Egypt’s return of the “noble” outlaws

 
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By Bel Trew and Osama Diab

Three years after a revolution against Mubarak-era cronyism, fugitive tycoons are scrambling to buy back their freedom… at knock-down prices.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

As crowds packed streets throughout Egypt during the 2011 uprising that overthrew autocrat Hosni Mubarak, it wasn’t only the politicians and generals in Cairo who were scrambling to protect their interests. With the old regime teetering, business tycoons connected to the regime packed up their bags – and their billions – and fled the country.

One of them was Hussein Salem, who was nicknamed the “Father of Sharm el-Sheikh” for his ownership of multiple hotels in the coastal resort city. Salem made billions of dollars in the energy, arms, and hospitality industry in Mubarak’s Egypt – he was so close to the former president that the two even invested together, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy. It was a lucrative alliance for Salem: In the early 2000s, Mubarak granted him a monopoly over gas exports to Jordan, Israel, and Spain. Salem used this deal to sell gas at below-market rates for years, according to an Egyptian court ruling, costing the country more than $700 million.

Salem hasn’t been back to Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, and for good reason. As post-uprising Egypt looked to recoup the millions stolen by Mubarak and his cronies, a series of court cases focused on the corrupt business practices of Salem and his family. In October 2011, Salem – along with his son, Khaled, and daughter, Magda – were found guilty of making illicit gains on their gas sales, and sentenced in absentia to seven years in jail. In June 2012, he was convicted of selling gas to Israel at below-market prices, and sentenced in absentia to 15 years in jail, and ordered, along with other defendants, to pay $412 million in fines.

Salem, however, holds Spanish citizenship, which has allowed him to dodge the Egyptian legal system. He is now living in Majorca, Spain, and is wanted by Interpol along with his son and daughter. Spanish courts, however, have refused to extradite him to Egypt because the two nations do not have judicial or legal bilateral co-operation agreements and the courts’ uncertainty about the fairness of Egypt’s legal process.

But for the first time since Mubarak was toppled, Salem’s fortunes – and that of other Mubarak-era businessmen – may be shifting for the better. Since Egypt’s generals ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July, Salem said he has been ecstatic and is planning his return to Cairo, his lawyer Tarek Abdel-Aziz told FP. The billionaire Mubarak confidant phoned in to a popular television program in January to offer a deal to the new military-backed government: cancel my convictions and I’ll give Egypt millions.

Egyptian officials publicly welcomed the offer.

“Mr Hussein Salem and other noble businessmen … your initiative is really appreciated,” said Hany Salah, a cabinet spokesman, during the phone-in on local channel CBC. “Anyone who proposes a noble and good offer, then the least we can do is listen to him for the best of our beloved country.”

Since the overthrow of Morsi, Salah continued, Egypt is more open to initiatives of “reconciliation” – and he expects other Mubarak-era fugitive businessmen to propose similar deals. Reconciliation deals can either be reached by committees appointed by the prime minister and justice minister, or they can be brokered by the general prosecutor, who is appointed by the president.

Reconciliation, however, seems to mean little more than dropping corruption charges in exchange for cash. During another phone-in on 9 January, Salem offered the government a $3.6 million fund to boost tourism and repair police stations, churches and mosques in exchange for his freedom. That’s actually a drastic decrease compared to his pre-coup proposal: in May 2012, just before Morsi became president, Salem offered at least half his estimated $1.6 billion in wealth in exchange for settling the charges against him, according to Abdel-Aziz.

Three years after protests against the sort of business cronyism that gutted Egypt’s economy, the country is now considering turning to the very people who robbed the country for a financial bailout. Despite protesters’ widespread demands for social justice, post-revolutionary Egypt has witnessed precious few improvements: Transparency International ranks Egypt 114 out of 177 countries on its “Corruption Perception Index,” and its position has actually fallen since 2011.

The relationship between Mubarak-era business tycoons and the Egyptian government appeared to have been severed long ago, as the prosecutions targeting these businessmen were launched by the interim military government that followed Mubarak. But “reconciliation” could allow the new military-backed government to reestablish the same powerful networks of loyal businessmen that flourished under Mubarak.

The process “opens the door for more corruption and escaping justice,” said Ghada Ali Moussa, a political scientist who heads up the Governance Centre, a government agency dedicated to preventing corruption and advancing transparency. “[Salem's prospective reconciliation deal] will be an ideal prototype for others to follow.”

Other businessmen with ties to the Mubarak regime are also lining up their reconciliation offers. Mubarak’s minister of foreign trade and industry, Rachid Mohamed Rachid, is in similar talks with the government and is set to put in another offer, Moussa said. Rachid, who was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in jail and at least $330 million in fines for squandering public funds and profiteering, fled to Dubai during the 2011 uprising.

Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s consolidation of power could also increase Egypt’s willingness to cut reconciliation deals. While much normal government business has been on hold under the current interim government, a strongman in the presidential palace and a new parliament could change that.

“There will be a climate for such reconciliation to materialise,” Ibrahim el-Henedy, Egypt’s deputy justice minister and head of the Illicit Gains Authority, the body in charge of investigating corruption, told FP. “It’s all about the offer of reconciliation: which is better for Egypt, to reconcile or not?”

Even though Salem was “among the worst” of the country’s corrupt businessmen and has been ordered to pay some of the biggest fines, Henedy said, the government was still interested in striking a reconciliation deal.

Salem’s lawyer, Tarek Abdel-Aziz, also believes that the time is ripe to settle his client’s disagreements with the Egyptian government. He told FP he is working on an official reconciliation offer, which will be submitted to the authorities now that Morsi has been ousted. His client is “very optimistic,” the lawyer said.

“Now, thank God, there is an existing system that takes care of all Egyptians,” Abdel-Aziz said. “Today we have a new regime – hopefully a just regime that will move things forward.”

Abdel-Aziz denied that Salem was tied to Mubarak and said the charges were politically motivated. However, a leaked document from the Illicit Gains Authority shows that the Salems and the Mubaraks – together with other businessmen tied to the old regime – invested together in an offshore fund registered in the Cayman Islands, a Caribbean tax haven.

The investment fund, which was called the Egypt Fund, invested in 18 Egyptian companies in the cement, banking, real estate, steel, oil, food, and agricultural industries. The head of investor relations at EFG Hermes bank, Hanzada Nessim, wrote in an e-mail that her bank set up the Egypt Fund in 1997. When asked whether EFG Hermes was aware of the investors behind the fund, Nessim wrote that the bank was fully informed of the investors’ identities and that no allegations of wrongdoing had been levied against them at the time.

While Salem and Mubarak were not personally listed as contributors, the fund included companies owned by their children: Clelia Assets Corporation, owned by Khaled and Magda Salem, invested $3 million; and Pan World Investments Corporation, owned by Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, invested $250,000. The offshore fund would have provided significant tax breaks to its investors, as well as allowing them to shield their investments from prying eyes.

Salem not only bilked Egypt – he also stole from the United States. In 1979, his company, the Egyptian American Transport and Service Corporation (EATSCO), was granted a contract to ship military goods from the United States to Egypt. The deal came in the wake of the Camp David Accords, when US military sales started to flood in to Cairo, making shipping a potentially lucrative business.

Salem, however, tried to boost his profits by charging the US Defense Department for inflated shipment costs. Between 1979 and 1981, according to US court documents, EATSCO submitted false invoices for 34 shipments, which overcharged the Pentagon by $8 million. In 1983, Salem pled guilty to felony charges in the US District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia. The fines and civil claims settlements paid by Salem and the companies involved in the scheme totaled more than $4 million.

Most of Salem’s millions came from sweetheart deals in Egypt, where he received preferential treatment from his allies at the top echelons of government. In April 2011, Mubarak-era spy chief Omar Suleiman testified before an Egyptian prosecutor that Salem’s company, the East Mediterranean Gas Company, was handed the monopoly over gas exports to Israel, Jordan, and Spain in the early 2000s, bypassing the usual bidding process. Suleiman was asked to testify as Egypt’s intelligence services were allegedly involved in brokering the gas deals.

