Al-Ahram Weekly Online
11 - 17 October 2001
Issue No.555
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Steering the nation through troubled waters

Mubarak's leadership has shown that Egypt is for democracy and against terrorism, writes Hala Mustafa*

Hala MustafaPresident Hosni Mubarak came to power at one of the most crucial moments in Egyptian history. On 6 October 1981, President Anwar El-Sadat was assassinated by Islamist extremists. The end of the late president's term had been marked by social and political ferment that manifested itself in repeated clashes between the government and the opposition and culminated in the mass arrests of political party leaders and intellectuals in September 1981.

Mubarak's incumbency, in contrast with the terms of his two predecessors, ushered in a much-needed period of stability. Building upon a call for national reconciliation, the president embarked on a programme of extensive reform, the key words of which were economic development and democratisation under the rule of law.

The economic reform programme launched by Mubarak has achieved considerable tangible progress. It succeeded in curbing inflation, increasing economic growth rates and lifting private sector activity to 65 per cent of total domestic investment and 71 per cent of the GDP. Though the process has sometimes appeared slow, the pace was deliberate. Careful staging was essential to lay the appropriate groundwork for successive phases so as not to unduly prejudice the economically disadvantaged. The kind of social disruption experienced in Russia and many East European countries that were too hasty in their push for economic deregulation was thereby averted.

Some have felt that the emphasis on economic reform has deprioritised political reform, but this opinion fails to appreciate the dynamic relationship between the two processes. The social progress of economic reform inherently works to broaden the base of political participation, which, in turn, is a precondition for democratisation.

Testifying to this dynamic is the stability that has come to characterise political party life over the past two decades, in contrast to the very shaky beginnings of the multi-party system in the 1970s. This climate has been conducive to the rise of many new political parties, which now number 15. Although many of these parties still lack strong grass roots support, the plurality alone is indicative of growing political party vitality.

Periodic legislative elections held in 1984, 1987, 1990, 1995 and 2000 are also a significant indicator of the health of the democratisation process. It is important to note that the 1995 elections took place on schedule, despite a failed assassination attempt against President Mubarak in Addis Ababa -- an event that could easily have been used as an excuse for postponing the ballot. More significantly, the last elections took place under full judicial supervision, in accordance with a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court taken to ensure the integrity of the polling process. While it is true that there were certain irregularities that led to several cases contesting the election results, these were largely the product of the traditional forms of allegiance that continue to pervade Egyptian society. They by no means detract from the importance of this landmark ruling.

The legacy of the centralised state and seemingly insurmountable red tape is a well-known hindrance to change. In spite of this, civil society has undergone a remarkable period of quantitative and qualitative development over the past two decades. Of particular importance has been the unprecedented emergence of numerous human rights organisations and NGOs.

And yet, the government and society still had to contend with the challenge of the extremist political Islamist movement, which first germinated as the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 and eventually produced the radical groupings of the 1970s. The first among these was the group, led by Palestinian Saleh Sareyya, which attacked Cairo's Technical Military Academy in 1974. In 1977 the Takfir wal-Higra was founded by Shukri Moustafa, formerly of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al- Gama'a Al-Islamiya, which first surfaced in Upper Egypt, also emerged around this time.

These groups and their various offshoots maintained that Arab regimes were corrupt and must be overthrown in order to restore the Islamic caliphate. They also subscribed to the notion of jihad against the West, which embodied the immorality and oppression felt by Muslim peoples.

At the beginning of Mubarak's term, the government sought to contain the radical Islamist movement by opening channels of communication with these groups and permitting the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, to participate in the political process. Although the Brotherhood had been officially declared illegal in 1954, its candidates could field themselves as independents in legislative elections or under the umbrella of opposition political parties. These policies, however, were doomed to failure.

To begin with, the radical fundamentalists refused to recognise the legitimacy of the state, which they rejected as non-Islamic. Consequently, they refused to interact with the political apparatus. These groups were ideologically opposed to political party plurality and the rules of the democratic process in general. The demand for an Islamic government and the radical transformation of the state and society left no middle ground for compromise.

By the early 1990s, Islamist extremism came to constitute the single greatest threat to political and social stability in Egypt. Fundamentalist violence targeted the state's police and security forces, political figures and even intellectual luminaries like Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. The 1990s also bore tragic witness to a new phenomenon: repeated terrorist assaults against tourist groups, the most notorious of which was the Luxor massacre of 1997. Simultaneously, extremist groups used Islamic charity societies and mosques as centres for recruitment and forums for the mass propagation of their ideas.

