The battle for Cairo is just as vital as the one for Baghdad

I am writing at the end of a week in the Arab world’s New York. Ferocious daytime temperatures turn Cairo into a 24-hour city. Cafes, bars and restaurants stay open long after midnight in the merciful cool. So do the clothes shops, thronged by crowds that spill off the pavements along the main streets, jostling the endlessly hooting traffic. At one in the morning toddlers still race around the pedestrian space outside the Mugamma, a monstrous government building in Tahrir square, while their parents chat on benches.

Barely has the sun gone down when the Nile embankments fill up. Couples and family groups pile on to boats that crisscross the leaden water with flashing coloured lights and waves of noise from erratic sound systems. Out on the river the breeze is strong, and the temperature drops another few degrees.

What a contrast with the horrors of Baghdad, where the Tigris hasn’t seen a pleasure boat for years and the curfew sends people scurrying home long before 9pm to a bad-tempered domestic evening of intermittent power to run their fans. How can these great capital cities of the Middle East be so different?

Yet Egypt is only superficially at peace. A battle is under way for Cairo that is as important as the battle for Baghdad, though it is out of the spotlight. The Bush administration appeared to recognise this when it launched its “forward strategy of freedom” in 2003 to promote democratisation throughout the Arab world. No doubt there will be a self-serving mention of it when George Bush meets his G8 colleagues in Russia next month, but they will be praising a ghost. The programme was quietly aborted after the Muslim Brotherhood’s stunning successes in Egypt’s elections late last year and the Hamas victory in the Palestinian vote in January. Political Islam has left Washington spooked.

Although the Brotherhood is an illegal organisation, the candidates it put up as independents won a fifth of the seats in parliament. That might not seem much, except that this was more than half the constituencies it contested. Allowing for government-sponsored fraud, it probably won two-thirds of the seats it fought, a sign of immense popularity.

Could President Hosni Mubarak have played it cool, using the Brotherhood’s 20% presence in parliament to tell the world that Egypt is a democracy? Too dangerous for him, argues Hugh Roberts, the Cairo representative of the thinktank International Crisis Group. “This would mean letting people get used to the fact that the Brotherhood is a legitimate entity,” he says. “The Brotherhood is the only serious political party in Egypt. The National Democratic party [Mubarak’s party] is a state apparatus. The regime’s problem is that it cannot rely on the NDP to cope effectively with the Brotherhood’s challenge.”

Emad el-Din Shahin, a leading political scientist, says the Brotherhood’s MPs have played an exemplary parliamentary role in their first six months, proposing initiatives, seeking to question ministers (they usually fail to turn up), and demanding inquiries into mismanagement and corruption, such as that involved in the Red Sea ferry disaster that left a thousand dead in February.

The Brotherhood runs crash courses in parliamentary practice and human-rights principles for the local activists who suddenly became MPs. Barred from state channels, they appear constantly in debates on satellite TV talkshows. As with Hamas, a large part of the Brotherhood’s support rests on the welfare services, health clinics and computer training for young people that it provides. But its main source of strength is public anger with a secular government that is politically and morally bankrupt.

The Brotherhood used to demand to be legalised. Since its poll success it has backed off, partly because illegality maintains an appealing image of victimhood but also because registration under present law means pleading to a regime-stacked commission. Mohammed Habib, the Brotherhood’s deputy leader, uses an unexpected analogy. “In other countries registration takes only half an hour, as in the case of Kadima [Israel’s new ruling party],” he told me. “Here it depends on the government’s mood, and whether it sees the new party as friendly or a strong opponent.”

Mubarak’s answer is a familiar one – repression. He postponed the local elections and decreed a two-year extension of the draconian emergency laws. More than 600 members of the Muslim Brotherhood are in prison.

Egypt’s tragedy is that its secular rulers have failed to deliver democracy, honest administration or prosperity for the hundreds of thousands of young jobseekers who pour into the cities every year from the countryside. Meanwhile, the secular opposition that could compete with the Brotherhood is repressed as fiercely as the Brotherhood itself. Ayman Nour, who dared to stand against Mubarak in last year’s presidential election, was sent to jail for five years. Efforts by Kifaya, an umbrella group of liberals and leftwing activists, to mount protests in Cairo on civil-rights issues are met with police violence. Even the judges are outraged by the government’s refusal to accept their independence.

Unlike those in eastern Europe, most democrats in Egypt shy away from foreign funding, especially from the US with its role in Israel and Iraq. “It’s suicidal here to be seen as pro-American,” says Mohammed el-Sayed Said, deputy director of the al-Ahram centre for political and strategic studies.

What people want from the US is greater pressure on the Mubarak regime, which is heavily dependent on Washington’s financial support. The US ambassador, Francis Ricciardone, pays lip service to “reform”, though he stresses economic moves to encourage the private sector rather than political liberalisation. “Unfortunately we are seeing serious resistance to reforms that favour Egypt’s opening to competition, change, challenge and growth,” he told the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt last month. This mild rebuke was followed by a White House trip for Gamal Mubarak, the president’s ambitious son.

Egypt is not a failed state, or a new nation lacking established parties. It is a harsh dictatorship with dynastic pretensions. In its place the country needs a climate of debate in which Islamists and secular forces contend without fear, and a parliament and local councils that are elected freely. Foreign initiatives for long-term improvements in “governance” sound very nice. But in states that have become clients, deep cuts in funds to rulers who rely on repression are a quicker way for big democracies to show they mean what they say.

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