Suleiman said Salem had been friends with Mubarak for more than 20 years, and that his experience in business dealings with Israel was the reason he was chosen for the deal.

“[Salem] had dealt with the Israelis before with MIDOR,” Suleiman said, referencing Salem’s time as chairman for the Middle East Oil Refining Company, an Israel-Egyptian project established in 1993 to build a joint refinery on the North coast of Egypt and to extend an oil pipeline to Israel.

Seven years later, Salem sold 37% of the East Mediterranean Gas Company for $4.2 billion, according to the Israeli business news website Globes.

It’s not hard to see why Salem is pushing so hard for reconciliation. If Egypt refuses to cut a deal and negotiates an extradition agreement, it could win back his frozen assets in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Spain. The extradition would allow Egypt to convict Salem in person, and many countries – including the ones where Salem stashed his wealth – require such a final verdict if they are to return his stolen assets.

If successfully extradited back home, Salem would also be obliged to pay more than $4 billion in fines and restitution, and he would serve 22 years in prison based on his combined sentences by Egyptian courts.

A reconciliation deal, on the other hand, would not only place Salem back in the good graces of the Egyptian government, it would also effectively end foreign investigations into whether his wealth is the result of illicit gain.

“It would be very difficult for the Swiss authorities to continue prosecution against Hussein Salem if the Egyptian authorities drop any charges against him,” said Olivier Longchamp, officer for international financial relations at the Swiss NGO Berne Declaration. “Money can only be seized if it has been proven to be of illegal origin.”

Now, three years after a revolution against Mubarak-era cronyism, Salem appears closer to his goal than ever before. In an ironic turn, he is now hailing the military-backed government for combating the same underhanded business dealings of which, for many Egyptians, he is the symbol. As he put it in January, “the era of corruption and injustice is gone now.”

This feature first appeared in Foreign Policy on 7 February 2014. It is republished here with the authors’ consent.

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Egypt’s rebels without a pause

 
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By Khaled Diab

The failure of Egypt’s new leaders to address the needs and aspirations of young people means the revolution will not stop until there is real change.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has set his successors a hard act to follow… he managed the remarkable feat of going from hero to zero in little more than 24 hours.

After days of escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence that threatened to spill over into a full-blown war and even a wider regional conflict, Morsi bucked the expectations of doubters and succeeded in brokering a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza, eliciting a freak chorus of praise from all sides of the trenches: from Hamas, Israel, many Egyptians and even the United States.

The acclaimed ceasefire, which avoided the death, destitution and destruction of the Gaza war of 2008/9, went into effect on Wednesday 21 November. Rather than rest on his laurels for a while and bask in the glory of Egypt’s minor diplomatic victory – which highlighted and underscored the power of diplomacy over violence – Morsi decided to seize the moment.

No sooner had the Israeli missiles and Palestinian rockets fallen silent than the Egyptian president decided to drop a massive political bombshell on the home front. A day after the ceasefire, on November 22, Morsi delivered a declaration which effectively immunises him and the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly – which then hurriedly approved Egypt’s controversial draft constitution pending a referendum – from legal challenges from the judiciary or opponents.

Although Morsi insisted his move was a temporary measure, which would last only as long as it took for the new constitution to enter into force, and was designed to “protect the revolution”, opposition figures and revolutionaries were unconvinced, describing the President’s ambitions as being that of a “new pharaoh” and the declaration as a “coup against legitimacy”.

Many in Egypt saw the timing of this move as more than just a coincidence, with some going as far as to suggest that Morsi had received a nod and a wink from visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to launch his bid to become Egypt’s new, American-backed dictator-in-chief.

We do politics differently now

Although Washington seems to look favourably on Morsi as the lesser of many evils for American regional interests, what seems the most likely is that the Egyptian president decided to reward himself for his success and prematurely cash in on his unexpected moment of popularity both within and outside Egypt by indulging in an impulsive act of flagrant opportunism – which has backfired spectacularly.

But even if the president has now, under immense popular pressure, reversed his decree, though not many of its rulings, he betrayed a seriously flawed understanding of the republic of which he has become the first democratically elected leader: the majority of Egyptians did not vote for dictatorship, and the Egypt that accepts autocracy is, like the past, a foreign country: we do politics differently now.

Most Egyptians, particularly the youth who spearheaded the revolution, no longer have the stomach for a “new pharaoh”, especially after all the sacrifices they have made to win their freedom (even if it is only partial, for now), and have developed a strong appetite for greater people power.

That is why Morsi’s attempt to impersonate ousted former president Hosni Mubarak was met by widespread contempt, opposition and anger… and in that longstanding Egyptian tradition, mockery and humour, such as the teenage protesters who placed a surgical mask on a statue in Cairo of Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, presumably to protect his bronze eyes and lungs against the stinging, suffocating effects of teargas.

Since the fateful decree, millions of Egyptians have poured out on to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Mahalla and other towns and cities across the country to protest Morsi’s actions and the referendum, slated for Saturday 15 December, on the draft constitution which reformist Egyptians see as undemocratic and non-inclusive.

So many protesters came out to reoccupy Tahrir that one wit demanded the expansion of the world-famous square in anticipation of future missteps by the Egyptian president.

And in scenes reminiscent of Mubarak’s final days, the crowds chanted: “The people want to bring down the regime”, and vowed that they would not vacate the square until their demands were met. “Morsi has done in less than five months what it took Mubarak 30 years to achieve. With this latest move, he has messed up big time,” one young Egyptian diplomat observed. “I think his days are numbered.”

The new wave of protests has led to speculation as to whether Egypt’s stalled revolution has resumed. To me, it looks like we are entering the third phase of revolt: the first was against Mubarak, the second against the generals who replaced him, and now people are regrouping to take on Morsi and his Islamist cohorts.

Revolutionary generation

To many, the battle lines in the current standoff are between Egypt’s new Islamist rulers and the disgruntled secular opposition who had started the revolution but were apparently unable to finish it. While this Islamist-secularist division is partly true, it oversimplifies an extremely complex situation of overlapping alliances and rivalries.

Other battle lines include pro-revolution versus anti-revolution, rich-poor, women-men, democratic-autocratic, neoliberal-progressive, socialist-conservative, etc. Throughout nearly two years of upheaval and change, one of the most constant divides has been a generational one, between the more privileged older strata of society and the more marginalized youth. This is reflected in every opposition movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose younger, more liberal, pro-revolutionary members broke away from the anti-revolutionary elders last year to join their fellow revolutionaries on the streets and squares of Egypt.

As was the case in February 2011 against Mubarak and in November 2011 against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), though people of all backgrounds and ages were out on the streets, the bulk of the protesters were young. “I just want to say how brave these young kids are,” one protester, Ahmed, said upon returning from Tahrir Square. “Not even the choking tear gas was able to stop them from fighting for their freedom.”

The predominantly youthful nature of the protests is a natural by-product of Egypt’s young population – with more than half of Egyptians born after Mubarak came to power in 1981 – and the ongoing marginalisation of young people by the establishment, whether official or opposition. Although many young Egyptians have found success in all walks of life, politically they still occupy the fringes, leaving the main arena open to them the democracy of the street and the utopian possibilities raised by the egalitarian, if short lived, tent Republic of Tahrir last year.

“I believe Egypt’s political revolution is the product of Egypt’s ‘social revolution’,” says Nael Shama, an Egyptian political researcher and columnist. “This young generation is very dynamic and rebellious. They break taboos, revolt against prevailing institutions, norms and mindsets, and heavily assert their presence in public spaces, which usually puts them on a collision course with the official establishment.”

Although it is true that the Egyptian revolt started in January 2011 on the back of its sister revolution further west, events in Tunisia really only provided the spark of hope and inspiration required to trigger the chain reaction which shifted the existing movements for democratic and revolutionary change from the margins of Egyptian society right to its very heart.

