Political forces fight for a voice




Power remains in the hands of a generation of politicians whose links with society have become increasingly tenuous

By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 11 May 1999

Conviction often takes second place to expediency within the Egyptian political establishment, which prides itself on denying the people any big surprises.

The determination to retain a tight grip on the nation in the name of stability, has perpetuated the influence of an ageing generation of politicians who have little intention of seeing their power diminish or their legitimacy questioned.

At the heart of the political debate facing Egypt as it moves along the path of economic reform, is the fact that there is no real debate taking place.

The deaths of 28 people and the arrest of 1,000 others during clashes between police and farmers protesting the introduction of market rents on agricultural land in 1997 caused temporary unease, but was regarded as a relatively normal aspect of political life.

While reformist ministers endure the robust and theatrical critiques of the small, ineffectual and state-subsidised parliamentary opposition, as well as some of the more hawkish members of the ruling party, when presenting their plans for economic change, the critical voices are often ill-informed. Legislation is duly passed, by the 95 per cent of MPs present on the ticket of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), a situation which is unlikely to change when assembly and presidential elections are held later this year.

“The [illegal] Islamist parties represent social differences, while the [legal] political parties don’t represent social aspects,” says Diaa Rachwan, senior researcher at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. ”They represent cultural interests and differences. The NDP isn’t a real party. It’s a party of the state.”

It has yet to move on to the government’s political agenda, that Egypt’s main institutional shortcoming lies in the near-complete failure of the political system to facilitate constructive expressions of criticism, discontent, political dissent and opposition.

“The political parties are fighting for a democracy that allows them to have a greater presence, rather than one which brings greater democracy,” says Gasser Abdel Rezak of the Centre for Human Rights Legal Aid.

At the heart of official thinking is the need to portray all dissent and criticism as being, to varying degrees, a threat to stability.

At the extreme end, the government’s strategy is perceptible in its military campaign against all Islamist organisations, a campaign based on the ill-founded assumption that all Islamists – from the moderate Moslem  Brotherhood to the radical Gama’a al-Islamiyya – represent a united threat. All are banned, their activists harassed and arrested, their supporters denied a voice in the political arena.

The search for representation is a key issue, and the predominance of the amorphous, politically ill-defined and apparently ideology-free NDP has merely postponed a solution. In the meantime, the government attempts to tread carefully around public opinion rather than act decisively to win it over.

“There’s a good understanding between public and government,” says Mohieddin el-Ghareeb, minister of finance. “But to move from one state of affairs to another by means of wider reform is something else.”

The seven-year military campaign against the Islamists has had broader implications for the process of debate. The power of the president to rule by decree led to the decision by the several opposition parties to boycott polls.

Consequently, this has excluded from political influence much of the emerging middle class, which feels as isolated from decision-making as the poor, whose numbers have hitherto swelled the ranks of militant Islamic groups.

Power remains in the hands of a generation of politicians whose links with the society over which they have imposed their will have become increasingly tenuous, as they have grown older and the population grown younger.

“We don’t have strong institutions which can express the views of the political forces in the right way,” says Salama Ahmed Salama, one of Egypt’s most respected political commentators and an outspoken columnist on the government- owned Al Ahram newspaper. ”It makes for a kind of constipation, an unrelieved pressure which should find some legal way of expressing its concerns. The political parties aren’t strong enough. On the other hand, you have the Islamist trend, which can’t express itself in a reasonable way, but is ready to accommodate itself. You are using the same mechanism for each of them as that used during the period of the one- party system,” he says.

The introduction of economic reform has been largely trouble-free. Against the background of martial law, imposed following the assassination of President Sadat in 1981, this is hardly a surprise. Strikes and demonstrations are forbidden. But this acquiescence has another, more troubling root.

“People thought there would be a strong reaction to the economic reforms,” says Mr Rachwan. “But there’s not been [such a reaction], because the peasants have a parallel system. There’s a lot of corruption, which has become almost a system, in which the fruits have been shared by everybody. Many economists can’t understand how many people in Egypt manage to live.. Specifically thinking of the state employees, they sell the services they should give for free. Other state employees work in secret. More than half of the state’s employees are engaged in this way,” he says.

These are the immediate concerns, of a kind which a critical mass of people have an interest in maintaining, simply as a means of sustaining themselves and their families. What has yet to be contended with is the more profound, long-term political fall-out from the economic reform process.

“What does the young generation have in the way that the previous generation had?” asks Saad Eddin Ibrahim, professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo and director of the Ibn Kaldoun Centre for Development Studies. “Every generation had a cause. Now there’s no cause, people are looking for Islam. There’s a hunger to give the younger generation a new way. Some of us have been saying that democracy is the answer – not Islam – and that democracy will give people the chance to match economic reform with political reform.

“The need for political reform is as a consequence of economic reform. Gone are the days when you could have one single thing. These are the days of pluralism. Arab unity and other big aims haven’t succeeded, because they weren’t managed democratically.”

The cultural and religious tradition upon which Egypt’s radical Islamist wave has been borne for much of the 20th Century, is the most constant feature of Egyptian political life, while also being the least democratic. Republican regimes have come and gone, but the Islamists have reformed themselves and remain the most outspoken voice of opposition.

The killing, in November 1997, of 58 foreign tourists and six Egyptians at Luxor by a group of Islamists acting, in fact, against the orders of the imprisoned leaders of the mainstream Gama’a al-Islamiyya, shook the government to its roots. In consequence, it took action. In the past year more than 1,700 imprisoned Islamist activists have been released. Some 1,000 were released in April in apparent response to a unilateral ceasefire declaration issued by the Gama’a on March 25.

Many of the activists had finished their sentences years ago, but had been held at the authorities’ pleasure. The treatment of alleged activists has improved since the appointment of General Habib al-Adly as interior minister in the wake of the Luxor debacle.

“The wise people say you can’t solve the problem through military means,” says Muntassir al-Zayat, the lawyer who represents Islamists accused of militant activities. Some observers believe General Adly’s appointment was made with a view to entirely overhauling the policy towards Islamist violence. The ceasefire marks the Islamists’ recognition that their violent campaign has failed. However, the real challenge now is for the government to accelerate a resolution to the conflict with dialogue.

“The ordinary people adopted the slogan: ‘Islam is the solution’,” says Mr al-Zayat. “The Egyptian people love Islam, and the Islamic movement will come back even more strongly. The model we are trying to create is one where the Gama’a can freely exist.”

© Financial Times