A moment of truth
The ripples of reform may turn into a wave. But what direction should it take, asks Essam El-Erian*
The debate we have experienced in the weeks since President Hosni Mubarak called on the People's Assembly to amend Article 76 of the constitution, ditching a referendum system in favour of multiple-candidate presidential elections, is a unique event in Egypt's recent history.
A stone finally fell into the stagnant water and the ripples have enlivened a political scene that was all but dead. Few Egyptians retain any interest in politics. There are a handful of aging veterans engaged who can remember when the country had genuine political life. Then there are angry young people who joined militant Islamic groups between 1977 and 1997, and young leftists with little faith in the opposition parties. In the last couple of years these young people have been taking to the streets, marching mostly in support of pan-Arab causes such as Iraq and Palestine. It was only two months ago that the demonstrators suddenly turned their attention to domestic issues.
The moderate Islamic movement, as represented by the Muslim Brothers, has cautiously weighed its moves in the face of security restrictions. Such caution left young Brotherhood members restless, frustrated both by government restrictions and by the policy of appeasement adopted by MB leaders.
Until 26 February the scene was simple. On the one hand you had the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) boasting that Egypt was living a golden age of democracy and constitutional amendments were completely unnecessary. Even the president described calls to amend the constitution as misguided. On the other hand were the official opposition parties, with their semi-abandoned offices and newspapers that no one reads, aging leaders and dwindling support? These official parties were prepared to accept the status quo, whatever they said in public. They were ready to accept the status quo in exchange for official recognition, party offices, newspaper licences, funding and a few seats in the People's Assembly and on the Shura Council.
The opposition parties, with the notable exception of the Nasserist Party, agreed to a postponement of any constitutional review and were perfectly happy for Mubarak to stay in power for a fifth term. Their position was a result of the lack of room for manoeuvre. They hardly considered the possibility of power rotating though they may have contemplated a scenario in which President Mubarak abandoned his leadership of the NDP and delegated some of his powers to a prime minister chosen by the parliamentary majority.
The Muslim Brothers have a long history -- 77 years -- of activism in Egypt. It is the strongest opposition force on the scene, something the regime is using as a bogeyman to scare everyone at home and abroad.
The Brotherhood is in an unusual situation. Technically illegal, it is not entitled to form a party. The Brotherhood, for its part, wants the parties law rescinded and the NDP- controlled Parties Committee disbanded, allowing it to form itself into a political party. The regime tried to break the Brotherhoodthrough the series of military trials that has been ongoing since 1995. So far 140 of its members have faced charges and 95 have received prison sentences ranging from three to five years. Routine arrests have been common since 1992.
Yet the Muslim Brothers have continued to engage in political, economic, cultural and social activities. On 3 March 2004 it tabled a reform initiative, then initiated consultations with official opposition parties with a view to putting pressure on the regime to launch comprehensive political and constitutional reforms. The main item on the reform agenda is the abolition of the emergency laws, alongside the holding of free and fair elections so that the nation can decide for itself how it is to be governed. Should the country proceed further down the democratisation path parliament may introduce further reforms.
The Muslim Brothers are active in universities, syndicates, villages, and working class urban areas. It has tried, and failed, to unite the opposition in one front, and has endorsed a proposal to form a 50-member assembly, with a general secretariat, from across the political spectrum charged with the task of formulating an agenda acceptable to the entire nation.
The Brotherhood failed in this objective because of the stick-and-carrot policy pursued by the NDP.
The Kefaya (enough) movement sprang up a few months ago. This movement is neither party-based nor a front. It includes figures from the Islamic, pan-Arab, leftist and liberal currents and the statement announcing its birth was signed by 300 public figures, including myself. The movement has staged street protests and posted opposition literature on its website. The protests have been symbolic, with only a few hundred demonstrators taking part, and yet the movement's slogan, Kefaya, somehow encapsulated the public's mood.
Things changed with the president's 26 February announcement. On 27 March the Brotherhood organised a major protest in downtown Cairo. In response the government deployed 80,000 security personnel, along with a flotilla of armoured vehicles. The Brotherhood wanted the protest to remain symbolic, with 1,000-2,000 people gathered in front of the People's Assembly. As it turned out major demonstrations of between 3,000-5,000 people occurred in three different locations -- Ramses Square, Sayida Zeinab Square and the Saad Zaghloul Mausoleum. University protests followed with tens of thousands of students deprived of the right to elect a student union venting their frustration.