During the decade preceding the revolution, calls for change were gathering pace, as reflected in the greater daring civil society and the opposition exhibited towards Mubarak and his men. In a society where criticising the president was once tantamount to political sacrilege, and like cardinal sins carried hefty consequences for the “sinner”, it was remarkable that an entire political movement existed, Kefaya (Enough), which united activists of all political stripes under the single platform of openly demanding that Mubarak step down. It even forced him, in 2005, to organise Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election, even if it was hardly free and fair, and this was an early sign of radical change in the making.

Even though Kefaya’s leadership, like much of Egypt’s established opposition, was dominated by older secularists, it had a strong youth element. Moreover, young people came into their own when they pushed beyond the consensus position of the opposition – which called for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and rejected Gamal Mubarak’s suspected plans to take over power from his father – and set up a movement to agitate for more far-reaching social and economic justice. For example, the 6 April Youth Movement, which is credited with being one of the main driving forces behind the 25 January revolution, was originally established, in the spring of 2008, by young activists, most of whom were well-educated and had not been political beforehand, as an expression of solidarity with striking textile workers in Mahalla al-Kubra.

Moreover, the revolution of the mind, which had been building up gradually in the years prior to the revolution and which exploded in the regime’s face in January 2011, was nowhere more apparent than among youth, who have surpassed their elders in their confidence and courage and their determination to overcome the traditional fear and deference which has paralyzed Egyptian politics and society.

When people think of politically conscious and active youth, their minds tend to wander towards universities, and despite the Mubarak regime’s studious efforts to depoliticise Egyptian student life and the many years of apathy and indifference this spawned, campuses played, as they had in the anti-colonial period, a crucial role in young people’s political formation.

But the radicalisation of youth did not stop at the university gate. Despite or perhaps because of the poor education Egyptian public schools generally provided and their reputation for creating conformity in young minds, Egypt’s state-run school system was unwittingly producing a generation of politicised youth under the regime’s radar, as groundbreaking research carried out by Hania Sobhy of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), convincingly demonstrated.

And this rebellion and disaffection is hardly surprising, given the non-curricular lessons on class, youth exclusion, corruption, arbitrary and harsh punishment and the importance of connections and nepotism pupils receive in school. “The school gives very practical and concrete citizenship lessons to children, lessons about their differentiated entitlement to rights,” describes Sobhy.

One boy who spoke to Sobhy demanded portentously: “To fix things, everyone has to be removed…We need all new people.” As a foretaste of what was to come, less than a month before revolutionary fever gripped the entire country, pupils at semi-private state schools known as national institutes went on strike and organised sit-ins and marches in opposition to a ministerial decree they believed threatened their schools.

The sport of revolution

But perhaps the most surprising breeding ground for revolutionary fervour was not the education system, but sport. Around the world, football fans are rarely associated with politics, and soccer, in fact, has traditionally been regarded as a tool for channelling disaffection and discontentment into harmless club loyalty. But in a country where the government had managed to shut down all outlets for youth discontentment besides the mosque and (later) the internet, many of those who did not find Islamism appealing turned the stands of their favourite football clubs into political salons.

The Egyptian Ultras, as these politicised supporters are known, have truly put the fanatic, in the most positive sense of the word, back into fan. As someone who only has a passing interest in football and finds the petty tribalism of fan culture unappealing, the passion, commitment and courage of the Ultras during the 18 days it took topple Mubarak, and the vital role they played in holding on to Tahrir during the infamous “Battle of the Camels”, has filled me with a great deal of respect for these young idealists.

And the Ultras’ willingness to put their lives on the line for the cause of freedom has helped sustain and revive the revolution when it looked set to falter amid harsh repression. “I think the battles and clashes have kept the revolution alive, in the sense that they materialised the feeling, which persists, that there is still something to fight for (both in the pessimistic sense of ‘we’re not there yet’, and in the sense of not giving up hope),” observes Alya El Hosseiny, a 23-year-old Egyptian graduate student.

But it would be a mistake to think of the Ultras as simply urban warriors, as I discovered for myself at one of their sit-ins. The protest was well-organized and self-policed, and the participants were good-humoured despite their obvious anger at the lack of progress. They sang and danced to a whole repertoire of newly coined revolutionary songs, from the thunderingly defiant to the mockingly ironic. In one sarcastic song, they advised fellow citizens “Keep your head down, hang it low, you live in a democracy, you know.” Given the machismo of football, the Ultras themselves are all men, but there were also plenty of women in the crowd, from the hip and modern to the hip and traditional.

And the longer things change without really changing, the more the aspirations for change will grow. Mubarak and the generals of the SCAF have already learnt this lesson the hard way, but the Islamists are intent on repeating the same errors: the more they try to suppress and contain Egypt’s new revolutionary spirit, the wider it spreads. In fact, the sustained campaign to put the brakes on the revolution has only widened resistance to the previously unpoliticised and the even younger.

“What we’ve seen [in the latest confrontations] are very young people, including children, fighting the police,” says Wael Eskandar, a Cairo-based journalist who follows the revolution closely. “Not all of them are particularly aligned with what we think is the revolution, but such a generation is learning not to accept the status quo and to revolt against injustice.”

A revolution in search of a leadership

Over the past nearly two years, so much change has taken place that there are those, in Egypt and beyond, who wonder why there are still such large-scale protests, especially amongst the young. Not only has Mubarak been removed and the army increasingly sidelined, but Egyptians got to go to the ballot box to select their first ostensibly democratically elected parliament and president.

Part of the reason is that much of the change has been superficial and has not delivered the fundamental freedom, equality and economic opportunity young Egyptians yearn for. “The youth revolts but the leadership is still ancient. The youth want change yet the leaders cannot walk away from their comfort zone,” says Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian writer, broadcaster and blogger.

“Young Egyptians have more than once demonstrated that their aspirations are greater than the elite, that their vision is more farsighted, and that they are more willing to sacrifice for the cause,” echoes Nael Shama. “It looks as if the young live in a different time zone from the one within which the largely conventional political elite operates.”

In the eyes of many young revolutionaries, Egyptians have so far effectively substituted one set of fossilized leaders for another. The former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of the semi-autocratic Mubarak years has made way for the authoritarian-inclined Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and the wannabe-dictator Mohamed Morsi – with the only key difference being that one leaned more towards secularism, while the other is inclined more towards religion – but Egypt has changed, so its new rulers do not have the same room for manoeuvre as their predecessors.

Moreover, though young Egyptians started the revolutionary juggernaut rolling and arguably suffered the greatest pain for the revolution, they have seen precious few gains to date. Not only have they been largely excluded from the official political landscape by their elders, the country’s new leadership has shown little interest in empowering the very people who brought them to power, beyond paying lip service to their courage.

To add insult to injury, Egypt’s draft constitution – which is a wonderful document if you happen to be a conservative, middle-aged, male Muslim – takes a patriarchal and paternalistic attitude not only towards women but also young people, despite its insistence that Egypt’s is a “democratic regime” based on “equal citizenship”.

Joining the political party

Part of the reason for the continued relative disenfranchisement of young people, as well as secular revolutionaries in general, is their lack of political experience in comparison with the savvy veteran Islamists. This was compounded by the divisions and rivalries within revolutionary ranks, eloquently and tragically expressed in the splintering of the April 6 Youth Movement into two rival groups.

“At the beginning, young people had a clearer vision of what they wanted, which was to topple Mubarak and the old regime, and see some change in the country,” notes Lamia Hassan, a young journalist and filmmaker based in Cairo. “But as soon as this was over and the revolution was first hijacked by the military then later by the Islamic groups, the youth started to lose their way a little bit and were less [certain] about what they had to do to keep it alive.”

The reason for this disarray is partly due to the failure of a clear leader or group of leaders to emerge to steer the revolution. While the leaderless nature of the early uprising was a key factor in its success because it made it almost impossible for the regime to shut the revolt down, this one-time asset has turned into a liability.

“Yes, it’s the revolution of youth and the Egyptian people but they do not have a leader – an agreed upon leader. But the country needs a president and a whole cabinet of revolutionary leaders,” asserts Rakha. “In the 1952 coup, the officers had a president, a cabinet, and an array of consultants ready to replace the toppled king and his entourage. The 1952 revolution was disastrous on many fronts but at least they got that part right,” she adds.

