Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Society in Movement

The palpable social ferment sweeping Egyptian society since December 2004 continues to develop and cascade, unhindered by the scorching summer heat. June was an event-filled month and July gives every indication of being the same. So much for Egypt’s allegedly humdrum summers. The past week alone has seen significant developments in both society and state, with big doses of rumour, speculation, and misinformation to grease things along. But let me step back for a brief minute and pinch myself. Who could have guessed even a few short months ago that Egyptian politics would look like they do today, with new political projects springing forth nearly every week like wildflowers on a rocky hillside? At the very least, current events are overturning all the crusty old models and familiar interpretive frames with which Egyptian politics have been conventionally understood. But that’s a story for another day. Let’s focus on some of the major developments of the past week.


Since their landmark meeting at the Judges Club on May 13, judges have not had a moment’s rest, carrying out their routine judicial work while fending off fervent executive efforts to alternately divide, threaten, and bribe them. But I never expected this level of feistiness. In what is to my knowledge an unprecedented endeavour, the unfazed Judges Club formed a fact-finding committee to investigate the quality of judicial oversight over the referendum of May 25. The 5-member committee is chaired by none other than upstanding Alexandrian judge Hossam al-Ghiryani, whom I talked about here. The 9-page report is filled with fascinating facts, including the judges’ methodology for collecting information about polling in 13 governorates, the difficulties they encountered while gathering the information, and some truly arresting testimonials. It was reprinted in al-Destour and al-Araby in its entirety. The bottom lines: (1) the claim that 11,000 judges supervised the referendum is untrue, (2) supervisors of main polling stations had no oversight over subsidiary stations, (3) 95% of subsidiary polling stations were manned by government clerks with no independence and who were subject to intimidation by police, and (4) chief justices of courts of first instance obstructed the efforts of some judges to oversee subsidiary stations.

Clearly, Egyptian judges mean business. With this report, they offer a powerful and highly credible challenge to the Interior Ministry’s chronic doctoring of election facts and practices. Even more damningly, with their fourth finding and several explicit testimonials in the body of the report, judges for the first time are publicly drawing definitive lines in the sand between good and bad judges. The latter are pliant magistrates more than willing to go along with the regime’s whims and interests, while the former value their professional autonomy and reputation more than pocketing hefty bonuses or staying in the good graces of this or that official. The battle to watch over the next two months will be who gains the upper hand. Now that parliament has adjourned for the summer recess with the judges’ law still pending (since 1991!!), my guess is that feelings of being slighted and disrespected will only increase among the majority of judges, promising a truly exceptional and historic meeting on September 2, regardless of its outcome. Between May 13 and the Judges Club report, tensions have already been extremely high between different factions and institutions within Egypt’s labyrinthine judiciary: court general assemblies and chief justices, factions within Judges Clubs in the provinces, and of course the government’s Supreme Judicial Council and everyone else. The tensions are only bound to become more complicated in the next two months (aside: astoundingly, while it has been a heretofore faithful chronicler of judicial news, al-Wafd hasn’t covered the Judges Club report! Has the unctuous No’man Gom’a struck yet another deal with the government?)

Without a doubt, the judges’ very public maneuvers are the single most important prop to the Egyptian pro-democracy movement. They inspire and encourage others while lending a very valuable patina of respectability to the still fearsome act of true dissent, to be distinguished from Egypt’s overnight celebrity dissidents. An exemplar of a true dissident is honorary Judges Club president Yahya al-Refai, interviewed by al-Araby this week.

Detainees’ Families

While elite guardians of the law capitalise on and spur the pro-reform movement, a much humbler constituency also weighs in. Families of Egypt’s Islamist prisoners detained for years without trial first started a hunger strike at the bar association some weeks ago. Last week, they also took to the street for a brief protest. Being an unsexy, unphotogenic protest, it did not receive the copious media coverage it should have, despite the heartbreaking sight of young children who had never seen their fathers holding aloft signs and posters. Luckily, the indefatigable Wael Abbas captured some shots with a mobile phone and posted them on his e-zine, as did al-Misri al-Yawm. On Tuesday, families of detained Muslim Brothers also protested briefly outside the office of the Public Prosecutor. These mothers and wives and grandmothers and sisters and aunts are as ordinary and unpolitical as one can be. Their tragedies are recounted with painstaking precision in the reports of the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners. These are precisely the kinds of invisible people whom the reform movement should be engaging and assisting, and I hope they receive the attention, sympathy, and support that they deserve. Thanks to Mohammed over at Digressing, their plight is not forgotten. The current Egyptian intifada is just as much if not more about their rights and needs as it is about constitutional reform and political democracy.


