Saturday, September 17, 2005

Of Ruses and Resistance

Now that Hosni Mubarak is safely installed as “the first elected president of Egypt,” we all have a right to wonder about the next steps. It’s no secret the man is ailing, weak, and no longer fully in control. And it’s old news that his son Gamal is a major powerbroker and may even be the de facto president, if word on the street and in political salons alike is to be believed. The Gamal Mubarak Project will surely rage on, perhaps with even more fervour in the coming months. But just as surely, it will continue to spawn ever bolder and more intrepid societal resistance. So it’s a wonder to me how the ruling family continues to blithely pursue this most execrable of ideas. Are they so cloistered from reality, so astonishingly oblivious? Or are they so intoxicated by their illegitimate power that anything seems possible? Perhaps, true to form, they’re just exceptionally brazen.

Whatever the cause, the project is already a failure. Not only has it not succeeded in normalising the outrageous and assimilating the indigestible. It has vastly augmented the public’s antipathy to the Mubaraks, though no doubt there are those who benefit from and thus look with favour upon a father-son presidency. It has subjected the president to heavy doses of societal scorn and derision, besting even the illustrious Sadat in a job at which he excelled. And it has crystallised powerful calls for trimming the president’s powers, limiting his terms to no more than two, and electing him by direct popular vote. If there’s one thing all of Egypt’s political class agree on today, it’s that the presidency must be disciplined and cut down to size. So, once again, it’s all about grandiose plans undone and base schemes uncovered. Call it the triumph of plebeian sense over patrician designs.

Plotting and Scheming

The Gamal Mubarak project has of course been with us since at least 2000, that is, since the ruling party’s resounding failure at the parliamentary polls. The much-hyped ostensible party housecleaning was the perfect political cover for Gamal’s mercurial rise. To add colour, Gamal and his people spun a neat little story about an entrenched “old guard” resisting an intrepid, reformist “new guard.” Credulous foreign audiences lapped it up, thanks in part to the loyal services of Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s ambassador to the U.S. and an exquisitely serviceable little toady. In reality, there is no ideological, Soviet-style struggle between two camps. “Old guard” stalwarts no longer useful to the regime have been shunted aside without so much as a whimper. Think of Yusuf Wali and his retinue, long thought to be an untouchable kingmaker. The old guard-new guard story fails to mask the obvious: a mere changing of the guard substituting crusty old bosses in ill-fitting suits with relatively young faces in more correct raiment…and marginally better English pronunciation.

Now that parliamentary elections are upon us again, it’s no surprise that the Gamal Mubarak spectre raises its minatory head, with even more gall. It’s never receded far from view: recall this infamous Tahrir Square billboard (right) back on September 10, 2004, showing Gamal bey with Egypt's Olympic Gold Medal winner in wrestling (the billboard was swiftly taken down right after). But today the regime has to tread extra-carefully, since the make-up of the next parliament is directly entangled with the selection of presidential candidates. As per the amendment of Article 76, any presidential contender from now on will have to come from a legal political party commanding 5% of parliamentary seats. What’s more, the party has to have been in existence for at least five years. Right, currently only the NDP fits the bill, and that is the point. But, if Gamal were to run in say one or two years when his father reaches 80 and becomes completely incapacitated, it would be most propitious if not mandatory to have a few “competitors” from recognised opposition parties to run “against” him and put on a good show.

So the ruling regime is now weighing the option of a mixed electoral law, combining individual candidacies with party slates, hoping that the latter will give opposition parties a boost to meet the 5% threshold. As for Gamal, there are several guises under which he could run. To learn these, we have to await the ruling party’s Congress later this month, to which it makes sure to invite foreign dignitaries and foreign media and to feed them some fine-sounding ideas. There we will see whether Gamal bey will be promoted, how, and to which position. Note that the Gamal Mubarak project does not hinge on the dauphin necessarily becoming president. The only requirement is that he remain at the commanding heights; under what cover is the question.

But let me not get lost in the details and neglect the obvious. The Gamal Mubarak project has never been anything more than a lustful bid to protect ill-gotten gains. The Mubarak family wants to ensure a successor loyal to it, one who will safeguard its secrets, nourish its primacy, and extend its ruinous control over the country. All that drivel about “New Thought” blah blah blah is just noise. And all those academic sycophants pretending that they believe in a new “reformist” project are so many rank prevaricators. I have no interest in entertaining their sputtering excuses and mealy-mouthed disquisitions. It goes against every precept of logic, to say nothing of veracity and decency, to sit around debating whether Gamal bey’s ideas are good or bad, or earnestly affirming that he really “cares” about “reform,” as his posse likes to circulate. Toz. How he parachuted down on our heads in the first place is the fundamental issue.


