Sunday, March 20, 2005

Not Enough

In an editorial shorn of its newfangled venom towards the Mubarak regime, the Washington Post for once rightly points out that Kifaya members (the Egyptian Movement for Change) were not thrilled by Mubarak's Feb. 26 announcement amending Article 76 of the constitution. Only regime hacks sang its praises (see the Court rhapsodists' effluvium on March 18 below). Independents and the opposition greeted the announcement with a mixture of dignified praise and anticipation of yet another round of political trickery. Ordinary Egyptians were even more doubtful. "President Mubarak will remain in charge, and everybody will keep playing their roles," said a 30-year-old gardener quoted in an excellent Los Angeles Times piece published on February 28.

It's worth lingering on this issue for a spell. What does Mubarak's announcement mean? A quick glance at what independents have been saying reveals that no one is taken in, and activists are demanding additional (and more fundamental) reforms. Nader Fergany in al-Araby says the real issue is a redistribution of socio-economic and political power, not theatrical "democratic" pronouncements. Muhammad Hammad writes that the era of presidents knowing what's best for Egyptians is over. "Prior to amending a single constitutional article, people are demanding an amendment of how the presidency is viewed," Hammad says. Salama Ahmed Salama in al-Ahram goes beyond Article 76 to raise meaty issues of election monitoring, ending emergency rule, and securing a transparent, official stance against torture. And head of al-Wasat Abul Ela Madi in al-Ahram Weekly critiques the requirements placed on potential presidential candidates but proposes an equally problematic alternative requirement that "serious" candidates gather 10,000 citizen signatures in at least 10 governorates. Finally, Huwayda Taha in al-Quds al-Araby has a probing piece on the extent to which Kifaya can garner the support of key social sectors such as the police, army and judiciary.

The only exception to the critical reception is the puzzling and disappointing official response of the Muslim Brothers. A statement on their website dated 20 March quotes General Guide Muhammad Mahdi Akef as saying the group is prepared to back Mubarak for a fifth six-year term if the (intensely Ikhwan-averse) president opens a dialogue with the Brothers and restores civil liberties. The statement seems to confirm what Ikhwan critics have always claimed about the group's expedience and willingness to trample on principle in exchange for recognition by the regime. I wonder what the Ikhwan's rank and file make of their General Guide's statement; the group is famously riven by diverse currents of opinion, and many Ikhwan members privately and publicly adhere to considerably more critical opinions than their leader.

A fascinating article in the 20 March issue of the respected literary weekly Akhbar al-Adab covers a meeting by disgruntled university professors discussing issues of university administration and reform, from the longstanding demand to elect faculty deans and university presidents (the latter currently appointed by the President of the Republic) to issues of research funding and methodology to the prospect of a university professors' professional association.

Meanwhile, al-Ahram reports NDP Secretary-General Safwat al-Sherif making some bizarre claims at something called the NDP's "election campaign training sessions," flanked by a stony-faced, apparently chastened Alieddine Hilal, former youth minister booted out in the July 2004 cabinet reshuffle. First, clearly in response to Egyptians' lack of enthusiasm for Mubarak's maneuver, the Secretary-General called for a "spirit of optimism" and counseled against following "those who seek to empty the President's initiative from its content." The article includes the following announcements:
  1. The referendum on amending Article 76 will take place in late May.
  2. Complete constitutional reform will take place at "the appropriate time" in appropriate doses that society can absorb.
  3. There is a commitment not to apply emergency law to the elections, candidates, and voters.
  4. On May 9, the rules governing candidates for president will be announced.
  5. We must distinguish between presidential and parliamentary elections; the former is the entire nation's campaign and the presidential candidate "belongs to the masses" and not to a specific party.
  6. The NDP is prepared for parliamentary elections by marketing its platforms reflecting dreams, reality, and the interests of the masses; [the platforms] are prepared by the NDP Policies Secretariat in a scientific manner.

Well, I'm relieved.