is in. Mr. Zoellick is in Egypt on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh.

The elite of Egypt and some the world’s rich and powerful personalities may have descended on the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh for three days of networking at the Middle East session of the World Economic Forum, an event that the Egyptian government has hailed as a momentous occasion for its country.

But the event has largely been marred by several weeks of political unrest, including the arrest of hundreds of reform activists with open clashes in the streets of Cairo that resulted in the beating of protesters and women sexually assaulted.

Zoellick is cognizant of the events and blunt in his criticism of the Egyptian government. Mr. Zoellick says “actions… like beating people up and the heavy-handed security reaction” of the Egyptian government struck him not only as “wrong” but that they are “mistakes.”
“The reason I say that is because I think that they conflict with the government’s own desires and interests and where they want Egypt to go,” he explains.

“We obviously expressed our views. It certainly not a pretty sight but it’s also in a way encouraging that you now have the people of Egypt trying to step forward and saying look now that there is a more open process we want to take part of it and we’re going to insist on our political rights which is the direction that obviously we would encourage them to go.”

To many in Egypt, the behaviour of the authorities is seen as a miscarriage of justice and a retreat to a reform agenda that the government of Egyptian President Husni Mubarak has embarked on.

When Ayman Nour, a leading opposition figure to President Mubarak was sentenced for five years in jail on what many consider to be dubious charges, many Egyptians took to the streets and chided the government for not being transparent and paying lip service to promoting change and democracy.

Those dissenting voices have gained momentum in recent weeks as two reform judges came forward and announced that some of their colleagues that support the incumbent government of Mubarak, which has ruled Egypt for 52 years, were involved in rigging the country’s parliamentary elections last year.

The judges are now embroiled in a disciplinary hearing for speaking out. But Mubarak’s credibility is now being questioned rather acrimoniously unlike any other time in the history of the country since the deposing of King Farouk who was over thrown by Gamal Abdel Nasser in a military coup in 1952.

“My sense of what has happened [in Egypt] is that where many people would see the parliamentary elections [with] all the various weaknesses and incomplete aspects, I suspect that some of the traditional order in Egypt saw the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt take about 10% of the seats and so you are now in a phase where you have got some resistance by the vested order to try and maintain the status quo,” Zoellick explains.

Mr. Zoellick points out that the political and economic reform process that the Egyptian president set out was “not highly competitive but nevertheless a useful precedent of the first multiparty presidential elections,” and that the Bush administration is “just trying to urge the Egyptian government to follow through on it; the judiciary law, repealing the emergency law, substituting the counter terrorism provision in its place, expanding press freedom through dealing with some of the detention provisions, and changing some of the criminal law structure.”

“One can see that you are in a transitional phase here in terms of the political system and our Egyptian colleagues understandably…are very proud and in some ways probably feel a sense of defensiveness. There is a fear about the Islamic radical movements. The important thing is that the government itself has set the direction and obviously given our belief in the purpose of freedom, we will continue to press ahead on those items because they are important for the development of Egypt as a political and economic leader in the region.”
Mr. Zoellick considers Gamal Mubarak, the younger son of the Egyptian president who is widely seen as a successor to his father as an important figure in Egyptian politics but the deputy secretary refrained from making any estimation on whether the Bush administration considered him a viable heir to the president.

“The future of politics and the future leaders of Egypt are up to the Egyptians. Gamal Mubarak has been a significant party leader. Some of us have learned from him and discussed things with him. Obviously one recognizes the sensitivity of his position; being involved with some of the reformers but he’s also the son of the president so there is a tension that you can see within the Egyptian politics,” explains Zoellick.

The 41 year old Gamal Mubarak, who took the helm of the Secretary of the National Democratic Party’s (NDP), which holds the majority of seats in the Egyptian parliament, visited Washington two weeks ago and met with President George Bush and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The meeting came in the wake of hard-hitting criticism in leading US media outlets that highlighted the ongoing turmoil in the streets of Cairo.

The visit was seen as an effort by Mubarak to curry favour with the US and explain that recent measures such as the extension of an emergency law that has irked
many in Egypt was not a retreat on the reform agenda.

Zoellick who met with Gamal Mubarak recently emphasizes “One has to look at disaggregating some of the political steps [in Egypt].”

The meeting with Mubarak, explains Zoellick, gave him a sense of where Mubarak’s NDP party is moving on a number of legislative items. “On the emergency law, he [Gamal Mubarak] emphasized that they came to the conclusion that constitutionally they couldn’t let the emergency law expire and still take some of the actions that they feel they need to take against terrorism until they had a counter terrorism law. The proof will be in the actual actions,” explains Zoellick.

The Egyptian government is uneasy with the ascent of dissidents that include Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which have been banned because of their attempts to undermine the government, at times violently since their inception. To quell criticism abroad, the Mubarak government has made clear there is no viable alternative to the present secular government other than the brotherhood.

“The government obviously has great anxiety whether they [the Muslim Brotherhood] are committed to the democratic process…I think it will also be important for the Muslim Brotherhood to clarify they are committed to the democratic process and to nonviolent solutions,” says Zoellick.

The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement, that was founded in Egypt in 1928 and has branches throughout the Arab and Muslim world, advocates the creation of Islamic government. In the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood’s candidates, ran as independents and won 88 seats (20% of the total) to form the largest opposition block.