If you cannot hold a student union election freely how can you expect presidential elections to be free? If you cannot elect heads of university faculty, village mayors and governors how can presidential elections be free? The only proper elections known to average Egyptians are those of the professional syndicates. And these have been frozen by law. We have no real elections in labour and student unions. The leaders of such unions are security service appointees.
The public is concerned over the conditions of the selection of presidential candidates. That candidates should have the support of a certain ratio of the members of legislative and municipal councils, consisting overwhelmingly of NDP supporters, means in effect it will be the NDP who selects candidates for the presidency. The public is also concerned about the climate in which the elections take place. Will the state of emergency, for example, remain in force, with candidates and voters subjected to any amount of random intimidation?
It is inconceivable that people with no public support whatsoever will run for the office of president. We must not, therefore, exclude individuals who are not party members from the race. This would be unfair and unconstitutional, given the constitution upholds "equal opportunities among all citizens".
But then unconstitutional acts are not uncommon in Egypt. In 1984, and again in 1987, the Supreme Constitutional Court had to revoke the procedures governing parliamentary elections and dissolve the People's Assembly. Such incidents can harm public confidence and lead to chaos. There are two obvious responses to the constitutional dilemma. Either keep the qualifications of presidential candidates unchanged -- i.e. maintain Article 75 of the constitution under which Egypt's four presidents all came to office, or else ensure candidates are serious through other measures. They might be asked, for example, to either submit the signatures of 20,000 to 30,000 citizens or offer a financial deposit of between LE50,000 to LE100,000. The submission of a deposit might be easier since it would avoid unneeded administrative complications. Ayman Nour, a potential presidential candidate, we should remember, is still accused of forging signatures in order to form a political party.
Some people have expressed fear over the foreign funding of presidential candidates. I see no reason for such concern. Foreign funding can be supervised through legal means, and will not escape a vigilant public.
It is possible that in the future the regime will come under so much domestic and foreign pressures that it will be forced to introduce comprehensive reforms complete with a timetable. In such a scenario the country may pass through a transitional period in which true political competition and full freedoms will be established. President Mubarak could then take the credit for a historic accomplishment as Egypt finally moves from the military rule initiated by the 1952 Revolution to constitutional and parliamentary rule. The government would then express the will of the people rather than silence them for the sake of national security or repress them on the pretext of protecting the nation from foreign and domestic perils.
Several questions would then arise. What would be the status of the military establishment? What would be the shape of the national, social and political contract the nation endorses through a new constitution ensuring the rotation of power among parties representing the true will of the people?
One must remember that Egypt is in precarious situation given the tension between the government and the US administration. The latter is trying to implement its agenda in the region, and that agenda seeks to give Israel a free hand to supplant Egypt as a regional leader. Washington's policies will result in chaos and instability throughout the Middle East -- what the US secretary of state calls "creative chaos".
It is time for the regime to seek refuge in the support of its own people. It is time the regime made a new start and restored to the people the rights the revolution confiscated. Egyptians are capable of running their own affairs through parties and parliaments. The opposition, for its part, needs to unite. It must forget minor differences and focus on what matters, on the impending dangers, the spiral of chaos that may be the outcome of political stagnation, scientific backwardness, social disintegration, moral decay, poor economic performance, increased employment and a plethora of other misfortunes, not least the Zionist- American plot to dominate the region.
We have to find a firm footing for our relations with the US. And we have to make up our mind how we will confront the Zionist challenge. We don't want to get into a military confrontation, but then nor do we want to capitulate to the schemes of Sharon and the ruling Zionist clique that denies the Palestinians their simplest rights. One alternative is to support the struggle of the Palestinian people in every possible way, oppose economic normalisation with the Zionists, escalate the boycott and increase political pressure until the Zionist entity is once again isolated.
We are at an important juncture. We are faced with change and we can do it right. President Mubarak has taken an important step. He can follow that with more substantial ones -- an end to the state of emergency, a restitution of public freedoms and the offer of guarantees for free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections.
* The writer is a leading member of the Muslim Brothers and a former member of the People's Assembly.