Pro-democracy members of the fourth estate (specifically “Journalists for Change”) have been registering their professional and public concerns at a syndicate sit-in since Sunday, once again Wael Abbas captures the struggle here. So what do they want? First and foremost the scrapping of the notorious Article 48 of the political rights law blithely passed by parliament before it adjourned. The Article stipulates a prison term of six months to three years and a fine of £E1,000-5,000 for anyone who publishes “false news or claims about elections or the behaviour and morals of any candidate with the intent to influence the election outcome.” As veteran journalist Salah Eissa points out in his Saturday column in al-Wafd, however, Articles 302-306 of the Penal Code already clearly lay out penalties for libel and slander at a maximum of two years’ imprisonment. While Jordan scraps imprisonment altogether as punishment for press offences, Egypt adds on an additional year on the occasion of elections which the regime has been trumpeting up and down as historic and unprecedented and more competitive and bla bla bla! Can Gamal Mubarak please stand up and explain how muzzling the press contributes to the more competitive political life he’s so fond of lecturing us about?

Journalists are just as fed up as every other social group, and then some. The Sunday sit-in which ended on Wednesday was a last-ditch attempt to at least register opposition to the regime’s fait accompli, but the real frustration will now turn on Press Syndicate chair Galal Aref. Syndicate insiders say that since his defeat of Ibrahim Nafie in 2003, Aref has been too compromising with the regime and an ineffective negotiator for press freedoms and journalists’ rights. Granted, he’s had only two years to prove himself, but Aref has neither improved material services nor adequately defended journalists’ collective interests. The Syndicate chair elections at the very end of this month will be the true test of the depth of journalistic disaffection with Aref. Thickening the plot is maverick journalist and Destour editor Ibrahim Eissa’s stated intention to put himself forward as a candidate. With his no-nonsense irreverence and absolute refusal to even hint at remonstrating with the government, Eissa might just capture a healthy chunk of the youth vote but is unlikely to win the support of stalwarts and business-as-usual types. Ibrahim Hegazy of al-Ahram is the government’s strongest contender; he’s an old Syndicate hand and a shrewd politico and electioneer, with a solid base electoral base in al-Ahram. Given the pro-democracy ferment, the additional imprisonment penalties, and the combustible conditions within many of the state-owned press houses, the elections at the end of the month promise to be even more bitterly fought than those of summer 2003.


After a ten-year struggle in the courts to throw off government receivership of their union, engineers got some good news yesterday. Today’s al-Wafd reports that an administrative court threw out a government counter-suit and cleared the way for engineers to summon their general assembly and hold board elections, delayed for 10 years while a government-appointed “judicial custodian” managed the affairs of the frozen union. The saga of engineers trying to take back their association is part of the larger story of government intervention in these bodies to reverse the electoral successes of the Muslim Brothers. Lawyers succeeded in 2001 in holding their first elections since 1992 but engineers have had a harder time. Yesterday’s court ruling couldn’t have come at a better time. If elections are conducted, they will be bitterly fought and add one more valuable and hefty middle class institution to the generalised social ferment.

University Professors

al-Wafd of July 6 reports on an important all-university faculty conference last Monday at the Cairo University faculty club on the Nile. Like all professionals, professors twined public affairs with their own longstanding workplace grievances. Members of nine university teachers’ clubs (nawadi a’da’ hay’at al-tadris) called for an end to emergency rule, clean, judicially-monitored elections, and an intriguing new proposal for a pan-university teachers’ union for professors and teaching assistants at all Egyptian universities. Currently, each university has its own teaching staff union but there is no national-level federation. The proposal will be voted on by the general assemblies of the separate teachers’ clubs. If it comes to fruition, it will constitute a significant challenge to the security-centered management of Egyptian universities and a huge boost for the rising demands for faculty self-governance. Similar to the judges, university professors’ own mini-Intifada offers a huge boost to the pro-democracy bandwagon, lending it credibility and respectability in the eyes of undecided Egyptians leery of the unknown.

