Mubarak seems to be running scared from democracy
Sunday, June 4,2006 00:00
By Betsy Hiel, Pittsburgh Tribune

For a teeming city of 16 million, the political demonstration was tiny.
Twenty to 30 human-rights activists gathered in a leafy neighborhood that houses many foreign embassies. Their objective was a police station, where two demonstrators said they were tortured and sodomized last week after another small protest.

Nearby, behind the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel on the banks of the Nile, police threw up a dragnet to block protesters and journalists. They briefly detained three activists, attacked and chased away others.

Only veteran democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim, 66, and six middle-aged women, including prominent author Adhaf Soueif, slipped past.
Beefy black-clad riot police and plainclothes officers surrounded them when they refused to leave, then threatened to beat Egyptian journalists who stood watching with foreign journalists.

"They have really reached an unprecedented and ugly state," Ibrahim said of the police.

Imprisoned three years for criticizing the government, he now walks with a limp and rarely joins protests.

"As you can see, people are still determined to get here ... determined to speak out, " he said. "Even if only one managed to do so, it is a message to the regime that there will always be Egyptians who will defy and who will resist."

President Bush has urged Egypt to lead the region toward democracy. And Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has said he wants to adopt the reforms to do just that.

Establishing democracy here -- with 73 million people, the most populous Arab country -- would have tremendous regional implications.

Yet, many Egyptians say the reform effort is flawed. They fear government attacks on the small but vocal pro-democracy movement will increase public support for the Muslim Brotherhood -- the outlawed-but-tolerated Islamic political party.

Last month, security police crushed demonstrations that supported two judges facing disciplinary hearings for having complained of fraud in 2005 parliamentary elections. Hundreds of activists were arrested -- many of them from the Muslim Brotherhood.

U.S. officials have criticized the Egyptian government three times for its crackdown; human-rights groups have joined the chorus.

Mohamed Waked, a political activist, said he believes the crackdown reveals a government that "is extremely threatened, even by the mildest type of political activity. Its source of legitimacy is the police and the security apparatus."

Egypt’s Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif told independent newspaper Masri Al-Youm that "no one is beaten up unless he is using violence." Journalists who routinely cover street demonstrations, however, can attest to heavy-handed police tactics.

With opposition leaders imprisoned and their parties in shambles, many analysts accuse the government of stamping out the tiny, secular political movement in order to position the ruling National Democratic Party -- run by Mubarak’s son, Gamal -- as the sole alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some believe that strategy is calculated to play on Washington’s fear of anti-U.S. Islamic parties spreading across the region.

"The Brotherhood is the most organized group and the fastest growing," Waked said. "Now it is getting protest votes from people who are willing to accept things that they dislike, to get other things they like. Everyone knows they are the only real contender."

The Brotherhood, the largest opposition bloc in Egypt’s parliament, won 88 seats -- more than 20 percent of the total -- in spite of electoral fraud.

Tarek Heggy, an Egyptian intellectual and petroleum-market strategist, said the government is shortsighted in attacking demonstrators.

"They are saying to civil society to stop functioning. ... If civil society is allowed to function, it will teach the people that they pay taxes and that they have rights. You can stop the Muslim Brotherhood -- not by force but through voting."

The official crackdown also frightens university students from becoming politically active, said Nasser Amin, who directs a judicial-reform movement.

In the short run, that means fewer students taking to the streets. Yet, in the long run it means fewer educated Egyptians who are secular and democratically inclined -- and more who simply want any change and turn to the Muslim Brotherhood.

For now, a strong, secular-leaning alternative seems increasingly unlikely.

Ayman Nour, who placed a distant second in the unprecedented multi-party presidential election last year, is serving five years in prison for forging party-registration forms, despite a government witness who recanted. On Thursday, his Al Ghad party suffered another blow: Its cultural center, in a poor section of Cairo, burned.

Kifaya (Enough) movement activist Ahmed Salah, 39, recently spent 29 days in prison for having joined a judicial-reform sit-in. Jailers confiscated his asthma inhaler, he said, causing him severe respiratory problems. He tells of sleeping sideways on the floor of a cramped cell with 40 other prisoners, of being blindfolded, kicked, slapped and beaten.

"If it wasn’t for the Western support of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, they wouldn’t have this free hand to crack down like this," he said. "They are using the Western fear of the Islamists, by putting themselves as the only alternative.

"If there is democracy, it will not bring the Islamists to power. We would be able to reach people," Salah said.

Heggy, the petroleum strategist, said he hopes the government switches strategy.

If not, he offers a dire prediction: "It is up to the regime -- if they continue like this, they will take us to chaos, violence and the Muslim Brotherhood."

Betsy Hiel is a Middle East correspondent for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. She can be reached at [email protected].