Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Springtime of the Egyptian People, 2005

Eighty six years ago, in March 1919, beginning with a protest by law school students on March 9, the Egyptian people rose up against their British overseers and demanded independence and self-rule. We've all seen the pictures: veiled women out on the street en masse for the first time; imams and priests with interlocked arms fronting crowds of thousands; peasants, effendis, and tarboushed students holding aloft banners bearing an intertwined crescent and cross. Acting British high commissioner Sir Milne Cheetham warned Lord Curzon in London on March 17, “I should make it clear that present movement in Egypt is national in the full sense of the word. It has now apparently the sympathy of all classes and credits, including the Copts.”

Today, Egyptians are once again demanding release, this time from the repressive tutelage of their native rulers. The past few weeks have seen cascading street protests and demonstrations, a couple of wildcat worker strikes, and clusters of professionals demanding autonomy and self-governance. All evince a deep sense of dissatisfaction and anger at public authorities, not least the president. To appreciate the change that has happened since the last presidential referendum in 1999, let's remind ourselves quickly: back then, calls for political and constitutional reform were certainly audible but muted, confined to small groups of human rights activists and intellectuals, ideologically diverse as they were. There wasn't the ambient desire for change among "all classes and credits, including the Copts." And the effects of economic recession had yet to make themselves felt.

Let's review what Egypt's classes and credits have been up to in the past few weeks.


They've been protesting forever, but this week was noteworthy. On Monday, a clump of 300 AUC students demanded that Mubarak step down. Next day, 8,000 students all over the country (al-Azhar, Helwan, Ain Shams, and universities in Kafr al-Shaykh and Mansoura) demanded an end to emergency law and that Mubarak relieve himself of the presidency. Notably, students also protested authorities' interference in student union elections, a staple of university life since the passage of the notorious 1979 statute. Islamist candidates are routinely barred from running in elections in favor of government-sanctioned candidates in the student group "Horus," a collection of climbers who dutifully do the state's bidding in turning student life into a social club, organizing bus trips and so on. But Egyptian universities like their counterparts everywhere will always be hotbeds of political action, so Horus and their Amn al-Dawla bosses can depoliticize all they like, it's never going to work.

University Professors

Dissent is emergent in other quarters of the academy. Professors have long chafed under extremely interventionist government action during the Mubarak era, making a cruel mockery of principles of self-governance. A law passed in 1994 makes faculty deans appointed by university administrations, overturning decades of faculty election of their deans. And let's contemplate this stunning fact for a moment: university presidents are directly appointed by the president of the republic. So in essence, a college president is not a rector nor even an administrator but a policeman, making sure that no one under his charge gets out of line. What a far cry from the famous March 9, 1937 resignation of Cairo University president Ahmed Loutfi al-Sayed to protest government pressures to dismiss Taha Hussein from his post as dean of the Faculty of Arts. Sure enough, a group of Cairo University faculty have started a group called The March 9 Movement to reclaim the university's independence from decades of government nationalization. An article in the Lebanese an-Nahar covers this, as does a fascinating piece in the March 20 issue of Akhbar al-Adab.


Egypt's most fascinating corporate group is also weighing in. Egypt's judges have long chafed under the government's efforts to curb their independence, and since the establishment of the Court of Cassation in 1931 they've fought valiantly to preserve their professional (and political) autonomy. In the past week their restiveness has come to the fore. An Alexandria meeting of the Judges Club upped the ante: if the 1972 law governing the judiciary is not overhauled to realize real independence, judges will boycott supervising the presidential and parliamentary elections slated for this autumn. They're also demanding real supervision of elections, from preparing voter lists to counting ballots, a response to the rampant irregularities of the 2000 vote.

Since 1991, judges have repeatedly pushed for a detailed bill guaranteeing their budgetary autonomy from the meddlesome Ministry of Justice. Last month, leftist opposition MP Abul Ezz al-Hariri submitted the bill to parliament, and copies have also been forwarded to the Minister of Justice and the president. On April 2, the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession held a conference to publicize the draft law and emphasize its recommendations, which not surprisingly included lifting emergency laws. If followed through, the judges' ultimatum could put the government in a deeply embarrassing bind; parliament's term ends in late June and it's highly unlikely that a new judiciary law will see the light by then. It's also an open question how representative the Alexandria meeting was.

The common pattern is clear: students, professors, and judges are all itching to change the repressive laws under which they live, laws that are over and above the general arsenal of legislation that governs the lives of all Egyptians, from the Emergency "Law" on down to the sprawling plethora of penal laws. Read the Penal Code sometime (Qanun al-Uqubat), it makes for fascinating, panic-inducing reading.


An unexpected group of Egyptians entered the reform drama this week: Reuters reports that a London-based group called the Save Egypt Front has been formed to call on Mubarak to step down. The head of the group, one Ahmed Saber, identified as "an academic who runs a financial advising firm in London" is quoted as saying, "We will organise protests outside Egyptian embassies in Europe and the United States, and will mobilise the public through a satellite television channel." Saber also said his group will coordinate with Kifaya and the suspended Labor party, but Kifaya member George Ishaq told al-Sharq al-Awsat that Kifaya hasn't heard of or from any such movement and expressed caution in dealing with any movements based abroad.