Exactly one year to the day after the above picture was taken, demonstrators took to the streets decrying Hosni Mubarak’s fake democratic legitimacy. On September 10, 2005, a motley crew made up of the Popular Campaign for Change (Freedom Now), Kifaya, Ayman Nour, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm, Muhammad Abdel Quddous, Youth for Change, et al marched in downtown streets railing against the presidential selection show. The ever-noble Kamal Khalil (with megaphone) revved up the crowds, flanked by some wonderful Hamla signs: “A law for the independence of the judiciary is the demand of all patriots!”, “Emergency law is the foundation of a corrupt regime!” And the extremely pithy, “The election is invalid, and the battle continues.” This is what Gamal Mubarak and his bunch must contend with. What are their responses, I wonder?

Resistance against tawrith (inheritance of power) fed and bled into resistance against tamdid (extending Mubarak’s tenure). An intense, bespectacled man deserves much of the credit for this linkage; on one occasion he nearly paid for it with his life. I confess that before 2002, I didn’t think much of Abdel Halim Qandil, classifying him as a rather defensive and shrill Nasserist. But exigent circumstances spawn unexpected metamorphoses. Between 2002 and 2005, Abdel Halim Qandil came into his own as Egypt’s most articulate, most clear-headed, and certainly most effective critic of the Gamal scheme. I don’t remember precisely when his Sunday columns became much-anticipated events, when friends asked, “Did you read Qandil today?!” and marvelled, “This man is committing suicide!” I do remember erupting in little temper tantrums when al-Araby was sold out by noon on Sunday. I can’t imagine what the week would be like now without Qandil’s electrifying intervention. By what strange turn of events does a slight, lapsed physician with a gifted, intrepid pen morph into one of the most formidable threats to la famiglia Mubarak?

Qandil’s brand-new book Against the President is one of the most important projects taken on by Merit , thanks to the discerning and committed publisher Muhammad Hashim. The book is a no-frills compilation of Qandil’s columns (no Table of Contents, for God’s sake!), from May 2000 to July 2005. He prefaces it with a characteristically concise, uncowed challenge, “This is my crime!” Here he puts to paper what he’d previously circulated only among friends: the constant pressures from regime emissaries on Diaa Eddin Dawoud, Nasserist party head, to tone down the newspaper’s line or have it closed. The sudden cancelling of Qandil’s daily column in the Qatari al-Raya, a perch he’d uneventfully occupied for nine years. Discomfort in high places from a certain appearance by Qandil on al-Jazeera. And the desperate coup de grace: the November 2004 kidnapping of the man by burly, suited thugs who left him naked on a deserted stretch of the Cairo-Suez highway, but not before pummelling and warning him to stop talking about “the big people.” What was that again about Mubarak “allowing” bold criticism in the press??

Reading Qandil’s columns in chronological order opens an extremely instructive window onto to the development of some pivotal ideas. And sets the record straight. Anyone who seriously claims that Mubarak called for amending Article 76 only in response to American pressure needs to reconcile that with some inconvenient facts. On May 4, 2003, at the height of anti-regime ferment on the streets in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq, Qandil wrote, “We want an elected president.” In his usual taut, crisp prose, he concluded, “We want an elected president for Egypt. The reason: Egypt is in danger, and change—now and not tomorrow—is the greatest wall of defence.” On July 6, 2003, he began his column, “Let’s be clear: al-Araby’s campaign against the passing of the presidency to Gamal Mubarak will not stop until an official, decisive refutation is announced.” When Hosni Mubarak proffered that refutation on New Year’s Day, 2004, Qandil shifted to the next pressing topic: “President Mubarak is capable of making history if he decides not to nominate himself to a fifth term,” (January 18, 2004). And so on in relentless fashion, along the way reviving a venerable Egyptian journalistic tradition of reasoned opposition to the powers that be, ever since the days of Ahmad Hilmi. Finally, not to be missed is Qandil's dedication to his mother, an extremely moving, even haunting piece that juxtaposes the reticent decency that she and and other ordinary citizens represent against the obscene schemes and abusive ploys of the powers that be.

Years from now, when we think back and remember the travesty that is the Gamal Mubarak project, we’ll surely and rightly count it among the biggest scams ever pulled on the Egyptian public. But we shouldn’t forget what it helped midwife: A feisty popular campaign against tawrith, some choice jokes at the expense of an underwhelming, ignorant, and exceptionally uninteresting little parvenu, and a remarkable consensus that hyper-presidentialism is a profound danger that must be rigorously checked and leashed, beginning with direct popular election. With their limitless faith in public relations and spin, what the Gamal people would like us to do is change the topic, focus on peripherals instead of fundamentals, get lost in the details and bicker over inanities. What history will record is their well-deserved comeuppance, at the hands of a sagacious and vigilant public standing up for some basic values: decency, truth, and the republic.

*Photos from AP and AFP. Book published by Dar Merit (2005).