The Ikhwan

The wild speculations and rumours about internal dissension and all manner of machination and intrigue within the organisation are totally stale and predictable. The truth of the matter is, all significant political groups in Egypt are in the throes of self-transformation, why should the Ikhwan be any different? Ikhwan members say the biggest node of contention is the terms of the group’s transformation into a political party, which is no surprise since this issue has bedeviled the group for at least the past five years. The pro-democracy zeitgeist and the regime’s pathetic performance are merely catalysts foregrounding as never before this central dilemma. Ikhwan members are ranged in two broad camps: those who favour remaining a Jamaa (Association) and maintaining the same essential modus operandi, led by General Guide and Ikhwan old-timer Mohamed Mahdi Akef, and those pushing for the normalisation (my characterisation) of the group into a modern political party. The boldest and most articulate defender of the second position is Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh; the fervent whispers about his being booted out of the Guidance Bureau (the Ikhwan’s politburo) are pure flights of fancy but there are disagreements between him and other members. Abul Fotouh hinted at his frustration in an article in last week’s al-Dustour, where he worried that his own and other groups are not up to the momentous tasks he said face the nation.

Ironically, neither Akef nor Abul Fotouh is likely to carry the day within the organisation. Akef’s stance is clearly no longer viable while Abul Fotouh’s is still too controversial for Ikhwan members, much as he is well liked and respected by outsiders (myself included). Enter Muhammed Habib, the deputy guide who’s been very visible of late, and who presided over the Ikhwan’s “National Alliance for Reform” inaugural meeting and press conference last Thursday. Habib is a consensus figure, neither ‘radical’ like Abul Fotouh nor rigid like Akef. His take is simple: act like a political party quietly and without fanfare so as not to alienate or antagonise any of the Ikhwan’s contending factions while also capitalising on enticing political opportunities offered by current events. Habib is keenly aware of the dangers of being mired in internal disputes and risking being sidelined by rapid developments, so he and his people pounced and created the Alliance. Invitees who attended from all across the political spectrum (including Kifaya members and a gallery of other prominent figures) want to encourage the Ikhwan’s amalgamation with others on terms of parity and not haughty superiority as is the Ikhwan’s longstanding wont.

If the Alliance means that the Ikhwan will abandon their intensely annoying and destructive habit of defecting from broad pro-democracy alliances every time the government dangles its carrot, then it will have done a huge service to the cause of opposition coordination. We have to wait and observe closely; the next big test is the elections. If the Ikhwan get with the program and boycott the presidential poll like everyone else, resisting their all-too-familiar 11th hour deals with the government, then the regime will lose an important fig leaf.


I’m glad Shepheard’s hotel reneged on its earlier acceptance to host Kifaya’s first general conference (under State Security pressures, of course), originally scheduled for today. I and many other members don’t think Kifaya should be holed up in fancy hotel conference rooms talking about democracy, but I also understand the predicament since no professional syndicate has agreed to host the conference due to security pressures, not even the Press Syndicate, oddly. What to do? Continue the search for a meaningful and symbolic venue that does not fly in the face of all the movement stands for and aspires to achieve. In the meantime, read the two important position papers Kifaya has put forward for discussion. The first is a four-page proposal for a “transitional phase” of one or two years during which emergency law is lifted and a national coalition caretaker government is formed to devise the rules of the post-transition political game. The second is a more elaborate ten-page “strategic vision for change” entitled “The Egypt that We Want: Towards a New Social-Political Contract.”

This second document pivots on four central ideas: (1) retooling the institution of the presidency and effecting the transformation from the one-man state, (2) adjusting the legal and judicial situation in Egypt by repealing emergency law and all other exceptional laws and irregular courts, (3) ensuring the separation of powers, and (4) unleashing public liberties and basic rights for individuals and groups.

With these detailed proposals for what their authors call “the good society,” Kifaya is clearly attempting to answer critics who’ve been harping on its lack of an alternative sociopolitical project. As such, they are valuable documents with many eminently sensible and provocative ideas, most of them inspired by the mountain of pro-democracy ephemera building up in this country since at least 1992. I don’t agree with everything in them, and that’s as it should be. The important point now is how they will be developed and modified in the process of public deliberation with more ideologically diverse interlocutors. I think of this as the critical groundwork for the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution, whenever that will be, and I hope the debate is loud and noisy and very very public. Anything to avoid our previous constitutions, midwifed behind closed doors in rarefied discussions whose transcripts are carefully stashed away in ‘secret’ libraries.


I haven’t been following this too closely but there’s also this business of the self-importantly named “National Rally for Democratic Transformation” (al-Tajammu’ al-Watani li-l Tahawwul al-Dimuqrati) formed on June 4 by a bevy of former ministers and ambassadors and other public figures. It’s headed by former Nasser-era technocrat Aziz Sidqi, who for some unfathomable reason is being dubbed “the father of Egyptian industry.” Anyway, as an observer my instinct is to say let a thousand pro-democracy projects bloom and I hope more are in the offing. But I do not choose to politically support this group in particular, because I do not appreciate its strong whiff of a council of elders sagely leading the way to some blessed democratic transformation. They somehow think that because they are former government apparatchiks, they are uniquely qualified to front the scene. In my very cynical moments, I also think it’s a self-serving attempt by has-beens and third-rate establishment types to ride the pro-democracy wave, nothwithstanding the presence of a handful of folks whose careers and reputations are beyond reproach.

