Arrests at the fair
looks for the limits of political opposition in light of this week's arrests of three activists and an MP
The invitation to yesterday's Press Syndicate Freedoms Committee rally said the event was being held in solidarity with "fighters for change". These include journalist Ibrahim El- Sahhary of the business daily El-Alam El-Yom, lawyer Marwa Farouk, and Saudi-British American University in Cairo student Baho Abdallah, all of whom were arrested on 28 January at the Cairo International Book Fair. When MP Ayman Nour, head of the recently formed Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) opposition party was arrested as he was leaving parliament on 29 January, the rally's organisers extended their solidarity appeal to this fourth "fighter", who has been accused of forging party membership applications and been remanded in custody for 45 days pending investigations.
The three activists who were arrested at the Book Fair were accused of possessing leaflets that incite hatred of the regime, a catchall charge that is frequently levelled against political activists. Sahhary was also accused of resisting arrest. The three were remanded in custody for 15 days pending investigations. The leaflets in question were invitations to a 4 February demonstration organised by the Egyptian Popular Movement for Change (EPMC) against President Hosni Mubarak's re- nomination for a fifth presidential term. All three denied the charges.
The EPMC, along with other activist groups, held the first ever anti-Mubarak demonstration in downtown Cairo last December under the slogan kifaya (enough). This coalition of activists -- who include Nasserists, leftists and Islamists -- was set up last year with the express purpose of opposing Mubarak's re-nomination for a fifth term. Other groups and individuals working in this direction are also demanding constitutional changes allowing for direct elections of the president and limiting him to two terms in office. Al-Ghad Party's Nour is one of them.
Currently, the constitution mandates that a presidential candidate must have the support of one third of MPs. The nominee must then secure the support of two thirds of the People's Assembly before his name is put before the public in a yes/no referendum.
Alarmed by the arrests, the EPMC announced it would go ahead anyway with its plan to demonstrate at the Book Fair tomorrow at noon. "The Popular Movement for Change is determined to pursue its struggle for change and democracy," a 1 February EPMC statement said.
Before his arrest, Nour's relatively play-it- safe political record hardly qualified him as an activist, let alone a "fighter". Activists, however, interpreted the timing of his -- and the other three "fighters" -- arrests as a direct message to anyone involved in calling for radical change. "Why arrest people at the Book Fair? Why arrest Ayman Nour? Why was [Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies deputy director] Mohamed El-Sayed Said banned from lecturing at the Book Fair even though he was scheduled to give a talk?" asked Aida Seif El-Dawla, a political activist and one of the founders of EPMC. Said, a member of EPMC, has been vocal about constitutional change.
According to their lawyer Ziyad El-Elami, Marwa Farouk and Baho Abdallah were standing at the fair's Socialist Studies Centre (SSC) booth when security personnel approached them, and asked them to go to the fair's police station. When El-Sahhary heard about this, he also went to the police station, and asked why they were being held -- at which point he was arrested as well, El-Elami said.
The SSC booth was selling a book called A Socialist Vision for Change in Egypt, a compilation of articles on the debate about the president's re-nomination for a fifth term. A statement issued by the SCC said that Abdallah was merely standing at the booth with her friend Farouk when the arrest took place, and has nothing to do with the centre's work.
El-Elami said the police confiscated Abdallah's British passport. According to British Embassy press attaché Caroline Alcock, no one has approached the embassy on Abdallah's behalf. "When we inquired with [Egyptian] officials, we were told that no British citizen was arrested at the Book Fair," she told Al-Ahram Weekly. Although she could not confirm or deny Abdallah's British citizenship as the Weekly went to press, she said the consulate was actively working on getting more information on the matter.
On his way to the African Union Summit in Abuja on Saturday, President Mubarak put an end to speculation about both his nomination and the possibility of constitutional change. He described the call for constitutional amendments as futile. "Those who talk about whether [presidential] elections or a referendum is the better option must realise that a referendum is based on parliament's nomination," he said. "The door is open for all citizens and legal political parties to contest the coming legislative elections." When asked about his platform, the president said, "my electoral platform is known, and is applied every day. I'm not new to the field, and my achievements constitute my platform."
Mubarak was also critical of most political parties, whose problem, he said, was "their inability to reach out to the people, or win in elections".
While critics of Egypt's political scene would agree with this assessment, they blame the 24- year-old Emergency Law and the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) monopoly of power for this situation. Accusations of massive rigging of parliamentary elections by the NDP have become part and parcel of how the vote is seen.
The dynamic does not look set to change anytime soon, as evidenced by a recently formed opposition parties' coalition's sudden reversal of its demands for constitutional amendment in the lead up to this week's national dialogue with the NDP. The coalition decided to postpone their call for constitutional change until after the upcoming presidential referendum.