In Cairo it’s once again the season of police batons and political rumours. On 6 April security forces rounded up about 100 young activists who had left cyberspace for the streets to protest the heavy-handed repression of democratic opposition. They were hustled off to security headquarters to face the brutality of their interrogators. A month later, members of the April 6th Youth Movement – originally formed on Facebook to demand political reform – were still in prison.
A draconian state of emergency has been in effect for 29 years in Egypt, and the already tense atmosphere was poisoned further in April when a ruling National Democratic Party legislator, Nachaat El Kassas, called for police to shoot demonstrators, reportedly saying: ‘There are 80 million Egyptians. We can tolerate losing a few rotten ones!’
Cairo is ripe with rumour over the successor to the octogenarian dictator Hosni Mubarak who, despite his pledge to ‘rule Egypt until his last breath’, is in poor health. The preferred option of the political establishment appears to be for Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief, to become President for one term and then give way to Mubarak’s youngest son, Gamal. The father-to-son succession is deeply unpopular in Egypt, so this would provide a fig leaf. But the democratic reform movement is gathering pace to upset the apple cart.
In anticipation of upcoming elections, the Mubarak regime has been clamping down hard on dissident voices from across the political spectrum. The most important lower house elections are to be held this October. Elections are important, if for no other reason than to keep the US aid tap fully turned on – Egypt pulls in a cool $1.3 billion in US military aid every year. The most visible target is the popular Muslim Brotherhood movement, which shocked the regime by gaining 20 per cent of the seats in the 2005 contest by running as independents – because they are not legally allowed to contest elections as a religious-based party.
The Brotherhood is popular because of its charity work amongst poor Egyptians and a reputation for relative honesty. It is also the bête noire the Egyptian government uses to ‘scare up’ support in Western capitals petrified of Islamic fundamentalism. But these days the Brotherhood is not co-operating. Although it has fundamentalist roots dating back to the days of firebrand religious intellectual Sayyid Qutb (executed by Nasser in 1966), today it presents itself as a moderate democratic option for Egyptians. It maintains its beliefs in an Islamic state but commits itself to achieving them through gradual democratic means. No matter. The Egyptian security forces started their campaign in early 2010 by rounding up moderate Muslim Brotherhood leaders – and many are still behind bars. The government is now trying to pass a new law governing the operation of non-governmental organizations that will severely restrict their freedom, crippling Egyptian civil society. Other security targets have included opponents of the Egyptian Gaza blockade, labour advocates for a decent minimum wage, the independent media and even hashish smokers.
But Egypt’s democratic reform movement is showing increasing resilience. It has also been encouraged by the arrival back in Egypt of former UN nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei, an outspoken advocate of democratic reform. So while security forces widen their net, they are also helping create a potential alliance for democracy with a constituency beyond that of the Muslim Brotherhood.Richard Swift