Middle East

Middle East

A Bolder Egyptian Opposition?

Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak waits for Arab leaders to land at Sharm el-Sheikh, Feb. 28, 2003 (Photo: Marwan Naamani/AFP).

Opposition to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government is getting louder and bolder. Public figures are more willing to trespass beyond the unwritten boundaries of political life. The economy is in dire straits. The Egyptian pound is sliding in value against the dollar and other foreign currencies, pushing up prices in a country that relies on subsidized basic commodities and a huge annual influx of U.S. aid. The ongoing Palestinian Intifada, the foreign occupation of Iraq, and Washington’s calls for democratic reform in the region have added to the climate of frustration. Fewer Egyptians in political life are prepared to play by the old rules of the political system that has kept the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in power since Mubarak became president in 1981.

Anger is also bubbling beneath the surface over signs that Mubarak might try to anoint his son Gamal as his political heir. As yet, Mubarak has no deputy, but Gamal has stormed onto the public stage in recent years, taking a lead role in the NDP and receiving extensive coverage from Egypt’s all-powerful and monopolistic state media. Egyptian journalists know they must be careful what they say about Mubarak, his family, and his closest friends. Rumor has it that the Egyptian human-rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s connections with the Mubarak family (he taught two of the Mubarak boys and knew the first lady) were no longer enough to protect him after he publicly criticized father-son presidential successions in the Arab world. When Ibrahim was imprisoned for eight months in 2001 on charges of sullying Egypt’s image abroad, it disabused journalists of any notions they might of had that restrictions on the press were loosening.

Still, sharper criticism is creeping back into public discourse in Egypt. On Oct. 22, Sonallah Ibrahim, a celebrated novelist whose novels were once banned, created a stir when he rejected the Supreme Council for Culture’s annual award for the Arab novel. Ibrahim took the podium and briefly but eloquently explained that he would not accept such an award—of 100,000 Egyptian pounds—from a government that “oppresses the people, protects corruption, and has weak foreign policy,” the independent weeklies Sawt al-Umma and Al-Osboa both reported on Oct. 27.

“I have no doubt that every Egyptian here is aware of the extent of the catastrophe facing our country. It’s not just the real Israel military threat to our eastern borders, the American dictates, or the weakness showing in our government’s foreign policy. It’s all aspects of life. We no longer have theater, cinema, or scientific research. We just have festivals, conferences, and false funds. We don’t have industry, agriculture, health, or justice. Corruption and pillage spread, and anyone who objects faces getting beaten up or tortured. The exploitative few have wrested our spirit from us,” he said. “All that’s left for me is to thank those who chose me for this prize, but to say that I won’t be accepting it...because it is from a government that, in my opinion, does not possess the requisite credibility to grant it.” As Ibrahim concluded, cheers, shouting, jeering, and whistles erupted, as Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni desperately called for order.

“The authorities in Egypt are using bans and confiscations, but they wear silk gloves when they do it,” Sawt al-Umma’s Wael Abdel-Fattah wrote in support of the famed novelist, one of the few who is translated into foreign languages. “Instead of supporting the project of the revolutionary general [former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser], it protects a bunch of narrow interests,” he wrote. “There is a difference, of course, between the way the state dealt with people in the 1960s and today, but what happened last Wednesday in the Opera House was an explosion of the repressed....Ibrahim’s was an act of bravery that reveals how weak the rest of us are—and that’s almost too painful to bear.”

Mustafa Bakry, editor of Al-Osboa, was also full of praise for Hazem Hilal, a student at the American University of Cairo (AUC) who played the role of secretary-general at the AUC’s annual mock Arab League sessions this year. Hilal told the assembly: “I don’t want to read from a written speech, I just want to say a few words that are dying to get out. I want to ask what the feeling is that all of us in this hall share tonight. I think it’s the feeling of lack of contentment—lack of contentment with everything. The situation in the country does not bode well: Everyone is sad, everyone is depressed, and even the Egyptian joke hardly exists anymore.” Bakry, a Nasserist writer, was inspired by the young man’s words: “We ask,” he wrote, “that all honorable people in Egyptian society stand up and, with one voice, tell President Mubarak about the demands of the people, that they tell him the truth about what’s happening, and that they express the feelings of the people clearly and honestly….Let’s build a social contract between all forces of society to save the nation, instead of leaving it prey to conspiracy and collapse.”

Among the reasons for this self-flagellation are the recent Israeli military operations in Rafah, on Egypt’s demilitarized Sinai border. On Oct. 10, the Israeli army began what it is calling “Operation Root Canal,” and began demolishing homes in Rafah, looking for tunnels Israeli intelligence fears may be used to smuggle shoulder-launched missiles across the border from Egypt. U.N. estimates released Oct. 14 put the number of people left homeless by the operation at 1,240. The Egyptian press routinely condemns Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza, but was particularly vehement this time around because when the Israeli government announced the operation, it also blamed Egypt for not doing enough to stop smugglers from spiriting weapons into Gaza.

An attack on Mubarak in the Oct. 17 online edition of the opposition Islamist weekly Al-Shaab showed how the once polite atmosphere in the country has soured. Editor Magdy Hussein—whose recently deceased uncle, the radical intellectual Adel Hussein, famously ran the banner headline, “Oh Mubarak, God is Greater,” after Mubarak won 98 percent of the vote in 1993—attacked Mubarak personally as a “criminal” for allegedly muting criticism of Israel in order to placate its ally, the United States.

