- April 28, 2009
Where are Egyptian politics going? A panel discussion
An Egyptian delegation making the rounds of DC stopped by the Elliott School this morning to talk about the Cairo political scene and their hopes to improve American-Egyptian relations after what they described as a few turbulent years. While some of their other meetings are likely off-the-record, their gracious agreement to appear in a university setting open to the public allowed students, faculty and members of the public (including a number of Egyptian-Americans) the chance to ask questions and state their case. The panel”s avowed mission was to present a more optimistic picture of Egyptian politics than the one commonly in circulation in Washington. Judging by the questions, they face an uphill climb.
The delegation included Hossam Badrawi (a leading member of the ruling National Democratic Party), Mounir Abd al-Nour (Secretary-General of the “opposition” Wafd Party), and my old friend/sparring partner Abd al-Monem Said Aly (director of the al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies and member of the NDP”s political committee). While Abd al-Nour comes from an opposition party and the other two from the ruling NDP, there wasn”t that much daylight between them. All have reformist credentials by official Egyptian standards, and all share a deep antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The panelists basically argued that there is far more positive momentum in Egyptian politics than outside observers usually report. They collectively put forward a portrait of an Egypt with a dynamic lawmaking process, a free and contentious media, a growing private sector, a growing civil society playing an active role in the political scene, and dynamic change within the major political parties (including both the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood). They praised a new dynamism in Egyptian society, parties, and the political scene. All of this was too much for one Egyptian-American who had just returned from a month in Cairo, who asked wearily whether he had somehow managed to visit the wrong country since he did not remember being in the one described by the panel.
I asked the panel how they could reconcile their enthusiasm for this new energy and dynamism in Egyptian society with the role played by the Egyptian security services in crushing that energy and dynamism wherever it appeared. A succession of students and Egyptians in the audience later asked variations on the same question — how could they justify the continuation of the emergency law? How could they cite Saad Eddin Ibrahim as an example of the freedom of the Egyptian press (because he”s still able to publish his articles in some Egyptian newspapers) when he was sent to prison for his activism and now lives in exile?
All three panelists acknowledged the excesses of the Egyptian security forces, while attempting to put it into context. One argued that the security forces only acted against those who broke the law and caused chaos, those who used violence, and groups which did not recognize the legitimacy of the state — which, in his view, includes the Muslim Brotherhood and thus justifies the repression against them. I don”t think many Egyptian activists would agree with that characterization (one Egyptian student in the audience sympathetic to the April 6 movement seemed near-apoplectic) but there you go. All three acknowledged that some times the security forces were “heavy-handed,” specifically mentioning “the bloggers” as examples of the heavy-handed role of the security forces and their unnecessary brutality — “utterly uncalled for”, in the words of Abd al-Nour. One said that the important thing was for the perpetrators to be punished when identified… which is true, but hardly gets to the pervasive, systemic nature of the problem if the perpetrators are doing as ordered rather than being “rogues” to be weeded out.
There”s been a lot of talk that there will be less emphasis on democracy and human rights under the Obama administration. Hopefully exchanges like this one will convince them to report back to Cairo that American concern about human rights and democratic freedoms isn”t going away.
I also asked the panel about the impact of the Gaza war on Egypt and about US-Egyptian relations. They mainly restated the Egyptian official position that it had been the target of an unfair, coordinated campaign of abuse and now felt vindicated by the exposure of the alleged Hezbollah network. They also mostly argued that the Muslim Brotherhood had been hurt by the conflict because it had aligned itself with Hezbollah against the Egyptian state, which put them against mainstream patriotic Egyptian feeling. But this may have been projection or wishful thinking on their part, since two came from the ruling NDP and Mounir repeatedly voiced rather extreme anti-Brotherhood views.
My colleague Nathan Brown noticed an interesting twist in Said”s presentation of the Brotherhood”s performance. While Said was broadly critical of the Brotherhood”s role in the crisis, he also noted in his remarks that the MB Members of Parliament were far more restrained in their response to the Hezbollah “plot” than were other Brotherhood leaders such as Supreme Guide Mohammad Mehdi Akef. Isn”t the fact that its elected officials were so much more “responsible” actually a strong argument for legalizing the Brotherhood and letting it participate fully in the political system?
There was a lot more, including discussion of the possible succession by Gamal Mubarak and ideas for political reform. But hopefully this summary offers at least a taste of the discussion and what might come of it.