All quiet at Abdeen
A planned assembly at Abdeen Palace to present the president with an opposition reform agenda was banned. Amira Howeidy examines the symbolic significance of the defunct event
Instead of making the historical move of delivering a daring agenda for political reform to the president at Abdeen Palace yesterday, the opposition parties and civil rights groups who are members of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (CDD) instead held an angry press conference at the run-down headquarters of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) in the Manial district. Unsurprisingly, the Interior Ministry informed the committee on Sunday that their scheduled assembly at Abdeen -- the official headquarters of the presidency -- was not allowed to take place.
The committee, which consists of the Wafd, Tagammu, Nasserist and the indefinitely suspended Labour Party in addition to seven NGOs (EOHR, Al-Nadeem Centre, Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, Syndicate Services Association, Assistance of Prisoners Human Rights Centre, the New Civic Forum and the Egyptian Communist Party), had called for a public gathering in front of Abdeen Palace, which was expected to attract some 150 people. The committee had delegated ten of its representatives to formally submit the agenda, which includes such demands as revoking the Emergency Law and modifying the presidential electoral system to allow more than one candidate to contest the vote rather than the existing one-man referendum system.
Although neither the CDD nor observers had pinned too much hope on the outcome of the agenda, the symbolism of the move was viewed with more importance and hence greater political impact. This would have been the first time that political and civic forces took direct action to demand serious steps for reform from the president, choosing a highly symbolic venue: the monarchy's palace until the 1952 Revolution and the current presidential headquarters. Now that this political gesture has been thwarted by the security apparatus, CDD is interpreting the message.
"The regime is neither ready nor serious about political reform," CDD's coordinator Hussein Abdel-Razeq told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding "the government always worries when any political activity takes on popular forms. The ban wasn't on delivering the agenda itself, but on the assembly that was going to take place to support it." The Interior Ministry allowed five representatives to deliver the agenda which the CDD refused to do in protest of the ban.
A source in the committee who insisted on anonymity told the Weekly that a high-ranking official at the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) had recently contacted a political party leader regarding the Abdeen gathering and expressed concern over the venue and its significance. The source said that the official specifically objected to the assembly, which he felt would offend the president. It was banned a few days later.
The CDD, which was formed almost a year ago, drafted its agenda in May. It was not until President Hosni Mubarak -- also NDP's chairman -- called for a national dialogue with opposition parties last month in the party's much- celebrated congress that the CDD decided to pick up where it left off in May. Delivering the reform agenda was to capitalise on the reform- minded discourse adopted at the NDP's congress and the meetings it held on the fringes with human rights activists.
"We weren't under the illusion that that the government was seriously moving in that direction [of reform], yet we wanted to push forth the demand to modify the electoral system before the 2005 presidential elections," said Abdel- Razeq.
EOHR's Secretary-General Hafez Abu Se'da agreed with Abdel-Razeq. "We wanted to assess the government's seriousness on the one hand and practice some internal pressure to balance or equal the external pressure that is exerted on the regime regarding political reform," Abu Se'da said.
But critics of CDD and the multitude of similar political reform initiatives over the past decade argue that neither political forces nor civil society have the leverage needed to make any form of internal pressure on the government fruitful. Not only have previous endeavors failed to create a political impact of any significance, but the political forces themselves have remained stagnant and unwilling to practice what they preach. Most existing party leaders have remained in their posts throughout the past three decades while the younger generations are excluded from leadership roles or promoting change within the party echelons. Political parties, on the other hand, blame the strictly applied Emergency Law, which effectively bans political party activity outside the parties' headquarters.
In contrast, a months-long campaign by rights groups to cancel the Emergency Law has picked up lately. A group of MPs, political party leaders, writers, university professors and representatives of the various rights groups and professional syndicates recently launched a popular campaign to end the Emergency Law under the slogan "Enough Emergency", which seeks to create public awareness and thus pressure the government to cancel the martial laws.
EOHR's exposure last week of the death of a Cairo worker, Mahmoud Gaber Mohamed, while in police custody earlier this month might serve as a strong point against martial law, but so far the campaign seems to be falling on deaf ears.
"We need to develop creative methods to push forward our demands for reform," Abu Se'da said.
A statement issued by the CDD on Monday described the ban on the Abdeen assembly as "yet another violation of human rights" committed by -- what it described as -- a "police state" which "deprives citizens of the right to proclaim their views on a certain issue". The statement said the CDD will postpone the assembly to protect participants from "police hostilities" and will instead seek a license for the next scheduled assembly.
The CDD vowed to undertake legal action if the request is rejected.