The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Joel Benin weighs in

The following email from Stanford University Middle East History Professor Joel Benin was just forwarded to me. (Aida Seif El-Dawla is an activist and Human Rights Watch Award winner who is a member of several human rights NGOs in Cairo and a leader of the Kiffaya movement). Interesting speculation about the cause of Nour's arrest as well other info...

Dear friends,

Some of you will already have received a message from Aida Seif El-Dawla informing us that on Friday, January 28, three socialist activists – Baho Bakhsh (a Saudi national and a business student at the American University in Cairo), Marwa Faruq (a lawyer), and Ibrahim el-Sahar (a journalist) were arrested at the Cairo International Book Fair.  They were distributing leaflets publicizing a demonstration to be held on February 4 which will call on Husni Mubarak not to run for a fifth term in the September presidential election and opposing the possible (according to many, likely) inheritance of the presidency by Gamal Mubarak, the son of the incumbent.  The three have been given 14 day renewable jail sentences for “incitement against public order.�

I have nothing to add to Aida’s information about these arrests.  But I’d like to place them into a broader political context which underscores the gravity of this case and related developments in the several weeks.

The day after the arrest of the three, security forces raided the booth of Dar Mirit at the Book Fair.  Mirit is a politically independent, private sector enterprise and a leading publisher of serious and innovative books.  All the literature of the Socialist Studies Center was removed from Merit’s booth.  Both the Center and its publications are legal.  The raid seems to be due to the regime’s suspicion that the three arrested activists are affiliated with the Center and the Popular Committee for Change in which it is a major force.

On December 11, 2004 the Popular Committee for Change participated in a legal public demonstration against Husni Mubarak’s run for a fifth presidential term and the inheritance of the presidency by Gamal Mubarak.  The Popular Committee for Change is a coalition of eleven political groups and more than 2,000 individuals.  In addition to opposing a fifth presidential term for Husni Mubarak and the inheritance of the office by his son, it calls for a change in the constitution to allow direct competitive elections for the presidency, reduction in presidential powers and the lifting of the state of emergency, which has been in effect since 1981. 

The December 11 demonstration was an unprecedented political event.  Despite the small number of participants in the demonstration (perhaps 200 by a rough eyewitness count), it targeted Husni Mubarak personally.  This has previously been a taboo in Egyptian politics.  Violating it has virtually guaranteed arrest and often torture.  Since then, Mubarak has become visibly panic-stricken by the specter of a popular movement against his continued rule. 

Days after the demonstration, security forces massed in front of the office of the Socialist Studies Center.  Those inside expected a raid.  But there was none.  This was apparently an attempt to intimidate the affiliates of the Center.  But the regime has gone far beyond these efforts to intimidate its most radical opponents.

Mohamed el-Sayed Said, deputy director of the prestigious, semi-governmental think tank, the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, was banned from appearing at the panel discussions on contemporary cultural and political events which are one of the most important features of the Book Fair.  His offense, apparently, was to have publicly told Husni Mubarak during a meeting with a large number of intellectuals that Mubarak, as the head of the National Democratic Party, ought to appear in person to participate in the national political dialogue that the regime began conducting on January 31 with the legal opposition parties (i.e., not with the Muslim Brothers, the moderate Islamist Center Party, or the three Marxist trends: the Communist Party, The Revolutionary People’s Party, and the Revolutionary Socialists).

Even more outrageously, Ayman Nur, leader of the Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, which recently split from the Wafd, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in less than a day (this usually takes months) and arrested for forty-five days on charges of forging signatures on the petition to establish the party.  Nur is a wealthy lawyer.  He is no revolutionary and poses no threat whatsoever to the regime.

Some say that Nur’s arrest was a retaliation for his meeting with former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who has been visiting the Middle East.  According to this version of events, Albright has been sent by the Bush administration to tell its Arab allies that it is serious about democratic reform and that moderate Islamic forces must be brought into the political process.  Nothing could terrify Mubarak and the kleptocratic old guard that surrounds him more.

It is more likely that Nur was arrested as a favor to the Wafd.  The Wafd has joined with other opposition parties – most notably the National Progressive Union (Tagammu`) and the Nasserist Arab Party – to form a coalition known as the National Consensus.  Before the start of the national political dialogue, the National Consensus endorsed the common demands of all the opposition forces: opposition to a fifth presidential term for Husni Mubarak and the inheritance of the office by Gamal Mubarak, changing the constitution to allow direct, competitive election of the president, and lifting of the state of emergency.  Shortly before the dialogue began, the National Consensus began to back away from these demands. Suspicion is that the ruling National Democratic Party promised the Consensus parties that they would be allowed to win a certain number of seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections in exchange for dropping their opposition to Mubarak’s presidential candidacy and the demand to amend the constitution.  According to this version of events, Ayman Nur’s arrest was a sweetener to the deal.

These developments all indicate that the regime is becoming more repressive and less tolerant in the face of a continuing economic crises and growing public calls for Mubarak to step down from the presidency and permit a free election for his successor.  This is not yet a mass movement.  But insofar as there is a popular force for democracy in Egypt, this is its leading demand, and it deserves to be supported, especially by citizens and residents of the superpower which claims to be bringing democracy to the Middle East by force of arms. 

Joel Beinin


February 1, 2005