Mubarak goes for it, again

Just a few minutes ago, Hosni Mubarak officially announced that he would be running for president for a fifth term, after 24 years of rule. No big surprise there, the announcement has been expected for a while and was previewed in yesterday's papers. Mubarak made the announcement in Shibin El Koum in the governorate of Menoufiya, where he was born, after visiting the school he (and other Egyptian bigwigs) attended as a child and a new local hospital. The speech was in this sense very much a repeat of the 26 February announcement of the amendment of the constitution to allow for multi-candidate elections, which he made in a university in Menoufiya's capital, Menouf. One thing that this ensures is that Mubarak is surrounded by people who probably do genuinely like him as an ibn al balad (son of the country) and, predictably enough, after the speech he was surrounded by a throng of excited admirers that security forces shoved back rather forcefully.

Most senior NDP figures were there, including most of the cabinet as well as his wife Suzannne and sons Alaa and Gamal. The speech was not used only to announce his candidacy -- which will be ratified later today by an internal vote in the NDP, a new procedure introduced by Gamal Mubarak -- but also to call for an Arab summit on 3 August in Sharm Al Sheikh to discuss "regional issues" and presumably terrorism. Thus, in one stroke, Mubarak appeared as a politician and a international statesman.
The gist of the speech focused on the core of Mubarak's message: economic aid for the poor and stability for the country. But it also included some semi-surprises, although not as great as in his earlier speech. As hinted for a long time by the NDP's leadership, Mubarak pledged to cancel the emergency law in place since 1981. It will be replaced by an anti-terrorism law perhaps modeled on the Patriot Act or another Western terror law. Opposition activists have long suspected this could take place and the law is likely to confer many of the same powers (notably detention without charges) the emergency law did. It will also be permanent and presumably not need to be renewed by parliament periodically, since it will be a proper law. Without the details it's too early to say what the law will contain, but there is no reason for optimism.

Mubarak also hinted at future economic and political reforms, and made a big deal out of changing the relationship between the executive and the legislative branches of government, reducing the power of the presidency and increasing the power of the cabinet. He also hinted at legislative changes, which could be the long-rumored change in parliamentary election procedures -- perhaps even a switch to proportional representation or a list system (like Israel's), which would presumably rule out the role of independents in elections in favor of parties, which would be likely to increase their presence in parliament. Taking independents out of the equation will make it impossible for Muslim Brothers to run as they do now (as independents), and is likely to push them to run as candidates for existing parties. But none of this is confirmed yet and this change is unlikely to take place before the presidential election.

I will be posting the full speech soon, but in the meantime I have a little note about its coverage on Arab satellite channels. The Egyptian channels--Nile Al Akhbar and Nile TV (in English and French) gave the speech predictably dull and sycophantic coverage, referring to Mubarak as "the leader" and praising his historic wisdom. The focus was on what Mubarak said, with little analysis. Nothing surprising here.

Al Jazeera did not seem to have a correspondent on the scene but ran footage on a split screen, with commentators reacting. The studio anchor interviewed three people (at least that I saw) in succession. Magdi Hussein, the editor of the banned Islamist newspaper Al Shaab, ranted and wailed until he had to be cut off. He was followed by George Ishaq, a Kifaya leader, who made some very matter-of-fact commentary on the election being a farce, and finally Abdallah Senawi, the editor of the Nasserist weekly Al Arabi. All of these are well-known anti-Mubarak activists. I don't remember seeing anyone giving the party line, but perhaps I missed it. In other words, the coverage was extremely hostile to Mubarak and makes me doubt these rumors of a deal between Al Jazeera and the government that have been floating around.

Next I tuned in to Al Arabiya. They had a correspondent on site covering the speech, and after interviewed NDP bigwig Mustafa Al Fiqi, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in parliament. Although he was never going to be critical, the questions seemed pretty balanced. Still, no Mubarak critics and what you would expect from a generally pro-Egypt channel.

And finally I turned to Al Hurra. Whereas the other channels had switched to live coverage of the event -- which I think was important enough to warrant it, whether coverage is positive or critical -- Al Hurra was showing a documentary about Irish cooking and Guiness.

And then they wonder why they're not taken seriously...
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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.