Middle East’s paradoxes on display in Cairo

In Egypt, a little democracy may be a dangerous thing

Egypt 2006

By Darryl Levings

June 10, 2009

CAIRO, Egypt – Today is an exciting, scary and frustrating time under the 25-year-old regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

Pushed by President Bush to help foster Middle East democracy, Mubarak gave his people a taste - allowing opposition to him as well as letting more members of the Muslim Brotherhood run in the parliamentary elections -- that he may now regret.

The press also enjoys freedoms unthinkable 10 years ago. The crime of insulting the regime then ensured a ride to a police station. Now some reporters specialize in criticizing the ruling family.

But everyone I asked - if not part of the government - thought they were living in a police state.

"It's a police state with a very good P.R. system," said Hossan Bahgat, a human rights leader. "It has the openness of a civil state, but we all know it's run by the state security organizations."

Anyone visiting Cairo has to be struck by the sheer number of police on the streets. Just more bloated bureaucracy, part Arab tradition, part leftover socialism?

Perhaps. Nor can terror attacks, mostly in the Sinai, be ignored.

But when riot police start clubbing protesters and media cameramen, the policy is clearly more than just keeping tourists and their cash snug.

Is the fist is coming out of the glove again? Many think so.

Based on interviews from a two-week fact-finding fellowship with Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, here are more questions:

Why all these headlines now?

Moderates, pro-reform judges, students, the Muslim Brothers, professional and trade groups have been coming out for High Court hearings to show their support for two judges - and their opposition to the regime.

The European Union called the ensuing police reaction, including the jailing of people with out charges, "disproportionate."

Thursday's update: Although the clashes were more subdued than last week's, police arrested more than 300 in the latest roundup.

How did a couple of Egyptian judges cause all this?

Under law, judges oversee elections. After December's parliamentary elections, largely seen as rigged, two judges publicly blew the whistle. They named no names, but a third judge, from the spotlighted district, charged that he had been slandered. Disciplinary proceedings followed, seen as regime intimidation.

Despite the fact that some judges are corrupt or government supporters, the judiciary is regarded collectively as a somewhat independent body with more integrity than other ministries.

The elections were a joke, said Judge Hisham Bastawissi. "It shows the government is lying to the West and it is lying to the people."

Thursday's update: Judge Mahmoud Mekki was cleared of insulting other judges. Bastawissi was reprimanded, even as he was lying in a hospital after a heart attack. He appeared to lose his chance to advance as a chief judge.

So last year's voting wasn't on the up and up?

Not in either the parliamentary or presidential election. But when Mubarak allowed others to run against him, no one was fooled into expecting any upsets.

Because his government is a prime recipient of U.S. aid, he apparently bent a little before the U.S. push to introduce democracy. He won easily, although many Egyptians, recognizing the hollowness of the election, refused to vote.

Who came in second?

Ayman Nour got 7 percent, not very much, but it was too much for the government. Before the election, prosecutors had accused him of forging petition signatures. Most scoffed, noting that after the election, in a most un-Egyptian blaze of prosecutorial efficiency, Nour was immediately stripped of parliamentary immunity and convicted.

Thursday's update: An appeals court refused to hear Nour's conviction. The leader of his al-Ghad party, Nagi el-Ghatrifi, said the ruling "reflects the Egyptian regime's persistent rejection of any serious reform and its exploitation of the international community's leniency." Now that Nour is a felon, he's out of politics.

But didn't the government lose parliamentary races?

Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood, outlawed but tolerated, made striking gains running as independents, going from 15 to 88 seats. Unusually disciplined, they could have won more if they hadn't limited the number of seats they were after and if the government hadn't started playing games with the ballot boxes. Some believe their success is over-rated, since so many disgusted middle-of-the-roaders stayed home.

Who are the Muslim Brothers?

Once driven underground for their desire for an Islamist state, the Brothers are considered the Middle East's first fundamentalist movement. Detractors claim that many of the violent groups in the region have spun out of the group since its foundation in 1928. The group maintains it is peaceful now. They were criticized by al-Qaida for even participating in elections.

Thursday's update: Most arrested were Brothers, including two leaders. Others regrouped nearby, shaking their fists and chanting, "We are the Brotherhood. God is great."

With the Brotherhood's win, should we be concerned?

Many Egyptians scoff at the notion that the Brothers could actually run the country. Some think Mubarak let them win just enough to scare Washington.

At the same time, many on the "Arab Street" say the treatment of Nour and the miserable state of older independent parties is evidence of a political center that's been systematically destroyed.

That seems to leave us in bed with Mubarak.

In bed with? Isn't that a bit strong?

Depends on whom you talk to. Egypt has been an important ally. U.S. aid to Egypt, while declining, trails only that to Israel.

But at the same time our State Department issues reports on human rights abuses, including torture, by the Cairo regime, everyone knows the CIA has been snatching militants abroad and returning them to Egypt's prisons.

Most Egyptians think Bush is too soft with Mubarak. An older, nattily dressed man approached me, pointed to the police lines and shouted: "This is all your fault," meaning America's.

So what happens next?

There's an old joke. An aide suggests that perhaps the president should be thinking about his farewell speech to the people. Mubarak looks up, puzzled. Why, he asks? Where are they going?

Mubarak just turned 78. Some don't think he's well; others say he's fine. Would he step down before his new term is over?

Over drinks at a party, the Israeli ambassador said the next year would be crucial for Egypt. He would not explain his statement.

"The situation is very dangerous," agreed Osama Farid, who's been fighting 10 years to get his al-Wasat Party registered. "The people cannot take it anymore."

Bahgat: "The reform movement is going will be decided in 2006."

Who's on the horizon?

Not the vice president. Mubarak never appointed one.

Some say he's grooming his second son, Gamal. Gamal, moved up in National Democratic Party ranks, has surrounded himself with Westernized strategists and technocrats pushing for reforms and free enterprise. Others say Gamal would lose most of his power if his father left the scene.

"The boy has no credentials whatsoever," sniped Hisham Kassem, at the respected Al Masry Al Youm independent daily paper.

What about outside the family?

Until two years ago, the prime minister was a highly praised minister for technology, hardly a power base. Lawmakers? Kassem shook his head. "Parliament's a joke."

Depressingly, Kassem maintains that another general will be needed to hold Egypt together and buy a few years for the future. "Western democracy is not possible overnight," he said.

Star news services contributed to this report.