“As you have seen people grow frustrated with different forms of dynasties, pan Arabism, Arab nationalism—some have turned to Islam as a form of opposition just as communism was as a form of opposition,” Zoellick explains. “For some it’s a way of expressing a protest; for some it’s a way saying that they want to have a totally different society that does not accept democratic principles and that is something that has to be fought out with some of these groups over time.”

Zoellick emphasized that the US was not pressuring Egypt but that it views its relationship with Cairo as strategic and that Washington is keen on seeing the implementation of economic and political reforms.

“We have been very forthright about trying to support the economic reforms and encourage the political reforms. Where we have had disagreements we haven’t been shy in stating it. I would see it less as pressure and more a question of speaking forthrightly and encouraging,” he says.

Some politicians in Washington however, like David Obey, the top democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, have been vocal about their displeasure with what they consider to be regressive steps by the Mubarak government. “When our major aid recipients engage in conduct that flies in the face of our own values then we ourselves are tarnished,” Obey said last week, urging a scaling back in aid to Egypt.

After Israel, Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. economic and military aid, receiving $2 billion annually. Since 1979 the US has given Cairo more than $60 billion in aid.

Zoellick believes cutting or scaling back on aid to Egypt is imprudent as it is of “mutual interest,” and integral of US efforts to support change in the country.

“I have encouraged both the members of Congress and the Egyptians to talk and explain what this political transition is about and try and get a better understanding so that the members of congress can work with other members of Congress because there is no doubt that there is increasing criticism and resistance from members of congress on this issue.”

Asked if he believed that the government of Mubarak was sincerely changing Zoellick says: “Change has to come from within society” and that there “are forces within this society, economic as well as political that are driving change.” He points out that the recent unrest in Egypt can also be viewed as part and parcel of a system opening up and becoming more democratic.

“Its tragic to see but the fact that you have people out there demonstrating is something you wouldn’t have seen five years ago because it would have been too dangerous. People see changes that are taking place elsewhere in the region; they see elections whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon or the Palestinian territories,” Zoellick explains.

“The best way that we can affect change is a combination of encouraging and pressing and trying to assist. Its strikes me as a practical idea that if a leader of a government sets out a reform process that moves in the right direction to say well those are good points, how you going to do it and when are you going to try and accomplish these things. Whether it will happen, time will tell. Looking at the region as a whole, people looking back five years from now will be surprised at the pace of change.”

Mr. Zoellick cited the succession in Kuwait in the wake of the death of its Emir and the role that parliament played and widening participation in Bahrain and developments in Jordan’s political legislative infrastructure.

Zoellick points to the evolution of the political systems in Asia over the years as an example of how the political environment in the Arab world could develop.

“I lived in Hong Kong in the 1980s and I taught Chinese students and I talked about democracy. My Chinese students said democracy in Asia doesn’t fit; it exists in Japan in some odd form. One of the benefits of age is that 26 years later I see democracy in South Korea, in Taiwan, in Indonesia, Thailand and struggling democracy in the Philippines. I don’t believe that any region is immune to this process. It’s going to take place in different ways in different times,” Zoellick explains.

“It is natural as you get more educated people and as people get exposed to what’s going on in the world that people are going to want to express themselves; they are going to want to organize and assemble themselves and want to disagree with the government. If you block their ability to form political parties that can express themselves and block their ability to compete in an election well they are going to turn to other forms of opposition.”

Mr. Zoellick says the situation in the Middle East is akin to the crumbling of the old order in the Cold War era and that the extremism that the Mubarak administration cites as an alternative to his rule, is a consequence of a culmination of factors.

“We are in an era where there are some fundamental changes taking place in the region. In part this is because the political systems are under stress. At the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire you had dynasties and you had a movement towards pan Arabism and you had Arab nationalism that was linked to socialism, which was supposed to be the modern economics at the time, and fundamentally all these have not been effective in developing the goods for the people. It was the UN Arab Human Development Report that noted briefly that the region was considered a black hole in terms of jobs, empowerment of women and schools. I think there is an increasing recognition in all the governments about the failure to keep up with the modern world and delivering what people want,” Zoellick points out.

“That is combined with a surge of globalization. When I was working at the US Treasury in the late 1980s there were about a billion people working in the world market economy. Now there are about 5 billion,” he says.

He adds: “So you can see its effect here, where this is a region where at least in recent years other than energy, it really wasn’t well integrated into the world market system. But you now have Gulf States trying to follow strategies to become little Singapores. You see the developments here with the economics in Egypt trying to transform the economy.”

Zoellick explains that there is little that governments in the region can do to withstand the widening parameters of an integrated global economy.

“With globalization you get additional information and communication that points out to the people what they are missing and also connects them to larger audiences. The latest form of political frustration is the rise of political Islam and that is in part an opposition force to the traditional order. Political Islam covers a range from a radical Islamic perspective…like establishing a caliphate and go back 1300 years and you have other forms that trying to be modernist and reformist.”

He adds: “That is I think a fundamental tension that underlies everything that is going on here. The person who in some ways captured this best was the former prime minister of Singapore who described it as the struggle for the soul of Islam,” he says, before adding: “I find that to be an interesting insight because it makes the point that ultimately the determination will be up to the Muslims, but others can help create the context for those that we want to try and help.”

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