Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 August 2004
Issue No. 702
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

What reform?

Fatemah Farag reports on US Secretary of State Colin Powell's most talked about meeting in Cairo

It was the first meeting of its kind: on 28 July, after meeting with Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, US Secretary of State Colin Powell went back to his hotel to meet with eight political activists and representatives of Egypt's civil society. According to the press office at the American Embassy in Cairo, the meeting was arranged to "provide Secretary Powell with insights from a small but representative group of Egyptian civil society leaders".

Those invited were Osama El-Ghazali Harb, editor-in-chief of Al-Siyasa Al- Dawliya, Hala Mustafa, editor-in-chief of Al-Democratiya, (both Al-Ahram publications), Mona Zulficar, member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), Bahieddin Hassan, also an NCHR member and head of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, Ismail Serageldin, head of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Hossam Badrawi, senior member of the National Democratic Party, Mahmoud Abaza, deputy chairman of the Wafd Party and Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour, head of the Wafd Party's parliamentary bloc.

Abdel-Nour noted that the group, while not fully representative of civil society, was made up of activists who could clearly express their points of view. Others disagreed. "I do not think it is accurate to say this group represents civil society," said Bahieddin Hassan, "considering the strong [ruling National Democratic] Party representation, namely those who are members of the Policies Committee [headed by Gamal Mubarak]". Exactly half of the attendees -- Harb, Zulficar, Serageldin and Badrawi -- fit that bill.

For Hassan, the group's make-up signified that "perhaps, because this is the first meeting of its kind, the Americans wanted to send an implicit message to the government, that while they are keen on reform, they do not want to pursue this in a confrontational manner. A message that says that the reform envisaged by the Americans is a joint project between government and civil society."

That may have explained also the obvious absence of Islamist or radical human rights group representatives.

According to those who attended the meeting, America undoubtedly wants to see reform throughout the region. "Some may think reform in the region is a marginal concern for the Americans," explained Harb. "However, they are serious on the strategic level." He went on to point out that, "after 9/11, the Americans realised that this area has a lot of problems that must be cleaned up. This is not a choice, but a necessity."

On the other hand, attempts at "reform" in Afghanistan and Iraq have turned into explosive disasters of violence, human rights abuses and outright occupation and thuggery -- which might be why the US is keen on hearing what the Egyptians have to say about their own home front. Acting US Embassy Press Attaché Elizabeth Colten called it, "a listening session for the secretary".

Abdel-Nour said the most important messages delivered to Powell were "that any financing provided by the G8 initiative [on Middle East reform] should be directed to public services, and not individuals or political parties. That reform is an internal affair, and any intervention or attempts to intervene [by the US] weakens the efforts of civil society striving to bring about reform, and that the US's support for reform should be in the form of economic aid." Equally important, he said, was emphasising that "the US should realise that in this part of the world, they have a credibility problem."

Harb said, "the meeting began with Powell assuring that the US believes that reform must come from within. And much of the discussion made the point that the US must solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, if this is to happen."

In any case, the exact shape reform would take -- in Egypt at least -- is unclear. One senior political analyst said, "a Turkish scenario where moderate Islamists come to power is not possible in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is not viable, and Al-Wasat, a moderate brotherhood splinter group, has no base. And it would seem that support for Gamal Mubarak is one step forward and one step back."

Most of those who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly did not consider the recent ministerial change a milestone along the reform road. In the words of Hassan, "I see no serious indications of reform. The new government is made up of technocrats. And the situation in Egypt is such that the most brilliant technocrat cannot solve it without political change."

Hassan went on to point out that this was one of the points brought up with Powell. "Some emphasised social and economic reform, but in the end, the argument was made that the price of economic reform is so high that -- without the expansion of political participation -- there is no way to be sure it will bring results," he said.

Even Abdel-Nour, who described the change as a "small step in the right direction," believed that the "pace of reform is much too slow. And unfortunately it is [spearheaded] by a minority within the NDP, which has a membership of 800,000 in a population of 70 million. I am very, very sceptical."

Whether the US, meanwhile, is really interested in backing far-reaching reform, or simply using the reform card to pressure the Egyptian government into US-based foreign policy concessions, remains unclear. As far as Abdel-Nour is concerned, it does not really matter either way. "The US changed their position vis--vis Libya just because the latter changed their foreign policy in line with what the US wants, not based on whether Libya has become democratic."

Those participating in the meeting were clear about one thing in that respect; in the words of Abdel-Nour, "I know what I want. And I know what is good for my country."

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