To move out of the current intergenerational impasse, young revolutionaries need to become better organised and politically savvy, not just at toppling regimes but at building a new and better state for all Egyptians. In addition, the new political elite must realise that their future and that of Egypt’s is in the hands of young people, and so they must start sharing power with and creating opportunity for the new generation.

“To be effective, and even to survive, political forces (both old and new) need to understand the youth and incorporate their ideas and visions into their political doctrines and plans of action,” concludes Shama.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This essay first appeared in the Palestine-Israel Journal on 13 December 2012 and was set to appear in its special print edition on the younger generation.

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Opposing the Egyptian opposition

 
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By Osama Diab

The ornamental ‘official opposition’ in Egypt is as dangerous as the authoritarian regime itself.

Thursday 13 October

Even though I was quite clearly no big fan of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, I wasn’t very keen on any of the official opposition during his era either and I never saw any of these parties as a viable alternative to his rule. The reason I describe it as the “official opposition” is to distinguish it from the movements and people who contributed greatly to shaping a new, more dynamic Egyptian political scene and have emerged from outside the traditional political parties and organised political groups.

The perceived lack of alternatives was not indicative of an actual absence. The ineffectiveness of the opposition wasn’t an accident or a pure coincidence, it was a deliberate strategy of the Mubarak regime which always endeavoured to purge any meaningful opposition from the political scene.

For Mubarak, what was more important than choosing his ministers and consultants was selecting those who, on paper, stood against him and his ruling party. In order for the opposition to serve its purpose as deemed by the regime, their leaders needed to be dull, highly uncharismatic, distant, lacking in vision and, most importantly, unwilling in any way to challenge his authority.

Mubarak’s tamed and carefully selected opposition – regardless of its position on the political spectrum – used to praise his wisdom in running the country day and night. Some presidential candidates in the 2005 election, such as the leader of the miniature Ummah party Ahmed al-Sabahi – a 90-year-old spring chicken at the time who insisted that everyone call him Mr President and vowed to reintroduce the fez – even went as far as to say that he would vote for Mubarak because he found him to be the best candidate.

This opposition, knowing no other role, are still prisoners of this subservient ‘court jester’ mentality. Even though Egypt has seen radical changes and a revolution, they seem to be programmed to serve the same purpose with any ruler. They are now serving the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in the same way they served and were loyal to Mubarak.

After SCAF’s meeting last week with political parties led by al-Wafd and the the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, the political parties signed a document in which they “declared their full support for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and their appreciation of its role in protecting the revolution”.

This also explains why the real opposition and revolutionary forces were not invited to the meeting. The youth movements, such as the 6 April Youth Movement, which was the real driving force behind the revolution, were not invited because their radical mentality makes it obvious they won’t settle for a few cosmetic concessions in return for a few seats in parliament. They are also more likely not to recognise the SCAF as Egypt’s legitimate rulers.

Al-Wafd, the Brotherhood and other forms of official opposition have a long history of abandoning the struggle in return for a few parliamentary seats or even just the permission to exist, and some are infamous for striking deals with successive regimes. New youth revolutionary groups are yet to be corrupted, but until this happens, they will stay unrecognised and uninvited by the SCAF and any authoritarian ruler. I still remember when the former heir apparent Gamal Mubarak mocked a man who dared to ask him, when he still had a senior position in the National Democratic Party, if he was willing to engage in a dialogue with opposition youth groups.

Most of the parties which met with the SCAF to discuss the future of the country did not play an active role in the sweeping revolution, some even actually worked against it, while others were cautious participants who steered clear of the front line. The Brotherhood and other official opposition parties did not risk officially joining the revolution until they were sure Mubarak’s days in power were numbered, and only then did they decide to jump opportunistically on to the revolutionary bandwagon.

Just like the previous regime, SCAF want a malleable opposition they can control . It seeks an opposition that will help them stay in power rather than compete with them for power, and that is willing to abandon its ideals for representation in parliament. In short, what the SCAF wants is an opposition they can trust.

The SCAF has made clear its intentions that it is here to stay, and by signing this document the official opposition helped the generals to anchor their position as the long-term rulers of the country, rather than its interim leadership for the six-month transitional period like they promised after the revolution.

I am sceptical that the official opposition under the Mubarak regime which has now switched to admiring the emperor’s new clothes can deliver any meaningful change. Though it calls itself the opposition, it is actually an integral component in the survival of a corrupt political system many are working hard to reform or remove.

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The fall of Egypt’s symbol of progressive Islam

 
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By Osama Diab

 Joining itself with an authoritarian regime caused harm to the millennium-long history of al-Azhar University.

Thursday 12 May 2011

al-Azhar in Cairo. ©Khaled Diab

“[Egypt] didn’t change the basic tenets of Islam, but its cultural weight gave Islam a new voice, one it didn’t have back in Arabia. Egypt embraced an Islam that was moderate, tolerant and non-extremist.” With these words, Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, gave his last statement about Islam, after decades of being on the death lists of extremist Islamist groups and an assassination attempt in 1994.

The moderate Islam that Mahfouz was referring to had a protector and a promoter: al-Azhar University. Throughout its long and proud history, al-Azhar had remained unrivalled as the prime centre of Islamic teaching, attracting millions of Muslim students from all over the world to its campus in Cairo. Many of the most notable liberal reformists in Egypt’s history, especially in the 19th century, were Azhar graduates. Tolerance and not getting too involved with state affairs have been central to its teaching for centuries.

The father of Islamic modernism, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, a 19th-century scholar and an Azhar graduate, saw no contradiction between Islamic thought and ideologies drawn from the European Age of Enlightenment. He studied in France and, on his return to Egypt, he worked at modernising the country, calling for liberal reform in the Muslim world.

Mohamed Abduh followed in al-Tahtawi’s footsteps, urging open dialogue with European civilisation and the reformation of Islamic thought, arguing that Muslims can’t rely on medieval interpretations of religious texts. He also argued for the secularisation of Muslim countries. Both scholars spoke European languages fluently and wrote positively about their experiences in Europe.

My fatwa against yours

However, it seems that slowly this progressive form of Islam is being replaced with a more radical Salafist ideology, one that blatantly calls for a return to the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, who lived more than 1,400 years ago. Salafi Islam is considered Muslim orthodoxy at its strictest, and is influenced by the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahab, an 18th-century Muslim theologian whose radical ideas still shape how the Saud family runs its kingdom today. Evidently, al-Azhar in Egypt is falling prey to ideologies funded and encouraged from across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking to al-Youm al-Sabei newspaper, Mahmoud Ashour, the former deputy of al-Azhar, said that the Salafist ideology has infiltrated the university. He blamed the phenomenon on young Egyptians’ feeling that society is unjust and their refusal to believe what they are told without experiencing reform on the ground, the paper reported.

A few months ago, in reaction to news of the rising influence of Salafi ideology within the walls of the university, the president of Tajikistan recalled 134 students he had sent to study at al-Azhar.

The clash between the two credos, Salafism and moderate Islam, reached its peak in 2009 when Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, a former sheikh of Azhar, called for a ban on the niqab – the full face veil – inside schools. The growing popularity of the niqab is a manifestation of the growing ascendancy of Salafi ideas among young Egyptians. Protests and sit-ins held by face-veiled students broke out, not just at al-Azhar, but at many other universities across the nation, all protesting against the cleric’s declaration.

Another collision took place when the Azhar Scholar Front (ASF), which was dissolved in 1999 after rejecting some of the fatwas issued by Tantawi, restarted its activities unofficially from Kuwait in 2007. The ASF is now considered attractive for those who split from al-Azhar due to opposing views, and usually adopts more radical positions, such as the ASF’s call a few months ago for an economic boycott of all Egyptian Christians as a riposte to an alleged kidnap by churchmen of a Coptic woman who had converted to Islam. Declarations of conflicting fatwas and heated exchanges have been common since the ASF was informally re-established.

But another reason why many have turned their back on al-Azhar’s ideology and fallen prey to more radical views is al-Azhar’s close association with the former president Hosni Mubarak and his increasingly disfavoured authoritarian regime, which many think has impoverished Egyptians.

