New ICG report on Egypt

The International Crisis Group has a new report out on Egypt, the first one that looks at the general political situation in a while. It's pretty much essential reading for anyone who is interesting in contemporary Egyptian politics or even the wider question of Arab reform.

Whereas their first report on Egypt concentrated on political reform in the context of the Iraq war, and the second was about the role the Muslim Brotherhood should play in Egyptian politics (they want it brought into the mainstream), this one focuses on the much more short-term issue of what to do about the upcoming parliamentary elections. It is dismissive--perhaps too dismissive--of the import of the amendment to Article 76 of the constitution and calls the reform that has been achieved so far "a false start." But perhaps the most surprising element is how critical it is of the opposition, both legal and illegal (i.e. the parties and Kifaya and the Brothers).

What I like most about the report is how concisely it gives a narrative of the events of the past eight months, ranging from excitement about Mubarak's constitutional reform announcement, to disappointment with the NDP's implementation of it, to consternation with Mubarak's July announcement that further serious reforms will follow if he is elected. Some people might prefer if the story had started elsewhere--such as the 12 December 2004 Kifaya rally that marked the first shot of the anti-Mubarak movement. Indeed, the report on the whole is dismissive of the idea that internal pressure had anything to do with Mubarak's February announcement, attributing it to US pressure instead. This can be debated, especially if we consider the lack of clear information about Egypt-US relations before that period. But even if I see the counterpoint, I tend to agree with the ICG's interpretation.

Having established this narrative of events, the ICG then identifies reforming parliament as the most important task ahead. (I have an article on this aspect coming in the next edition of Cairo, which will be on the newsstands on Thursday and online on Saturday.) This, the report says, is a job that falls to the opposition, which needs to get its act together make reform happen.

It should be possible for the main opposition parties to form an electoral block on the basis of an agreed set of proposals for democratic reform and to seek the support of the electorate for these demands in the parliamentary elections. A multi-party block (kutla) is a familiar tactic in contemporary Arab politics, and there is no good reason for the Egyptian opposition parties to resist this. A unified opposition campaign with these objectives and politically competent leadership could make an impression on the wider population that none of the opposition parties and reform movements on their own have been able to do. The initiative could transform the condition of the opposition as a whole, enable it to overcome its debilitating divisions and become collectively a significant player in the reform process.
If something of this sort does not happen in time for this year's parliamentary elections, it will be five years before another chance presents itself, and the opposition parties will have condemned themselves to impotence and irrelevance. In light of the severe limitations of the extra-parliamentary reform movements, such a failure by the main opposition parties would confirm the impotence of the opposition as a whole and confront onlookers with the reality that President Mubarak with his new agenda is the only horse running.


The focus, then, seems to be on the legal opposition. There are currently negotiations between these parties to form a coalition, but it doesn't look promising. Today's Al Masri Al Youm carried a story about how the Tagammu and Nasserist parties are trying to prevent Al Ghad from joining a national coalition. This would presumably drive Al Ghad to Kifaya, if they'll have him, which is doubtful considering Ayman Nour has little cred with the Kifaya crowd (perhaps with good reason, since Nour appropriated some of Kifaya's energy and slogans but rarely supported it on the streets.)

Meanwhile, outside the legal opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood was reported by Nahdet Masr today to have sunk a proposal for an alliance with the Tagammu. It could still join forces with its old partner Al Wafd (with which the Brotherhood had an alliance in the 1980s), or perhaps go it alone. Kifaya, for its part, is reportedly preparing to back a slate of independent candidates.

The bottom line: the kind of coalition described in the ICG report may just amount to wishful thinking.

Another thing caught my attention: the recommendation that Kifaya

Reaffirm that the movement is not a political party, is not in competition with any existing political party and will not itself contest elections, and refrain from personal attacks on office-holders at any level.


That last clause--essentially that Kifaya stop being anti-Mubarak movement--seems to me that it would empty it of its meaning. What it is asking for is that Kifaya drop its core message, no to Mubarak and no to Gamal. I could not disagree more: that Kifaya has taken that message to the streets is one of the best thing that has happened in Egyptian politics in a long, long time. But I suppose that the reasoning behind this that criticism alone is not very productive, which is true enough. That being said, lately Kifaya has moved towards other issues such as corruption and unemployment. I would also say that, if we imagine Kifaya in a symbiotic role with the legal opposition, it is rather savvy to have Kifaya do most of the criticism and the parties are the ones that should step in with the solutions (in this they are failing, as the report notes). But I don't think that Kifaya was ever meant to be a political party, even if sometimes it blurs the line in its statements.

One related little aside: read footnote 76, which deals with the "military intervention to remove Mubarak" scenario.

Abdelhalim Qandil, editor of Al-'arabi, told Crisis Group that a social explosion could not be ruled out, and in this event an army intervention would be a strong possibility; he argued, however, that the army would not be able, or seek, to rule, as in Nasser's day, but would clean house and establish a new political framework, inclusive of all major forces (including the Muslim Brothers) based on more, not less, political liberty, Crisis Group interview, Cairo, 20 April 2005. It is not only Nasserists who, at least intermittently, look to the army to resolve matters in this way; a similar conception was outlined by Hisham Kassem, the strongly liberal and Western-oriented publisher of Al-Masry al-Youm, Crisis Group interview, Cairo, 3 March 2005.


Some interesting thoughts there which goes to the root of the above problem: whether Mubarak should be the opposition's focus. In my own opinion, Mubarak is the core problem that needs to be dealt with before other problems (such as parliament or the judiciary) can be resolved. ICG says the opposition should focus on more general reform of institutions and the regime. It dismisses army intervention and a variant of the "Turkish scenario." I think this needs to be considered, since only by addressing the Hosni question now can you prevent having to deal with a Gamal question later. That is a legitimate fear that may be worth encouraging the chaos that would accompany a military coup. Of course, international think tanks don't usually go around making recommendations for coups.

One final thought: there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma in the report's suggestion that parliamentary reform is essential: for it to happen, you need a better opposition, but for that, you need a better parliament. Considering that the NDP controls all the cards at the moment, I don't see it happening even if the opposition miraculously gets its act together over the next month. And this comes to my biggest peeve with regards to the report: the fact that it dismisses the usefulness of foreign pressure in general and foreign election monitors in particular. After all, while it recognizes the importance of US pressure in early 2005, why should it no longer be important in late 2005? If the US is serious about achieving even limited reform, it needs to keep the pressure on. Domestic monitors inside polling stations will probably not prevent the kind of strong-arm tactics we saw in the 2000 parliamentary elections, when security forces prevented voters from entering them and arrested opposition campaigners (particularly Islamists). That happened when there were judges inside the polling stations, but they had no clout to do anything about it. I suspect that foreign electoral monitors from respected international institutions would make all this much more difficult for the regime to do and get away with it.

All in all, this is an excellent report that provides much food for thought whether one agrees with all, some or none of its conclusions. Read it now if you're interested in Egypt.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.