“Mubarak has said he is obliged only to protect Egypt’s borders,” Hussein wrote in Al-Shaab, which has been banned as a broadsheet in Egypt since 2000. “Never mind that this talk is not constitutional, not Islamic, and not Arab. Time has proved that he who gives up on his brothers gives up on his land, his people, and his sovereignty. The Israelis have been continuously attacking Egyptian Rafah for three years, bringing down the roofs of houses, schools, and mosques. Egyptians have been killed by the Zionists there, including policemen, and the 40,000 residents of Egyptian Rafah have been living in terror for the past three years and are careful when they leave their homes because of the bullets and shrapnel flying around.”

Mention of the Sinai’s status is rare in the Egyptian press. Hussein’s uncle, Adel, brought it up in articles in 1995—and months later was detained for several weeks. At the time, commentators reckoned that his criticism of the demilitarization of Sinai was one of the reasons that led to his arrest.

“O people of Egypt, mobilize and end this shame/Get closer to God in the holy days [of Ramadan]/And raise your voice, calling for the departure of Mubarak,” Magdy Hussein intoned in mock lines of verse. “Is there no one who can tell him [Mubarak] how to end his service, that he should gather his clothes and papers together, and get out of the presidential palaces and rest-houses? Is there no one who can tell him that maybe the people won’t wait until 2005, as all free people demand free presidential elections, which should be readied immediately?” Hussein wrote. “Do you [Mubarak] think you will rule us forever? Do you think anyone will accept passing power through heredity?”

The explanation for why, as ever, the government appears to take what many Egyptians see as Israeli “provocations” lightly came on Oct. 26 from Rose al-Youssef, whose editor, Mohamed Abdel Moneim, is Mubarak’s former press secretary. “It is Israel’s most desired goal at the present critical moment to use world turbulence to its own advantage. But President Mubarak knows exactly what Sharon’s game is all about. He will not be drawn into emotional reactions, nor will he fall into any of the traps laid. Early on, the president has warned that there will never be a repeat of the 1967 experience. We believe this, and so should others. Should a war break out [between Israel and Egypt], it must be known that it will not be a safe one,” Abdel Moneim wrote.

In mid-October, Egypt’s usually circumspect Committee for the Defense of Democracy, a collection of opposition parties and civil-rights campaigners, issued a statement calling Egypt a “police state” after the Interior Ministry denied it a permit to march to a presidential palace in downtown Cairo and symbolically present Mubarak with a petition demanding greater freedoms. “The interior minister must resign since he cannot guarantee security for the planned rally, which would have brought only 1,000 people,” leading leftist writer Hussein Abdel Razek told reporters. The petition calls for a reform of the Egyptian Constitution to limit the president’s tenure to two terms while requiring that the head of state be elected by universal suffrage, rather than by a referendum on the People’s Assembly’s choice. Gamal Mubarak specifically said these ideas were off the agenda during a recent trip to the United States, his first at the head of an Egyptian business and political delegation that travels to Washington every year.

Thousands of public figures, academics, and representatives of professional associations have signed the petition, which has been circulating since May. Demonstrations are banned in Egypt under emergency laws in place since 1981, though they are tolerated on university campuses and in mosque compounds.

Last month, Mubarak, who will complete his fourth term in office in 2005, announced vague plans for democratization, including updated laws governing the activities of political parties. But Egyptians have heard it all before from Mubarak, who initially commanded respect for vowing not to seek a second term in office when the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat thrust him into office.

And though the Internet is heavily policed by the security forces (witness the legal action raised by prosecutors against Shohdy Naguib, the son of a famous leftist poet who published his deceased father’s poems online), sites based abroad have been spreading dissident messages. One, called mubarak.veryweird.com and run by a group calling itself the Free Egyptians, attacked Mubarak on the occasion of the last NDP conference in September: “Mubarak, who is unelected and ruling Egypt against the will of its people with iron and fire, is imposing his own son as new ruler against the will of its people. So Mubarak is at war with the Egyptian people. In that case, the Free Egyptians herewith declare war on Mubarak and his regime. We herewith give Mubarak until the end of August to step down or else we will resort to armed resistance to overthrow his fascist regime and bring its henchmen to justice.” Strong words.

Yet Mary Anne Weaver’s article on the conundrum of who will succeed Mubarak in the October edition of Boston’s Atlantic Monthly stood out for the fact that only one Egyptian spoke on the record against the idea of Gamal taking the reins. “I really don’t think Gamal is a serious contender for the presidency,” Hisham Kassem, civil-rights activist and publisher of the English-language, independent weekly Cairo Times, told Weaver. “His father must understand the danger of someone as green as Gamal inheriting the job. He simply wouldn’t survive. Perhaps three months, perhaps less, and then there’d be a countercoup, or Gamal would be placed under house arrest.” As with other major U.S. allies in the Arab region, Egypt’s authorities pay close attention to what is said about the country in the U.S. media. But those who insist on speaking out are determined to ensure that Gamal won’t be foisted on them without a fight.