The appointment of the sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the world, was the gift of Egyptian leaders by presidential decree. The sheikhs were usually loyal to the presidential palace and hardly ever issued fatwas that would go against the regime’s will or policy.

Chief whip of journalists

Tantawi was also notorious for his tailored fatwas to “Islamically” back up some of the regime’s actions, such as supporting the building of an underground wall on the border with Gaza and prohibiting anti-government street protests.

He also famously called for the “whipping” of journalists who publish false reports, after the appearance of a 2007 article by Ibrahim Eissa, a former editor of al-Dostour newspaper, questioning Mubarak’s health and the future of the presidency in Egypt.

What’s more, the recently appointed new sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, was a member of the policy committee in what used to be the ruling National Democratic Party. The policy committee division of the NDP was led by Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son.

This kind of co-operation with Mubarak’s regime is what made al-Azhar lose credibility. Paradoxically, it also made it easy for other, more radical Islamic groups, which were usually in conflict with the unpopular regime, to “infiltrate” the influential university.

At this critical phase, Egypt needs al-Azhar as a defence wall against extremist ideologies, to promote a culture of peace, progression, citizenship and dialogue with the West, and to thwart a rising Salafi influence that incites nothing but regression, hate and violence, clashing with and discriminating against the other. Egypt and the entire Muslim world, now more than ever, are in desperate need of enlightened scholars such as al-Tahtawi and Abduh to move it forward to modernity, instead of attempting to take us back to a 7th-century culture.

This article first appeared in the New Statesmanon 7 April 2011. Published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.


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Egypt Hires PR firm to revamp its image

 
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 By Osama Diab

A picture is worth a thousand words, but a doctored picture is a scandal that can be worth a thousand articles to cover.

Saturday 6 November 2010

A few weeks ago, the state-run al-Ahram newspaper was severely slammed by local and international media for falsely suggesting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was leading the peace talks by faking a picture taken during the peace talks between Israel and Palestine in Washington.

In its quest to improve its image, Egypt’s government is doing more than just moving President Mubarak around pictures. The government recently hired the major U.K. public relations firm Bell Pottinger to better deliver its message to an international audience.

The decision to seek PR help is due to the government’s discontent over the way Egypt’s regime is portrayed in Western media. Abdel Moneim Saeid, al-Ahram’s chairman, pointed his finger at everyone except himself, his publication and the regime he represents in a statement about the media’s reaction to the doctored picture. He explained that the attack on al-Ahram was partly due to the West’s thirst for sensation.

Saeid should know that what he thinks is an overreaction to an altered photo is in fact a frustration over a newspaper that’s been defending a regime many perceive as lacking legitimacy. The incident was first discovered by Egyptian blogger Wael Khalil and was mainly mocked by Egyptians and Egyptian newspapers, not the Western media. But it seems like the regime cares more about its image beyond its borders than at home.

This attack on al-Ahram is not only due to the West’s thirst for sensation; the condition of human rights in Egypt has deteriorated in the past few years. According to Heba Morayef, a Human Rights Watch researcher on Egypt and Libya, there has been an increase in the number of arrests of dissidents, crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, and an increase in the number of arrests due to religious beliefs. “The Egyptian government knows that the world will be closely watching Egypt at this time and also that there will be a lot of human rights violations in this election year,” Morayef said.

A Bell Pottinger representative denied that the hiring has anything to do with polishing up the regime ahead of the 2011 presidential elections where many expect Gamal Mubarak to “inherit” power from his father. She explained to me through an email correspondence that they have been appointed by the government of Egypt to review the ways in which the government communicates with the international media and to advise on how to get the government’s messages better understood internationally.

“Like many other countries, Egypt faces some serious problems, but the government has made real progress in recent years in introducing political and economic reforms and has many achievements to its credit, which have not always been properly communicated to the world at large,” says the Bell Pottinger representative.
Egypt is also publicly a client in a few other lobbying firms in Washington. The Livingston group lists Egypt as a client on their website. Livingston was also hired by Libya to improve Libyan President Muammar al-Qadhafi’s image in Washington before they ended their contract with Libya on the eve of al-Qadhafi’s visit to Washington.

Other than Egypt and Libya, other presidents who are also rumored to have plans to inherit power to their sons seek PR help from Western agencies. Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich country known for very high levels of corruption and a hard-hearted dictatorship, sought the help of the Washington-based Cassidy & Associates for $120,000 per month to re-brand the West African country as a new democracy. The PR efforts seemed to pay off when the president of the West African state was called a good friend by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on his first visit to the United States two years after they hired Cassidy & Associates. Equatorial Guinea is ranked 168 out of 180 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index.

President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe also signed a $400,000 contract with a Canadian publicist Ari Ben-Menashe to again fix his regime’s hurt image abroad.

It is clear why some authoritarian regimes use different ways to support their image rather than achieving real progress on the ground. Presidents in their 70s and 80s who have been in power for three or four decades know democracy and fair elections would probably put their rule at risk. Cosmetic changes are easier than legitimate political reforms.

Instead of Egyptians’ tax money going to hospitals, roads and schools, it goes to building huge state security apparatuses to thwart any attempt for change, funding media outlets that are becoming increasingly unpopular, and to PR and lobbying firms to convince the West that some progress is actually happening.

 This article was first published on Worldpress.org on 21 October 2010. Republished here with the author’s permission. ©Osama Diab.

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Death of a president

 
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By Khaled Diab

If exaggerated rumours of President Mubarak’s death become fact, where will the end of his one-man show leave Egypt?

25 March 2010

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has appeared on state television in a bid to lay to rest premature rumours of his death. The Egyptian leader is currently in Germany recovering from surgery on his gall bladder.

Since news broke of his “routine” surgery on 6 March, Egypt has been filled with speculation about the real state of Mubarak’s health and, with reports that a benign tumour was also removed, there have even been wild rumours that the president is actually dead and that the government has been covering this up to buy time.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, the Egyptian stock exchange lost around 5% but the latest footage has brought calm to the jittery market.

While the death of a president would be disruptive in any country, in Egypt it carries a special significance because Mubarak has been the only show in town for the past three decades and the ageing and ailing dictator has no clear successor.

At nearly 82 years of age, Baba Mubarak, as he is mockingly known, is certainly no spring chicken and could die at any moment. With such a realistic prospect on the horizon, many Egyptians are rightly apprehensive about what would happen if the president suddenly passed away before next year’s presidential elections.

In Egypt, the state of the president’s health has long been something of a taboo, with journalists running the risk of arrest for broaching the topic, and so this newfound openness is actually arousing suspicion in some people’s minds.

“The fact that they are releasing news about Mubarak’s health is an improvement,” Kholoud Khalifa, a young Egyptian journalist, said. “One reason for this is that Mubarak has now fully groomed his son, Gamal, for the top job,” she speculates.

So, what would happen if the president were suddenly to breathe his last?

While many Egyptians are hopeful for change, as I highlighted in a recent article, they do not realistically expect the dawn of democracy – at least, not full democracy – once Mubarak is out of the way.

“We are not a revolutionary people. Anything that can be counted as revolutionary change in this country is almost invariably brought about by a small minority,” my friend Ahmed opined over dinner in a Cairo restaurant.

Many reform-minded Egyptians disagree with this received wisdom. “The regime has so suppressed opposition and ingrained apathy in the masses that people no longer believe they can change anything,” assesses Khalifa.

Based on conversations with numerous people, it would seem the most expected scenario is the emergence of a Mubarak dynasty, in the guise of son Gamal, albeit with a more democratic facade. The current constitution, which was rejigged in Mubarak’s favour before the last elections in 2005, states that, in the event of the president’s sudden death, the speaker of the house – Ahmed Fathi Sorour, a staunch Mubarak loyalist – would hold executive power temporarily, until elections can be called.

“There will be elections, most certainly, but how democratic they will be, no one can tell,” said Ahmed. “I think Gamal Mubarak will be the [ruling] National Democratic party‘s candidate, and the NDP candidate will most likely win – and fair and square.”

