EgyptEurope

Will Hosni Mubarak let Egypt’s people pick a president?

Citizens of have been promised the chance to choose a replacement for , their long-serving president. But not everyone is convinced that Egyptian will run smoothly.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak surprised everyone with his unprecedented announcement this weekend that he would be permitting challengers to stand against him – for the first time in the republic's – in a direct multi-candidate presidential race this autumn.

After 24 years in the top job, Mubarak, 76, seeks to amend Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution. When rubber-stamped by parliament, this would allow candidates from officially recognised parties – which would exclude the outlawed-yet-popular Muslim Brotherhood – to run in the presidential vote in September. How this will work remains unclear.

Brussels reacted positively to the news coming out of Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world and a regional heavyweight. “We welcome this in Egypt as a positive step in the right direction,” said Emma Udwin, the Commission's external relations spokeswoman.

Following a number of recent setbacks, Mubarak's remarks brought a smile to the faces of local activists. But they were also quick to temper their elation, fearing the president might simply be seeking cosmetic changes and would allow only colourless candidates to stand.

Veteran Egyptian campaigner Aida Seif el-Dawla describes the president's latest initiative as “touches of make-up to the ugly face of the regime”. She is president of the Egyptian Association Against Torture and a prominent leader of Kifaya! [Enough!], a coalition of leftists, Islamists, Nasserists, secularists and intellectuals.

“Hardly anything serious [will happen] if he is left to himself,” she said. “Now, more than ever, it is for the movements for change to intensify their struggle.”

Kifaya! and other opposition figures point to numerous outstanding issues, such as limiting the number of terms a president can stay in office. In addition, Egypt's contentious state of emergency has been in place since Mubarak took office in 1981. It provides the mechanism to clampdown on political opponents with impunity, such as the arrest in January of prominent opposition MP Ayman Nour of the recently formed al-Ghad [Tomorrow] party.

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“The arrest of Ayman Nour and the ongoing wave of arrests of alleged Muslim Brothers… appear to be used as a means to intimidate members of the opposition and critics of the government,” said Amnesty International.

But Egypt seems to have crossed an important psychological milestone by challenging the once apparently inviolable authority of the president. Kifaya! “broke the ‘Mubarak' taboo”, said Amira Howeidy, deputy editor at Egypt's Al Ahram Weekly.

“This popular movement…brings together people of all political persuasions and parties, including the Political Apathy Party which enjoys an overwhelming majority in Egypt,” wrote Khaled al-Shami in the -based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper.

This rising groundswell of popular discontent has led the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to launch a “national dialogue” with opposition parties. But the NDP's modernisation drive is led by the president's eldest son, Gamal, who has come into the political limelight in recent years following a high-flying career in finance.

This has raised fears that father might be grooming son for the top post – a prospect that Kifaya! has rejected out of hand. Although Mubarak has vehemently denied the allegations, his prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, said that he believed Gamal was well qualified to become a leader.

Mubarak's tour de force came barely a week after US President George W Bush's European tour, in which he called on Egypt to accelerate political reforms. “The great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way towards peace in the Middle East, can now show the way towards democracy,” Bush told his audience.

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Some analysts have drawn a connection between the two events. Others believe Bush is trying to steal the show from the Egyptian opposition who have been campaigning for change for years. “I think this is a victory for… the Egyptian citizenry,” said Mustafa Bakri, editor of Egyptian political weekly al-Osboa.

In fact, a few hours before Bush's speech in Brussels, Kifaya! organised another demonstration, this time outside the gates of Cairo University. In addition to anti-Mubarak slogans, the protesters also chanted criticism of Bush. Following the invasion of Iraq, Bush has become highly unpopular in Egypt. The opposition is concerned that being even indirectly linked with him could hurt the popularity of their cause.

Seeing the daily violence and anarchy in Iraq, many Egyptians also fear Washington's apparent model for change. “The democracy we seek is more than an electoral piece of theatre,” said Kifaya's Seif al-Dawla, who rejects any foreign intervention.

“Only Egyptians can advance democracy in Egypt,” said Howeidy. “Freedom is not granted, it is earned.”

The appears to agree. “You can't impose reform from outside,” said the Commission's Udwin. “We hope we can be supportive of Egypt in its own efforts to modernise.” According to Udwin, the Union has, for years, employed a ‘carrot' approach to Egypt and other countries in the region, focused on dialogue.

Political reform and human rights are important – if neglected – components of the association agreement that Egypt signed with the EU in 2001 and which entered into force last year.

Egypt is set to become part of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which offers countries bordering the EU the prospect of access to a free trade zone and greater political, security, economic and cultural co-operation with the Union. The Commission published an ENP country report on Egypt yesterday (2 March), which envisages that an ENP action plan for Egypt will be released later this year.

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This article appeared in the 3-9 March 2005 issue of European Voice.

Author

  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and . He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled’s life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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