Above all, I am intensely suspicious of the remonstrating noises they are making vis-à-vis the regime, which I fail to understand. Consider their choice of Mustafa Bakri as not just member but ‘official spokesman’. Now, I’ve made clear my views on Bakri before, but I note: he has been playing an even baser game lately. Look no further than the most recent of his execrable editorials, where he turns his guns on none other than Hosni Mubarak himself. Being a congenital scribe-for-hire and a rank opportunist with close ties to the Interior Minister in particular, Bakri’s and his equally inferior brother Mahmoud’s new line can only mean one thing: he has latched on to a new patron within the regime, a faction that is perhaps anti-Mubarak or attempting to save its skin by jumping the sinking ship. There is no other explanation for his latest antics. Any grouping that chooses to have the irremediably tainted Bakri as spokesman (for God’s sake) raises all sorts of questions for me about exactly what it stands for and what message it is trying to send.

The Regime

Where shall I start? The Israeli gas deal, or the journalistic reshuffle, or the parliamentary recess with all crucial bills postponed, or the rumours about an Abu Ghazala presidential candidacy, or the hints at an impending crackdown? What a choice comedy of errors. Let’s start with the Mubarak regime’s latest warm embrace of the Ariel Sharon government. Last Thursday, Egypt and Israel signed a 15-year, $2.5 billion deal to sell Egyptian natural gas to Israel, to be finalised in August and with the option to extend it another five years. Of course, not one of the state-owned newspapers covered the event. Earlier, according to the Jerusalem Post, Hosni Mubarak expressed enthusiasm for visiting Ariel Sharon’s Negev ranch after the September elections. “He has very good lambs getting fatter and fatter, so we are looking forward to that,” Mubarak enthused.

Parliament recessed last month, but not before ramming through amendments to the laws that the government needs. Of course, there was not even a nod to some crucial bills such as the amendments to the 1972 law governing the judiciary, consumer protection and real estate asset protection bills, and a long awaited bill to restructure apartment owner-tenant relations. As widely and gleefully reported by the opposition, the Supreme Constitutional Court had sent back the presidential election law because of some serious flaws. It was already irregular and not within the SCC’s mandate to review legislation before it was issued, imagine the double embarrassment for the government to have the Court send back the bill with specific corrections to be made. Hence al-Ahram’s pusillanimous cover-up of the issue on its front page last Thursday (30 June).

I don’t understand all the brouhaha over the editorial reshuffle, and I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the New York Timesheadline: “Egypt’s Press Acquiring Young Blood in Top Posts.” Good to know that the newspaper of record slavishly parrots Safwat El-Sherif’s claims as news, I thought it did that only with the American government’s arguments. If ages 53 and 50 qualify as “young blood”, then clearly I am mistaken. The reshuffle is merely that, a reshuffle, to edge out the embarrassing mummies who drove the state-owned press into unprecedented professional lows and financial insolvency. Almost all of the “new blood” are cookie cutter successors handpicked by Nafie, Se’da, Ragab, and all the author dinosaurs, and so of course they are unknown, mediocre, and lend new depth to the term “sniveler.” One theory I heard is that they’re only “transitional” appointees who can be counted on to get the government through the coming critical electoral months.

But all that doesn’t matter. I would like to take this opportunity to send my condolences to Mr. Osama al-Ghazali Harb, who got passed over for the post of Ahram editor-in-chief, which went to veteran government collaborator Osama Saraya (he’s been a toady since his student days in the early 1970s). For the last three years, Harb has been strutting around in public proclaiming that he’s next in line for the position. It must hurt so bad to be beaten by a fifth-rate scribbler, ouch. But I wonder, could this explain Harb’s latest self-presentation as a dissident insider? (hiccup! excuse me). You see, for the past several weeks, Mr. Harb has been whipping up this smashing little story that he’s been sidelined because of his “no” vote on amending Article 76 in the Shura Council. Now, I don’t believe Mr. Harb’s story or anything else that flows out of his mouth or crappy pen, so I’m still trying to decipher his latest little ruse.