This is partly because Egyptians, sceptical as they are about politics and politicians, would rather the devil they knew, and partly because the officially approved opposition does not possess a viable candidate.

Miriam, another friend, believes this is no accident. “The NDP has stacked the system and the odds so in its own favour that its candidate will win without the need for any actual, crude cheating,” she observes.

And considering Mubarak’s tight grip on power in Egypt for the past 30 years, a surprising number of ordinary Egyptians would freely vote for his son in free elections, despite the growing power of the “anything but Mubarak” movement.

Moreover, Gamal, with his background in banking, is a popular choice among Egypt’s business elite. “Economists and anyone who is in business would be quite happy for Gamal to take over because he will provide the kind of continuity and stability, as well as the economic competence, the Egyptian economy needs to thrive,” the head of an Egyptian stock brokerage firm told me.

In addition to Gamal’s perceived safe pair of hands, my brother Osama believes this backing for the Mubarak clan is also a manifestation of some kind of Stockholm syndrome among a hostage population half of which has known no other leader. In fact, Osama would not be at all surprised if, despite the current apathy towards Hosni Mubarak, there would be a significant outpouring of public sympathy for him once he died.

Personally, though I am no supporter of Gamal Mubarak, if he becomes Egypt’s next president through free and fair elections, then I can at least draw comfort from the fact that Egypt will be well on its road to democracy.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 19 March 2010. Read the related discussion.

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Egypt’s online struggle for democracy

 
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By Osama Diab

In Egypt, political advocacy is being sparked online, on sites like Facebook, but there is significantly less room for movement in Egypt’s real world than in its virtual world.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

In Egypt, many political movements have started, or have grown significantly, on Facebook, such as the April 6 Youth Movement and now the national campaign to support Mohamed ElBaradei, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nobel Peace Prize winner, for the presidency of Egypt.

Facebook activism has done a lot for Egyptian dissidents and continues to worry the Egyptian regime. A group on Facebook supporting Mohamed ElBaradei managed to attract more than 130,000 members, and its membership is increasing at a fast rate.

Even though online activism can’t achieve the change young Egyptians dream of on its own, it is an important first step for mobilisation in a political environment that doesn’t allow for other forms of political rallying. However, it is unlikely that desktop activism can translate into something tangible unless it is backed by other forms of action.

Currently, there is little indication of this rally in the virtual world transferring to the real world. Not under this constitution. Therefore, lobbying for constitutional change seems like the right starting point.

Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution makes it technically possible but practically impossible for independent candidates to run for the top seat. It says that independent presidential candidates need the endorsement of at least 250 elected members of the parliament and municipal councils, of which at least 90 come from both branches of the parliament. These excessive requirements are all the more burdensome considering that the vast majority of Egypt’s parliament is made up of ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) members.

This is why ElBaradei stresses the importance of constitutional reform. The former IAEA chief has been offered a position in many political parties that would enable him to become a party nominee. However, ElBaradei made it clear many times that he insists on running as an independent because his will to reform and amend the constitution outweighs his will to become president.

The question here is if ElBaradei, along with his supporters, would be able to exert enough pressure to amend the constitution so it would allow for independents to run for president in 2011. Unless the pressure is immense, the answer would most likely be no.

The reason is that constitutional amendments that have taken place in recent years were carefully tailored to make the next elections confined to the NDP candidate (probably Gamal Mubarak) and a few political figureheads from Egyptian parties who were closely monitored and given permission to operate by the Egyptian government.

It will be a great show: five or six candidates from the handful of small, unpopular and poor parties against Gamal Mubarak, with all the media, financial resources and state apparatuses on the latter’s side to help him win in every legitimate and illegitimate way possible. With the deck stacked so greatly in his favour, a victory for the NDP candidate is highly likely.

This does not mean that ElBaradei’s supporters should stop working on expressing their will to reform Egypt’s political infrastructure and present ElBaradei as their candidate and symbol of change, but patience will be necessary.

ElBaradei supporters should expect that he will not be able to run in the coming presidential elections in 2011, but if support for ElBaradei’s continues to grow, the momentum may be a force in the longer run. ElBaradei and his supporters emphasise the importance that change and the transition of power happen peacefully and smoothly, which means the process might take longer, but that it will also be more sustainable.

Abdelrahman el-Taliawy, an ElBaradei enthusiast says, “We are a very fortunate generation. We grew up to find ourselves connected, open to the world and, in a way, uncontrollable. We can feel ourselves holding the future with strings in our hands. But we are tied to our mystic past and grim present. If we are planning to do great things, then we will have to begin with revolutionising our own country.”

el-Taliway goes on, “For us, ElBaradei represents that hope. Hope that we can really change the terrible conditions that we grew up to find ourselves part of. We’re prepared to work with him on campaigns, talk to the people in the streets and publicly protest if we must. Now, we are united and we can feel the power of what we can do. They can never take that from us again.”

This article was first published by WorldPress.org on 28 February 2010. Republished here with the author’s permission. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Splitting Egypt’s political atom

 
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By Khaled Diab

Can Mohamed ElBaradei’s campaign for the Egyptian presidency save a country close to political meltdown?

Monday 15 March 2010

Mohamed ElBaradei is no stranger to explosive – even nuclear – situations. As head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he managed, using his legal and diplomatic expertise, to diffuse tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme between the bomb-ho George Bush in Washington and the hot-headed radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran. His astute diplomacy even earned him the Nobel peace prize in 2005.

Now, having given up the helm of the IAEA, he is being propelled forward by an unexpected and spontaneous wave of popular support that is breathing new life into Egypt’s staid political landscape. In an unprecedented contrast to the typical, top-down politics of Egypt’s ruling and mainstream opposition parties, ElBaradei has been persuaded, through grassroots activism, to come home and launch a campaign to clean up the country’s radioactive political decay after nearly three decades of toxic rule by the Hosni Mubarak regime.

His return to Egypt has felt more like a state visit by a world leader than the coming home of a senior international diplomat. At the airport, he was treated to a hero’s welcome, with jubilant supporters cheering him on, as if he had already been elected president. The crowd included ordinary Egyptians from across the country, as well as opposition figures, actors and novelists.

And if ElBaradei is allowed to run in the 2011 elections and manages to win – two very big ‘ifs’ indeed – he will be Egypt’s first ever democratically elected leader, four presidents and almost 60 years after the 1952 revolution promised to bring democracy and freedom to Egyptians.

But for the time being, this accidental hero of Egypt’s profound desire for change is being cautiously daring. His feet had hardly touched the ground when he was elevated by Egypt’s diverse and broad-based anti-Mubarak movement to head a coalition for political change, the establishment of which he had reportedly wanted to put off for a few months. Its mission is to lobby the government to make the constitution more democratic and to promote social justice. ElBaradei has even indicated his willingness to enter the presidential race but only if he can run as an independent candidate and if free and fair elections can be guaranteed.

His potential candidacy is a sad condemnation of the Egyptian regime’s unspoken policy of stifling meaningful opposition and engineering the political landscape so that Mubarak appears to be the only show in town. In addition, ElBaradei’s meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the opposition movement is a reflection of the disarray of opposition parties and their failure to tap into popular discontent and mobilise the population to take effective action.

But how has a lawyer from a family of distinguished lawyers, who is not a career politician and who has worked outside Egypt for decades, become the face of reform in Egypt?

Part of the reason is his international standing, which has earned him a great deal of respect and admiration at home. More profoundly, it is a sign of the ageing Mubarak’s failing grip on power, popular frustration at the rotten state of Egyptian politics, socio-economic inequality and widespread opposition to the idea of Gamal Mubarak inheriting the presidency (with a little behind-the-scenes help from his father). This desperation is reflected in the names of grassroots opposition efforts, such as Kifaya (Enough), the Egyptian Campaign against Inheritance of Power, and in the increasingly popular refrain: “Anything but Mubarak”.

The decision to rally around ElBaradei is born of the realisation by activists and the opposition – with the notable exception of the Muslim Brotherhood – that they lacked a charismatic figure to represent people of all classes and political stripes. They are also gambling that ElBaradei’s international standing will protect him from the wrath of the regime and spare him the fate of the previous challenger to Mubarak’s hegemony, Ayman Nour.