Beyond the Reuters report, there's no information on this group nor details on who its members are (the report says "business leaders and journalists"). To his credit, I remember al-Quds al-Araby's caustic Muhammad Abdel Hakam Diyab alluding to London-based exile groups in the making, and perhaps he'll shed more light on "Save Egypt" in his saturday column. I don't blame Kifaya's organizers for being leery of any self-styled exile groups with murky funding claiming to "mobilise" an already highly mobilised public. The precedents of Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress or Eyad Allawi and his Iraqi National Alliance are too damning. And given the acrimonious feelings towards Egyptian activists residing in Egypt but receiving foreign funding, suspicion towards "Save Egypt" is not misplaced. If "exiles" truly wish to unseat Mubarak, why not support homegrown movements morally and financially instead of popping out of the woodwork and railing against the regime from the comfort of safely distant London? Too little, too late, too fishy, methinks.

The Regime

So what's the regime been up to in the face of social mobilisation? Well, Akher Sa'a updates us on the "important outcomes" of the dialogue taking place between the NDP and its...competitors. We learn that in a brotherly feat of cooperation, all 15 (count 'em)parties agreed to the non-application of emergency rule during the upcoming elections and that everyone was also in blissful agreement that candidates breaching the financial ceiling will be summarily disqualified. Yes.

In a definitely more readable but only slightly more informative vein, al-Araby's breathless Abdallah al-Sennawi offers another one of his gossipy, entertaining where's-Egypt-going articles. Full of the expected deference to Haykal and innuendo about discontent and confusion in high places, Sennawi's piece concludes with a worthwhile tidbit on the National Human Rights Council's missing report. If you recall, several months ago much was made of the fact that the report would be "on the president's desk" in February, but it's now April and the report has yet to appear. Sennawi relays that the delay is attributable to the Council's vice president Ahmad Kamal Abul Magd, who is purported to have said "It's not appropriate that we put on the president's desk a report that condemns in a shrill manner human rights violations of the regime that he heads."

If he really said this, then it's beyond outrageous but also predictable. His erstwhile legal scholarly credentials notwithstanding, Abul Magd has always been a loyal servant of power, from his days as "Youth Minister" under Sadat (what does a "youth minister" do?) to his days as a one-size-fits-all adviser to the Mubarak family. He's another one of those "intellectuals" who's always prattling on about showing "decorum" and "respect" for the regime/state/presidency. Abul Magd would do well to show some respect for something called integrity. Until he does, he's just another one of the hundreds of PhD-holding professional prevaricators working for the regime, no more, perhaps less.

Update: al-Ahram of April 7 reports that the NCHR report has been released, to the president and parliament, and notes "a marked improvement in the state's concern for human rights conditions"

Of course, we remain completely in the dark about crucial sectors within the regime: army, police, republican guard, and various intelligence agencies. If it's true as many rumors would have it that the generalized climate of discontent and disillusionment with authority has seeped into the regime's ranks, one wonders to what extent such a mood has taken hold in these critical sectors. Real political change almost always requires either defection or neutrality if not tacit sympathy on the part of these state bodies, and there's just no way to know if this is the case in contemporary Egypt. Anyone who claims to know what's happening within the ranks of these institutions is either exceptionally well-connected or delusional. And let's remember that even if there was some sympathy for democratization among decision-makers within these agencies, sympathy and grievances alone do not a regime change make. Discontent is often ubiquitous and durable, but rarely if ever does it singlehandedly lead to actual political change.

Comic Relief

And now, finally, some humor to spice up our discussion. Political Scientist Osama El-Ghazali Harb, in an opinion piece in al-Ahram of April 6, identifies the leading obstacle holding back reform: the state-owned press....for which he works. Harb finds these institutions "unable to absorb new developments and speaking in an old language that fundamentally contradicts the logic of democratic development." What's more, "The noticeable irony here is that this position contradicts the position and actual behavior of the head of the state himself! President Mubarak evinces a degree of forbearance and forgiveness with his critics incomparable in any way to the positions of presidents Abdel Nasser and Sadat! In the Nasserist era, criticizing the president was a prohibition impossible to broach much less envision, while criticizing president Sadat led to his intense anger and distancing critics from favored circles. What's written now in certain newspapers needs no additional proof." Right, so everyone take note: it's the state-owned press, not the president who's the problem, who by the way it turns out is exceptionally forgiving with his critics. What's the logical conclusion? That the state-owned press needs a reforming overhaul to root out those "old ideas." And who's the best person to lead the overhaul? Why, the writer of the column, of course! But really, I must congratulate "Dr." Harb. Rarely are regime hacks so open and transparent about their professional ambitions.

A good report by Radio Free Europe quotes one Joost Hiltermann, identified as "head of the Mideast Program at the International Crisis Group" as saying, "Opposition parties in the Middle East, as in other parts of the world, always call for democratic reforms; it's their way of coming to power. The question is, what is their true commitment to democracy? And the fact is, there is very little. There is great hunger for democracy [among the people], but very little experience with democracy. And so the likelihood of a truly democratic group coming to power in any of these countries is remote." Since Mr. Hiltermann seems so confident about asserting that opposition parties have "very little commitment to democracy," I'd like to ask him: so the ruling regimes are more committed to democracy? And sorry, another ignorant question: if all Mr. Hiltermann can come up with is that Middle Easterners have a dim democratic past and a dim democratic future, what has he added to our understanding of current events?

Finally, what would comic relief be without the latest revelation from "Dr." Muhammad Mahdi Morgaan? In al-Ahram of April 6, the indefatigable Dr. Morgaan concludes a piece on World Women's Day with: "A compassionate heart that embraces all: despite his heavy burdens, the kind father forgets no one, he is not unaware of even the smallest citizen, not even for the sake of the grandest state. What pains him most are the moans of an ill person, and often he pays out of his own pocket for the costs of their cure. A salute to our leader the human being and his compassionate decision to treat Dr. Gaber Asfour abroad." Just to clarify, Dr. Morgaan is not referring to the Pope (RIP) but to president Hosni Mubarak.