Sunday, April 17, 2005

Kifaya reductionism, Kifaya gossip, Kifaya misrepresentation

With each passing day, the Egyptian regime seems less a tightly wound cabal issuing consistent policies and directives than a labyrinth of contending factions and organizations angling for supremacy and control. There's a long tradition in Egypt of reducing "the regime" (al-nizam) to not simply the executive branch but even more narrowly the president and his handful of advisers; cf. the endless speculations over Nasser and Abdel Hakim Amer, Sadat and his serial confidants/nemeses, Mubarak and Abu Ghazala, etc. Western "risk analysts" and pseudo-academics picked this up and elevated it to the status of dogma.

This was never accurate then, and definitely is not now. Even at the height of Nasser's super-presidency, Egyptian regime dynamics were ten times more variegated than these simplified images. If you want to believe that the regime is reducible to the president and his men, good luck explaining the ferment enveloping Egypt at least since the 2003 American invasion of Iraq if not before (I date it to the onset of the recession in 1999).

Instead, the regime encompasses not just the sprawling bureaucracy, overlapping security agencies, and other Executive branch bodies, but parliament and the judiciary, with their own institutional complexities. I'm not talking about how much real power these other two branches hold; everyone knows they're constitutionally dwarfed by the Executive. But over and over again in Egyptian history, under certain conditions when the Executive was under domestic and international stress, the politics of the other branches jump to center stage. And no wonder: political openings create room for new and old players. Parliament was a critical arena in 1950-51 before the fall of the monarchy; the judiciary was a key player in the post-1967 weakening of the Nasserist state; both branches took center stage in the last years of Sadat's increasingly erratic rule. At least since the 2000 ruling stipulating judicial supervision of elections, politics of the judicial branch took center stage in Egypt. Look no further than late last week.

On Friday came a fascinating inkling of the complexity of Egyptian regime dynamics. 1,200 Alexandria judges issued a statement threatening to boycott the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections if they don't have full oversight from A to Z, i.e. no medddling from security forces and Interior, no interference with voter rolls to include dead people and emigres, no bussing in of public sector workers, no intimidation of voters outside polling stations, no blockading of streets leading to polling stations, and on down the litany of abuses witnessed in the 2000 elections. Judges also reiterated their demand for a new law guaranteeing them autonomy (currently the draft bill is held up in some parliamentary committee). Middle East Online has nice coverage of the judges' meeting and who said what, including the scheduling of a May meeting in Cairo to include all judges to hammer out a consensus. The Financial Times got in on the act, but their breathless assertion that "The Egyptian government is facing an unprecedented challenge from the country's judges" is inaccurate (see below).

Importantly, elected head of the Cairo-based Judges Club Zakariyya Abdel Aziz attended the Alexandria meeting and said, "I am committed to executing all that comes out of this meeting." Judge Hossam al-Ghiryani said, "The beginning of any political reform must go through a strong independent judge. We want a truly independent judiciary through which we can protect freedoms and human rights, and the first of these rights is one's right not to have one's will falsified through rigged elections."

These brave judges had caused quite a stir several weeks ago, prompting The Supreme Council for the Judiciary to issue a statement on 12 April denying that judges were "in revolution" and affirming their "distance from working in politics." Judge Hossam al-Ghiryani in particular deserves special mention. He was the judge who issued the Cassation Court report invalidating the 2000 election results in al-Zeitoun, which is none other than Zakariya Azmi's district, and Azmi of course is Hosni Mubarak's chief of staff and point man in parliament. Needless to say, such a report was highly embarrassing to Mubarak and Azmi, and unbelievably gutsy on the part of Ghiryani. To the regime's rescue, in March 2004 the thoroughly tamed Supreme Constitutional Court issued a binding interpretation of the long-running dispute over who gets defined as a judge, with the effect of upholding Zeitoun's election results and overruling Ghiryani's verdict.

The upcoming May meeting of the judges in Cairo promises to echo the significance of the March 1968 meeting of the Judges Club. That historic meeting of course produced the famous declaration that the 1967 war was a result of domestic repression and absence of rule of law. For their efforts, leading judges who authored and signed the statement got sacked by Nasser in the "massacre of the judiciary" (madhbahat al-qada') in August 1968. Egyptian judges are part of the regime yet have always been nettlesome wild cards. Where do they fit in the caricatured conceptions of the regime as the president and his men?

Meanwhile, in the land of gossip and dish, hanger-on Mustafa Bakri runs down the options for the presidential elections. Now, Bakri has always been a loyal servant of his paymasters over at the Interior Ministry, dedicating the pages of his rag to character assassinations and inept innuendo about regime enemies of the month, so I'm not about to lend credence to anything that he says or writes. His gossipy piece last week is all agog with "three scenarios" based on unsourced and unidentified reports by "concerned agencies" and "American reports". Two of the "scenarios" concern the selection of General Intelligence chief Umar Suleiman as either presidential candidate or vice presidential candidate to Mubarak, while the third says the presidential candidate will be Gamal. Another (is this a fourth?) says Suleiman will be prez while Gamal will head the NDP, from which perch he'll contest the presidential elections in 2011. The article reads like a very strained attempt by Bakri to convince us that he's a regime insider in the know.

I don't know what game Mustafa Bakri and his brother Mahmud are playing, because the next issue of al-Osboa contains a hotly worded warning to the government by Mustafa entitled "Egypt is boiling!" and a hyperbolic salute to the dissident judges by Mahmud entitled "The Judges' Intifada". They want to play both sides: informed sources one week, government "critics" the next. How pathetic. I'm not good at deciphering innuendo and don't care to join the carnival of speculation about who's in and who's out in the corridors of power and which "journalists" have the ear of power and which don't. I'm inclined to see Mustafa and Mahmud Bakri's antics as crumbs thrown to public opinion and sensationalism to sell their worthless paper. No wonder all their good columnists left.

Finally, the Arab Reform Bulletin describes Kifaya as a "liberal" movement. What does this mean? Kifaya is a diverse umbrella representing all of Egypt's political sects. It's not "liberal", it's not "conservative," it's not "Nasserist", it's not "Wafdist", it's not "Islamist", it's not "communist," it's not "socialist". It's all of these, and much more. Kifaya meetings and protests welcome everyone, including the sizeable number of politically undecided and/or uncommitted Egyptians. Is that too much for the editors of the Bulletin to handle?