The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Mubarak's decision plays out in the press

As would be expected the new election law was front and center in today's press. Al Ahram ran a special cover page with a rather amusing photo of the President during the conference extending his arms out to the crowd like a gift bearing messiah. There were no less than nine pictures of Mubarak in the first six pages of Al Ahram. The opinion page was filled with praise for the President's decision. The most notable name present was that of Hala Mustafa, the leading liberal from the Al Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies. She tempered her praise in the final paragraphs of her column:

It wasn’t a coincidence that, in his historical speech, the President concentrated on the importance of activating the political parties, and on translating that in a practical way by lifting many of the restrictions that have restricted their activities in the past. And this has led to new parties being created with difficulty, being licensed in an unnatural way, by court order. The creation of a new political parties law which the NDP began a few days ago remains an important initiative on the same path of establishing a new soul for Egyptian political life, a soul which was missing for a time, but which now returns and with a force that bids farewell to the old era of unilateral politics of one color and one voice, and opens new horizons to the future. Tomorrow will necessarily be better, more welcoming, and more hopeful, as it is certain now that those steps are the beginning of a new era.

Alright, her praise is only tempered so much, but she hits at what I think will be the most interesting result of this decision. That is, what affect will it have on the opposition in Egypt? Several opposition figures were quoted at length in the press today predicting that the decision will reenergize the impotent political parties in Egypt. The Vice President of the Wafd, Mahmoud Abaza, told Nahdat Misr:

This step has big importance for the future of political parties, as they will now work hard to activate their programs and policies especially since they now have the right to compete for power and the responsibility to rule. The constitutional amendment has gotten rid of the parties concern about their ability to carry out their role in the political street. The citizens had lost their trust in the parties in recent periods, because of the feeling that (the opposition parties) don’t have anything new to offer. The parties hadn’t been working hard to activate their programs considering that the presidency represents the big goal for all the parties and this was a right they hadn’t possessed. This step will have a big impact on the parliamentary elections as well, since the parties will now compete in the elections with a concrete program, and not depending solely on individual personalities.

Abaza's logic, which was echoed by the head of the Nasserist Party, Dia Eddin Dawood, may be sound. However, the opposition in Egypt in recent months has been as united as I remember it being in my time in Egypt. That may be largely because civil society, and not the political parties, have been at the helm.

For decades one of the most oft-lamented weaknesses of the Egyptian opposition has been there tendency to weaken each other by squabbling amongst themselves, rather than uniting to take on the larger task at hand. I fear that as the various parties begin to name candidates, and try to rally the Egyptian street, you're going to see the various parties begin to go after each other's candidates-- no longer the picture of unity focused on political reform and the NDP that has characterized the opposition in the past months.

What will happen to the Kafaya movement, the civil society bloc which has been driving the opposition recently? If the stipulation remains that presidential candidates will have to have either the backing of a political party or the support of Parliament, then the Kafaya movement, which currently has quite a bit of momentum, may be left out in the cold. Although, Nahdat Misr reported today that:

It is expected that the coming days will witness a broad discussion and a state of emergency inside the political parties, the national forces, and the civil society groups to present their vision for the constitutional changes that the President announced. And the Egyptian organization for change, Kafaya, announced their intentions to present a candidate for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency during the coming days.

The Nasserist weekly, Al Araby, which comes out on Sundays, appears to have stopped the presses to get in coverage of the President's announcement in today's issue. They ran an above the fold screamer which proclaimed that the President’s decision represented “The First victory in the battle for democracy.� Of course it then went on to take much of the credit for the President’s decision, humbly pointing out that, truth be told, Al Araby had led the campaign to change the constitution. (In fairness to Al Araby, it’s not much of an exaggeration).

The ever-bold Al Araby then went on to report in a small news blurb on page six that the University of Manufiya, where Mubarak gave the historic speech, had cancelled classes for five days because of the president’s visit. It's an action not entirely compatible with the fifth point of Mubarak’s 10-point reform plan, which stipulates the government's intention to “provide the mechanisms for scientific and technological progress to increase the human investment.� The Al Araby article went on to report that when students showed up demanding to attend classes they clashed with security forces:

Students requested that the gates to the university be opened. And at around 12 in the afternoon security forces clashed violently with the students, and arrested more than 20 students at the university... Ahmed Mahmoud a student in the literature faculty said, 'This doesn’t happen anywhere but in Egypt, since in all the countries of the world the presidents protect the people.' ... Samir Ismail said, 'These procedures are a guarantee of explosive events in light of the political suppression and the persecution that the people are living in, in addition to the current economic crisis.'

Meanwhile Nahdat Misr, quoted the reaction of the Governor of Manufiya to the President's speech:

The President’s visit to Manufiya was a historical opportunity for all the masses and the different segments from among the sons of Manufiya to gather around him, and declare their loyalty to him in front of the whole world.

An interesting side note to this whole story was picked up by Al Misry Al Yom. A cynic might say it indicates the extent of Mubarak’s concern for the Egyptian constitution. Mubarak wrote a letter to Speaker of the Parliament Fathi Surour, in which he informed Surour of his decision to change the election law and instructed him to take up the matter in Parliament. In the letter Mubarak cited Article 198 of the constitution, which he said gives him the right to unilaterally ask parliament to amend the constitution. It's an odd assertion given that the Egyptian constitution contains only 192 articles. Turns out Mubarak meant to cite Article 189. This mistake was confirmed by the full text of the letter as reprinted by Nahdat Misr.

Here are some reactions from various Egyptian personalities to the decision, as quoted in today's press.

Refaat Said, President of the Tegammu Party: “The decision represents a positive step on the path of resistance towards realizing democracy, but it needs more developments and changes to other sections of the constitution to guarantee the realization of reform.�

Mahdi Akef, head of the MB: “The Brotherhood welcomes the decision and considers it a natural start for achieving reform... but the continuation of the emergency law and not abolishing the political parties law, in addition to the arrest and imprisonment of political prisoners will remain an obstacle to reform."

Saad Eddin Ibrahim suggested: “A national public dialog, not lasting more than two months, before the Parliament votes on the new amendments, and including all the Egyptian political parties and civil society organizations. In addition to not restricting Presidential candidates to party leaders, or requiring the approval of Parliament to run for the presidency. To ensure the seriousness of candidates, they should be required to have the support of a certain number of citizens, not less than, for example, 100,000."

Writer Mahmoud Amin Al Alam makes a good point which was echoed by several activists: "The Egyptian television today has become monopolized by the President. So will the presidential candidates be allowed to use the media, just as President Mubarak does? Will the public spaces be opened to them? He stressed that the problem is not in the content of the law, but rather in the way it is executed.�

Doctor Boutros Ghali, head of the National Council for Human Rights said: “This is an important step towards supporting the march of democracy and embodies a good faith response from (the President) to the demands and heartbeat of the Egyptian street.

Doctor Ismail Serag Eddin, Director of the Alexandria Library: “The decision reflects the President's concern to realize democracy and his desire for reform."