In the late 1990s, particularly after the Luxor massacre, extremist violence in Egypt began to abate. The government was forced to relinquish its former strategy and, instead, take a number of tough measures to tackle terrorism head on. In addition to security clampdowns on radical Islamist elements, legislative amendments were introduced to allow for closer monitoring of professional syndicates, student unions and charity organisations and mosques, all of which had been used as springboards for insurgent activities. Collaborators in terrorist acts were put on trial and convicted, although many had already managed to flee the country. Some succeeded in obtaining political asylum in Europe, where they were able to pursue their activities with impunity. Indeed, precisely because of this, some of the names we hear following the suicide attacks on New York and Washington have a familiar ring. Ayman El-Zawaheri is but one example.

The fact that expatriate Islamist militants began to orient their activities towards an "international jihad" against the West, particularly the US, represented a re-ordering of their priorities rather than a shift in ideology. The Arab-Israeli conflict fuelled this re- orientation. The crusade against "the occupying enemy" usurped the resistance to current Arab regimes as top priority. Israel was itself seen as a projection of the West, and it is protected by the leader of the Western world -- the US.

Although the rise of international terrorism poses a threat to all countries, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Balkans are the most vulnerable. They are the foremost loci for both cooperative and hostile interaction between East and West. Their multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies are steeped in centuries of conflict; and, as a whole, they have lacked stable forms of government, whether quasi- democratic or otherwise. Afghanistan stands out as a model of a strife-torn country caught in the vice of conflicting ambitions and trends, rendering it highly susceptible to violence of all forms, from armed confrontation to terrorism.

Such factors cast into relief the gulf between the "ideal" -- the fight against terrorism -- and the "real" -- the complex mesh of diverse, and frequently conflicting, interests on the ground. Afghanistan epitomises these intricacies. The civil war in that country does not only involve the contending factions but also, directly or indirectly, a host of international parties ranging from the US to Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia and some countries in the Gulf.

Fighting international terrorism is further complicated by the geographical dispersal of terrorist activities. As the recent investigations into the events in the US are revealing, operations can be planned in one country and executed in a second, while funding and tactical support can pass through any number of other countries. More important, however, is that a comprehensive war against radical Islamist groups may have the adverse effect of helping them to recoup the political ground and popularity that they lost several years ago as a result of their acts of violence in their own countries. It was hardly a coincidence that a loose assortment of radical groups sought to repackage themselves under the banner of the Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, thus capitalising on widespread frustration and anger over Israel's continued occupation of Palestine and America's unmitigated support for Israel. Hostility for the US, the result of Washington's Middle East policy, is one reason why Arab and Muslim public opinion has expressed reservations against unilateral US military action.

The view in Egypt is that the fight against terrorism must take place under the umbrella of a specifically defined international framework, thereby rallying behind it a wide coalition of support and averting potential international acrimony. Egypt believes that the UN is the organisation best suited to this objective, particularly in view of its long and direct involvement in dealing with the terrorist issue, to which the Hague and Montreal agreements of 1970 and 1971, and a number of subsequent General Assembly resolutions, bear testimony. Yet, since the relevant General Assembly resolutions are not binding, it still remains for the Security Council -- the agency entrusted with the preservation of international peace and security -- to adopt a binding and enforceable anti-terrorism resolution.

Several years ago, Egypt launched an appeal to convene an international conference against terrorism in order to lay the groundwork for a universally acceptable formula for anti-terrorism measures. We must recognise, however, that such a formula cannot be reached as quickly as we might hope. Perhaps the most crucial stumbling block is how to define terrorism, a problem that the UN legal committee has been trying to resolve since the 1970s. A particularly thorny issue in this regard is the need to draw the line between terrorist activities and national armed resistance against foreign occupation, particularly in light of Israel's ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory and the stalled peace process. This is why Egypt is keen to link the fight against terrorism with the need to push forward the Middle East peace process on the basis of the principles adopted by the international community.

Another crucial impediment to a universal formula for fighting terrorism is the lack of uniformity between national laws dealing with this issue. Great Britain, for example, has been too liberal in granting political asylum to extremist elements. And, although events of the late 1990s have compelled it to introduce legislation prohibiting the use of British territory for the perpetration or planning of terrorist acts, tighter controls must be instituted. Clearly, closer international coordination will be needed, and one imagines that a series of bilateral anti-terrorist agreements will pave the way for a more comprehensive international treaty.

Legal details aside, it will be essential for the US administration to come to understand the importance of acting under the auspices of UN authority. The support of the world's sole superpower will be crucial to helping the UN act effectively in the fight against terrorism.

* The writer is editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal, Democracy, issued by Al-Ahram.

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