So far, the regime has been doing its best to ignore the new pretender’s return and downplay the extent of Baradei Fever. As one blogger put it: “I’m going to enjoy sitting back and watching how the Mubaraks deal with this wildcard.”

But what are ElBaradei’s chances? Many experts are doubtful that ElBaradei will be able run as an independent candidate and time is running out for him to attach himself to a political party. Moreover, joining a party would rob him of his unifying appeal. Amr Hashim Rabie of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies believes that the best ElBaradei can hope for is to embarrass the regime at home and abroad and to galvanise popular opposition in 2011.

But perhaps it’s too early to write off ElBaradei’s chances. Several months ago, few would’ve suspected the Nobel laureate would be in the situation he’s in today. Besides, we should never underestimate the power of the people, even in a semi-authoritarian regime.

And therein lies ElBaradei’s most powerful weapon. He is a popular figure in Egypt – with over 122,000 members of a Facebook group supporting him in a country where internet penetration is still fairly low. And he understands the power of the people and the need to win their support and backing. A reflection of this savvy is that he wasted no time in meeting the young advocates who first floated the idea of his candidacy and even recorded a Facebook message to them. In recognition of Egypt’s youth bulge and the power of the young to change and innovate, he has also invited young people to become active members of his coalition.

Of course, even if ElBaradei becomes the next president, Egypt will not be magically transformed into a prosperous democracy. That, as I pointed out in my vision for a democratic Egypt, will take generations of concerted effort. Encouragingly, many of his aspirations correspond with other reform-minded Egyptians’ views – and he has indicated that he would not seek re-election if he failed to deliver results. I would go one step further and urge him only to seek a single term in office during which he can democratise the country’s institutions and then hand over the baton to new generations of elected leaders.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 1 March 2010. Read the related discussion.

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My plan for a democratic Egypt

 
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By Khaled Diab

With the right leadership, Egypt could rid itself of nepotism and inequality to become a prosperous and egalitarian society.

22 January 2010

While in most countries, even the most democratic, becoming president or prime minister is a far-fetched dream for almost everyone, in Egypt, the prospect exists mostly in the realm of fantasy. In the six or so decades since the 1952 revolution, Egypt has had just four leaders, none of whom were elected – at least not in free and fair elections.

The current president, Hosni Mubarak, has held the top seat for the past three decades or so. This means that the majority of Egyptians, given the country’s ‘youth bulge’, have known no other leader.

Next year, Mubarak’s current term will end and, given his age and health, most Egyptians don’t expect him to seek a sixth term. Egyptians dream of massive positive change in 2011, fear terrible instability and disruption, and some might even settle for ‘business as usual‘ in the form of Mubarak’s son, Gamal – at least for a few years.

Reform-minded Egyptians hope that Mubarak will step aside honourably and take the unprecedented step of calling free and fair elections to find a replacement. The most popular potential candidate at the moment is former IAEA chief and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, despite the fact that he has lived and worked outside Egypt for decades.

ElBaradei’s popularity is not only a sign of his international standing but also indicates the Egyptian regime’s unofficial policy of engineering the political landscape so that Mubarak appears to be the only show in town. Personally, I fear that, rather than undergo a democratic rebirth, Egypt will either get a second Mubarak or a period of instability until another dictator takes the helm, though I doubt that Islamists are ready in the wings to take over. Nevertheless, I cannot help but hold out hope that 2011 will mark the birth of true Egyptian democracy.

This dream has got me contemplating, although I’ve never entertained political ambitions, what changes I would instigate if I were president. Since I stand about as much chance of being elected to that office as I have of being teleported to Mars, I don’t have to limit myself to the realm of the possible and pragmatic and can let my imagination run loose. Surveying the troubled and dysfunctional typography of Egypt’s society and economy, one is sadly spoilt for choice as to where to begin.

Upon taking office, and to avoid the temptations of power that have led so many initially well-meaning Egyptian leaders astray, I would probably begin with strengthening and shoring up Egypt’s institutions, from the parliament to the judiciary, to ensure an effective separation and balance of powers. But top-down reforms can, at best, only play the role of a catalyst, and not bring about lasting change in themselves. In order to harness Egypt’s massive grassroots potential, I would end the culture of fear and intimidation – at least, the state-sponsored side of this – that keeps Egyptians down.

I would strive to remove all the unconstitutional and undemocratic laws, such as those hindering freedom of expression and conscience, and dismantle Egypt’s enormous police and state security apparatus.

In order to counteract and reverse growing religious fundamentalism and communal strife I would dig up the roots, rather than chop violently away at the outgrowth. A fish rots from the head down, so it is important to launch a serious campaign to root out corruption, first from the highest echelons of society.

More generally, it is essential to challenge the widespread practice of wasta – which permeates all levels of society and causes widespread cynicism and disenchantment – by strictly enforcing the rule of law, without making exceptions for the well-connected. This will be no mean feat, given how deeply ingrained the notion is, but if Egypt is to become a true meritocracy it is a crucial battle that must be won.

Then there’s the economy, which is often erroneously viewed as somehow separate from society. Seeking political and social justice is meaningless if their economic counterpart continues to be denied – in fact, rather than more growth, Egypt needs more economic justice. Egypt’s economy needs not only to continue to develop, but to do so sustainably and equitably.

In a country where economic inequality has grown to chronic proportions, the chasm between the have-alls and the have-nots needs desperately to be bridged. This should be done through a fair, effective and enforced progressive taxation system, as well as the reinstatement and further development of the country’s dismantled social safety net and concerted government investment directed at stimulating Egypt’s impoverished rural hinterland and neglected south.

This requires not just internal reform but also a revamping of the global economic system to make it fairer for developing countries. In addition, the strong arm with which the US-led west imposes its hegemony could foil such efforts if my “pinko” reforms are deemed somehow to be antagonist to US interests in the region.

In parallel with promoting economic justice, competitiveness also needs to be stimulated in order to generate the necessary wealth to boost everyone’s wellbeing. This requires robust and enforceable regulations that level out the economic playing field and weed out the de facto monopolies and cartels that plague the Egyptian economy, as well as reforming the country’s bloated and inefficient bureaucracy.

One reason why superstition reigns and people hark back to a mythical and glorious past is because they feel they lack a future. To give the coming generations a sense of purpose and to allow current generations to build a better future, I would slash military spending and abolish conscription, then use the released resources to invest heavily in education and scientific research.

Of course, I realise that my vision is but a dream untainted by political realities. Even a well-meaning, democratically elected president would have his or her work cut out simply steering Egypt away from the rocks towards which it is currently heading. The kind of transformation I dream of cannot be implemented by any one leader but will take generations of patient and careful change. But with the right political and civil leadership, Egypt can reinvent itself as a prosperous, modern and egalitarian society.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 17 January 2010. Read the related discussion.

While in most countries, even the most democratic, becoming president or prime minister is a far-fetched dream for almost everyone, in Egypt, the prospect exists mostly in the realm of fantasy. In the six or so decades since the 1952 revolution, Egypt has had just four leaders, none of whom were elected – at least not in free and fair elections.

The current president, Hosni Mubarak, has held the top seat for the past three decades or so. This means that the majority of Egyptians, given the country’s “youth bulge”, have known no other leader.

Next year, Mubarak’s current term will end and, given his age and health, most Egyptians don’t expect him to seek a sixth term. Egyptians dream of massive positive change in 2011, fear terrible instability and disruption, and some might even settle for “business as usual” in the form of Mubarak’s son, Gamal – at least for a few years.

Reform-minded Egyptians hope that Mubarak will step aside honourably and take the unprecedented step of calling free and fair elections to find a replacement. The most popular potential candidate at the moment is former IAEA chief and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed El Baradei, despite the fact that he has lived and worked outside Egypt for decades.

