Who can speak for the public?
Opposition to a fifth term for President Mubarak is getting vocal, and virtual, writes Amira Howeidy
The long queue of clients at the National Bank's Heliopolis branch on Sunday morning was typical. The floor was packed with customers waiting for turns that never seemed to come. Hardly surprising given that there were just two bank employees to serve them. After waiting for a full hour an elegant elderly woman broke the silence.
"Why don't they just hire more people in the bank?" she asked to nobody in particular. "The country is full of unemployed educated people, why don't they hire them for heaven's sake?"
A middle-aged man seated close to her suggested that the bank's manager was probably refusing to hire more people so he could save the money for himself. "It is corruption that is eating up everything in this country," he said. To which the crowd of patiently waiting customers nodded in agreement.
Such commonplace scenes assume a profound meaning for veteran politicians such as Hussein Abdel-Razeq, secretary-general of the left-wing Tagammu Party.
"There is a state of unprecedented frustration in Egyptian society which you can feel and see everywhere," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "And over the past year this sentiment has been increasingly focussed on the issue of rotation of power."
Although he has yet to announce his intention to run for a fifth term, 76-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, who came to power in 1981, seems set for an additional six years in office, making him Egypt's longest serving president. In the past two weeks alone the president has given three lengthy local and international television interviews which touched on his future plans. In his first and second interviews Mubarak said that he has yet to decide whether or not he'll run for a fifth term. In the third interview with the Saudi- funded Al- Arabiya station, the president was more forthcoming, hinting that he would be staying in power.
He also indicated that any amendment to the constitution -- an increasingly vociferous opposition demand -- is out of question. In a closed meeting with Egyptian intellectuals on 16 January Mubarak accused unspecified foreign powers of allocating $70 million to fund the campaign for constitutional amendments. And in an interview with two Arab papers published the same day Safwat El-Sherif, secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), argued against constitutional change, also pointing at "foreign powers" which, under the pretext of reform, want to "strike at the national unity between Muslims and Christians".
The weekly Al-Osbou newspaper -- allegedly close to El-Sherif -- appeared on 17 January with a headline announcing "Washington's plan for Egypt". That plan, the paper reported, included appointing a Coptic vice-president and cancelling Article two of the constitution which states that Islamic Sharia is the main source of legislation. The message, pundits say, is clear. Not only is the NDP underlining its rejection of any constitutional amendments, it is now associating demands for meaningful political reform with foreign intervention and sectarianism.
"The authorities are trying to imply that those demanding constitutional change are working for the US, by which they seek to win the public's support for the status quo," says Amin Iskandar, a political activist and member of the Egyptian Movement for Change, Kifaya (Enough).
The EMC is a recently formed coalition of Nasserists, leftists and Islamists set up with the express purpose of opposing Mubarak's re- nomination for a fifth term. The group's first public demonstration in central Cairo in December, held under the slogan "enough", earned it local and international notoriety.
Although demands for constitutional change are hardly new, focus on the issue intensified as the president's son, 42-year-old Gamal Mubarak, has risen through the ruling party's ranks amid rumours, repeatedly denied by the president, that he is being groomed to succeed his father.
Politicians argue that unless constitutional restraints on the rotation of power are lifted political reform is impossible. At least four draft proposals to modify the constitution are being floated by opposition parties and political activists. Their demands are specific: modifying the constitution to enable more than one candidate to compete in presidential elections, limiting the elected president's term to two periods in office, lifting the 24-year old Emergency Law and allowing the formation of political parties.
The constitution stipulates that a presidential candidate must have the support of one third of MPs. The single nominee must then secure the support of two thirds of the Peoples Assembly before his name is put before the public in a yes/no referendum. Article 77 of the constitution places no limits on the number of presidential terms.
Opposition party rallies and the odd demonstration are no longer the only means by which political opposition is being expressed, however. Increasingly, the internet is providing a new and freer platform for political debate and campaigns, which is moreover being accessed by a new brand of largely anonymous activists.
Egypt now has 3.9 million Internet users, and calls for change are regularly made in the relative safety of the virtual world. One of the more popular sites which surfaced lately is salamegypt.org, the "People's peaceful front for rescuing Egypt" which claims that the majority of the public would like to see Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa run for president.
The slideshows, links, audio and visual library and online radio station attempt to answer tough questions such as "how can the people regain Egypt?" It encourages visitors to register to vote and practice their constitutional rights in choosing who will rule, and how. "Peoples of the world choose and change their leaders: Brazil, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia and very soon, Egypt" reads its main slideshow. The site also links to other home pages calling for change.
"This is indicative of the will of most Egyptians who want new faces to run the country," said Iskandar. "I live in [the lower middle class Cairo district of] Shubra and can claim that the average Egyptian is frustrated and has had enough with corruption, a faltering economy and political stagnation."
That frustration, though, is increasingly expressed in the public's apathy towards politics. In the 2000 parliamentary elections 75 per cent of registered voters did not cast their vote, according to Interior Ministry figures.
"The Egyptian people have turned their back on political practice and this is a major problem," says Tagammu's Abdel-Razeq.