Bereft of any actual projects, proposals, or even wily schemes, the regime is resorting to none-too-subtle “signals” that it’s thinking of cracking down soon, and hard. See Muhammad Abdel Hakam Diyab’s Saturday column in al-Quds al-Araby last week, and Abdalla Sennawi’s surprisingly good take on this in al-Araby. Mohammed at Digressing reproduces Adel Hammouda’s column; Hammouda is the new regime emissary of choice after Makram Mohamed Ahmed has been summarily retired.

What Sort of Change?

That Egypt is changing is obvious, it’s the content of the change and its direction that has everyone wondering. I find it silly to proclaim things like: “Egyptian politics awaken from their half-century slumber” as the otherwise sharp Rami Khouri opined on June 18. Anyone who knows anything about Egyptian history knows that the past half century has witnessed tremendous changes; but who knows, maybe Khouri was merely going for dramatic effect. The question remains: what kind of change are we witnessing? It’s obviously not a change in basic social institutions, nor rapid economic change, nor a change in the structures of government. It seems to me the change is behavioural and ideological, and almost imperceptible. As the ligaments of government-citizen relations are worn down to the bone and frayed beyond repair, and articulate elites such as judges and university professors and journalists are forcefully criticising corruption and nepotism and repression and the president himself, there’s no doubt that most ordinary Egyptians are now wondering why they should support a government that has long ago ceased to provide for their basic needs. The question is whether the anger will morph into something larger and more focused. Do current events portend a paradigm shift in how Egyptians view political authority?

This is the big mystery, whether ordinary Egyptians, not simply articulate elites, will link their desire for a decent life to the basic idea that it’s their right to choose their rulers and hold them to account. The Youth for Change movement’s demos in Sayyida Zeinab, Shubra, Zeitoun, and Imbaba seem to me a wonderfully creative attempt to do just that, to drive home the necessary link between the right to a decent life and the right to choose public representatives. I don’t believe for a minute in the old canard that ordinary Egyptians care only about making a living. That was the bankrupt claim made by Gamal Abdel Nasser and others, and it’s utterly false. The task ahead of the pro-democracy movement is nothing less than weaving democracy into the fabric of everyday life, goading Egyptians to make the link between their lousy standard of living and the man in the presidential palaces with his corrupt retinue and wretched urban gendarmerie. Massive propaganda machines are devoted to severing just this link, but democrats are harping on it day and night. Bread and votes, employment and fair elections, affordable prices and freedom of assembly, good schools and press freedom, quality health care and a disciplined police force, decent public transport and no emergency law, good public services and clean parliamentary representatives. Who says we have to choose? And more importantly, why?


Egyptian history is full of instances where the worlds of high politics and ordinary citizens collided and fused. In June 1930, King Fuad dismissed Mustafa al-Nahhas and appointed Ismail Sidqi as Prime Minister. Sidqi promulgated a repressive new constitution that overturned the liberal 1923 document and strengthened the role of the King. Empowered by the new constitution, the hated Sidqi then proceeded to alienate nearly every sector of Egyptian society. One of his sillier moves was a snarky note to Safiyya Zaghlul demanding that she keep Beit al-Umma private “as is the case with other people’s abodes” rather than let it be frequented by persons who organise “manifestations.” As the Egyptian economy weathered the worldwide recession, Sidqi sparred with feisty and satirical newspapers, contentious students, uppity lawyers, debt-strapped and overtaxed fellaheen, and opposition politicians, seeking to pack the Penal Code with all manner of amendments to shut everyone up. His reign sparked a vibrant social movement demanding the return of the old constitution; the word “dustour” became the all-purpose catchword embodying the desire for a decent life and a democratic political process. See Salah Abu Seif’s great film al-Qahira 30 (1966) for the constitution-drenched discourse of the time. The King dismissed Sidqi in September 1933. Two years later, under mounting popular pressure, the notorious 1930 constitution was scrapped and the 1923 document restored.

Reflecting on the Sidqi years, British High Commissioner to Egypt Sir Percy Loraine wrote to London on December 2, 1933, “The palace thus now overshadows the administrative stage, and fear and dislike of this state of affairs have become general among Egyptians. It is no longer an academic question of different brands of constitutions, but it is a general realisation that, unless some means are found of checking King Fuad, Egyptians official and unofficial, must remain exposed to continual personal insecurity.” Loraine was spot-on in diagnosing the situation, but dead wrong in serving up this dangerous and utterly self-serving remedy. “There is little doubt that nearly all Egyptians now expect and would welcome a British intervention to put an end to this palace direction of affairs.” We still don’t know whether ordinary Egyptians today are linking their growing personal insecurity with unchecked presidential powers. But it's one drama worth watching.