ElBaradei’s popularity is not only a sign of his international standing but also indicates the Egyptian regime’s unofficial policy of engineering the political landscape so that Mubarak appears to be the only show in town. Personally, I fear that, rather than undergo a democratic rebirth, Egypt will either get a second Mubarak or a period of instability until another dictator takes the helm, though I doubt that Islamists are ready in the wings to take over. Nevertheless, I cannot help but hold out hope that 2011 will mark the birth of true Egyptian democracy.

This dream has got me contemplating, although I’ve never entertained political ambitions, what changes I would instigate if I were president. Since I stand about as much chance of being elected to that office as I have of being teleported to Mars, I don’t have to limit myself to the realm of the possible and pragmatic and can let my imagination run loose. Surveying the troubled and dysfunctional typography of Egypt’s society and economy, one is sadly spoilt for choice as to where to begin.

Upon taking office, and to avoid the temptations of power that have led so many initially well-meaning Egyptian leaders astray, I would probably begin with strengthening and shoring up Egypt’s institutions, from the parliament to the judiciary, to ensure an effective separation and balance of powers. But top-down reforms can, at best, only play the role of a catalyst, and not bring about lasting change in themselves. In order to harness Egypt’s massive grassroots potential, I would end the culture of fear and intimidation – at least, the state-sponsored side of this – that keeps Egyptians down.

I would strive to remove all the unconstitutional and undemocratic laws, such as those hindering freedom of expression and conscience, and dismantle Egypt’s enormous police and state security apparatus.

In order to counteract and reverse growing religious fundamentalism and communal strife I would dig up the roots, rather than chop violently away at the outgrowth. A fish rots from the head down, so it is important to launch a serious campaign to root out corruption, first from the highest echelons of society.

More generally, it is essential to challenge the widespread practice of wasta – which permeates all levels of society and causes widespread cynicism and disenchantment – by strictly enforcing the rule of law, without making exceptions for the well-connected. This will be no mean feat, given how deeply ingrained the notion is, but if Egypt is to become a true meritocracy it is a crucial battle that must be won.

Then there’s the economy, which is often erroneously viewed as somehow separate from society. Seeking political and social justice is meaningless if their economic counterpart continues to be denied – in fact, rather than more growth, Egypt needs more economic justice. Egypt’s economy needs not only to continue to develop, but to do so sustainably and equitably.

In a country where economic inequality has grown to chronic proportions, the chasm between the have-alls and the have-nots needs desperately to be bridged. This should be done through a fair, effective and enforced progressive taxation system, as well as the reinstatement and further development of the country’s dismantled social safety net and concerted government investment directed at stimulating Egypt’s impoverished rural hinterland and neglected south.

This requires not just internal reform but also a revamping of the global economic system to make it fairer for developing countries. In addition, the strong arm with which the US-led west imposes its hegemony could foil such efforts if my “pinko” reforms are deemed somehow to be antagonist to US interests in the region.

In parallel with promoting economic justice, competitiveness also needs to be stimulated in order to generate the necessary wealth to boost everyone’s wellbeing. This requires robust and enforceable regulations that level out the economic playing field and weed out the de facto monopolies and cartels that plague the Egyptian economy, as well as reforming the country’s bloated and inefficient bureaucracy.

One reason why superstition reigns and people hark back to a mythical and glorious past is because they feel they lack a future. To give the coming generations a sense of purpose and to allow current generations to build a better future, I would slash military spending and abolish conscription, then use the released resources to invest heavily in education and scientific research.

Of course, I realise that my vision is but a dream untainted by political realities. Even a well-meaning, democratically elected president would have his or her work cut out simply steering Egypt away from the rocks towards which it is currently heading. The kind of transformation I dream of cannot be implemented by any one leader but will take generations of patient and careful change. But with the right political and civil leadership, Egypt can reinvent itself as a prosperous, modern and egalitarian society.

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Is Mubarak really a force of stability?

 
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By Osama Diab

Providing more legitimate access to power should be the way to guarantee security and stability in Egypt.

23 September 2009

In the speech he gave in Cairo in June, US President Barack Obama said, “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

Obama linked the application of these ideas with stability and security. Then in August, during Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s visit to Washington, Obama described Mubarak as a force of stability. As a man of courtesy, Obama may have just been trying to be a good host and show respect. It’s difficult to believe Obama is simply unaware of the Mubarak regime’s horrid human rights record or Egypt’s poor ranking in international corruption reports. I hope that Obama is not just turning a blind eye to Mubarak’s practices because he relies on him as an important ally in our troubled region — which is probably much nearer the mark.

The praise Mubarak has received from the US president illustrates America’s double-standard politics that basically say: an important ally in the region, and a friend of Israel, is a force of stability, regardless of the regime’s domestic policy.

Mubarak is a force of instability and unrest. In Arab pop culture, the term korsi (chair) holds a political significance, referring to political rule or authority. In the Middle East, rulers get attached to this chair, and as time passes, the attachment gets stronger. Death, and only death, can put an end to this union, kind of like a Catholic marriage. This has become so much the norm that the term “ex-president” sounds very bizarre to the Arab ear.

Consequently, access to power using legitimate means becomes unattainable, which is why political parties and groups resort to means that ultimately cause political turbulence and social unrest. In recent years, many political movements have challenged Mubarak’s power, such as Kifaya, the Egyptian movement for change, and the April 6 Youth Movement. These movements organise protests, sit-ins and strikes that are usually crushed by riot police, leading to even more public dissent. A large number of students and activists have been detained and are being systematically harassed by the Egyptian police.

In the 20th century, Egypt saw many attempts to challenge authority outside the system and the law. The country witnessed the assassination of many political figures. In 1990, Rifaat el-Mahgoub, speaker of the Egyptian parliament, who was also a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, was assassinated in his car in Cairo by an Islamic group. Anwar Sadat, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Egyptian president, was also killed by Islamic militant groups for signing a peace treaty with Israel. A few hours after his death, Asyut, one of Egypt’s major southern cities, fell under the control of Islamic groups for a few days and tens of police officers were killed. For more than a decade after Sadat’s death, Egypt suffered from a very strong wave of terrorism that claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians and police officers.

Besides assassinations and terrorism, Egypt saw at least one military coup in 1952, a revolution in 1919, and a nationwide student uprising in 1936 where hundreds of protestors were killed by the police. Recently, civil disobedience has been commonplace, labour strikes are turning into some sort of a national sport, clashes between riot police and students are becoming standard to see on news programmes, and deaths are reported daily during election time.

The more that access to power is denied, the more people will look for alternatives and be willing to challenge power outside the system. When power is inaccessible by legitimate means, the ground is fertile for coups, revolutions, assassinations and non-peaceful methods of power transition. This is something Obama and his advisers seem to have failed to understand when they called Mubarak “a force of stability in the region”.

Moreover, trying to convince the public that presidents don’t age or get sick like common humans has also been a widely used strategy in the Egyptian regime. In 2007, Ibrahim Eissa, editor of independent daily al-Dostour, was sentenced to prison because he published an article questioning the then-79-year-old Mubarak’s health. The court found him guilty of “publishing false information of a nature to disturb public order or security”. Due to numerous protests and public dissent, President Mubarak pardoned Eissa after one of the most contentious court cases related to freedom of the press.

After so long in the top seat, one would think Mubark’s hunger for power would be sated. He has ruled Egypt for 28 years, not to mention his years as vice-president and a high-ranking military officer. Mubarak can make history by resigning the presidency and supervising free and fair elections to select a successor.

As someone who is known to care for his legacy, gaining credit as the founder of democracy in the Arab world and ending the military’s monopoly on power (and not by transferring it to his civilian son) should appeal to him. Mubarak can set an example in the region that democracy is attainable. He could possibly get credit for being the founder of democracy in the Middle East.

Supporting Mubarak’s regime might seem to the Obama administration like an easy way to keep the Arab world’s most populous, and arguably most influential, country from turning into an Islamic regime, but in the long term, it will achieve the opposite. If the administration wants to help contain extremism and decrease support for groups that threaten the region’s stability, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, it needs to work on making power more accessible by legitimate means.

This article was first published by WorldPress.org on 13 September 2009. Republished here with the author’s permission. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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