On 23 February this year the Egyptian Government renewed the State of Emergency which has been in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in September 1981. The same thing happens routinely every three years. Routinely, too, the prime minister assures the nation that, as present incumbent Atef Ubayd put it this year, emergency law ‘will not be used against freedom of expression but to ensure the safety of citizens’. Almost as routinely, what passes for the opposition in this sham of a democracy once again planned to challenge the renewal of emergency law, only for their campaign to fall flat on its face.
The State of Emergency has dominated Egyptian life since Muhammad Hosni Mubarak succeeded Sadat over 21 years ago. Its provisions have enabled the Government to stifle, if not outlaw completely, political opposition, to censor the press, to try civilians before military courts, to ban public assembly, all in the name of national security. Throughout the 1990s it was also used to crush the Islamist insurgency led by the Gama’at al-Islamiya, sweeping up and imprisoning thousands of suspected sympathizers with little regard for due process of law. In the course of the same campaign, the security forces have frequently targeted members of the largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which continues to be denied parliamentary representation despite its disavowal of violence.
In recent years, emergency law has also been brought to bear against foreign-exchange dealers, gay men and human-rights advocates.
Even without the sweeping provisions conferred by the State of Emergency, Egypt would hardly be a democracy. Mubarak inherited the revolutionary regime brought to power by the Free Officers’ coup of July 1952, which overthrew the monarchy installed by Britain in the 19th century and eventually made Gamal Abd al-Nasser the country’s first president. There have been many changes of direction since then, in terms of ideological affiliation, economic policy and international orientation. The ‘state socialism’ and aggressively pan-Arabist, broadly pro-Soviet posture of the Nasser years was completely overhauled by his successor, Sadat, who in the late 1970s deserted Moscow for Washington, invited foreign investors with generous concessions and made peace with Israel. As a result, Egypt – the largest Arab state, the cultural and, under Nasser, political centre of the Arab world – was expelled from the League of Arab States.
Mubarak’s Egypt is back in the Arab fold. But the peace treaty with Israel remains intact, as does an alliance with Washington on which Egypt has become increasingly dependent for economic assistance. Central control of the economy has been relinquished very slowly and with little benefit to most Egyptians.
One consistent feature of the reigns of all three presidents has been the Government’s attitude to opposition and freedom of expression. The press is heavily controlled and intimidated into self-censorship. Where that fails, press laws allow journalists to be imprisoned for ‘slander’. Under Mubarak the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has completely dominated parliament and the political life of the country. Registration of political parties is subject to seemingly arbitrary criteria, legal opposition parties are subjected to interference by the state and their supporters intimidated. Elections are rigged as a matter of course to ensure a huge majority for the NDP. Almost every aspect of public life, from religion to trade unions, is heavily controlled. As a result, a culture of political apathy predominates.
At the head of the regime stands President Mubarak, automatically re-elected every four years since he came to power. But he is now 74, has no vice-president, no designated successor and, it seems, no plans to retire in the near future.
Leader: President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak (head of state and government).
Economy: Gross national income (GNI) per capita $1,530 (Sudan $330, Canada $21,340).
Main exports: Crude oil, refined products, textiles, livestock.
Monetary unit: Egyptian Pound.
People: 70.3 million. People per square kilometre 71 (Britain 248).
Health: Infant mortality 35 (Sudan 65, Canada 5).
Environment: Almost the entire population lives in the Nile Valley and the Delta, with some 94% of the land area uninhabited desert. Egyptian civilization had depended for four millennia on irrigation supported by the annual flooding of the Nile after rainfall in East Africa. The opening of the Aswan High Dam in 1971 put paid to this. This created a year-round supply of water for irrigation and generated much-needed electricity but also flooded and depopulated an area of 5,000 sq km, caused increased salinity and soil degradation (Egypt must now import most of its fertilizer), the spread of bilharzia and other water-borne diseases, an abundance of water hyacinths blocking irrigation channels and the depletion of the sardine stock in the eastern Mediterranean.
Culture: Predominantly Arabic-speaking (96%) and Sunni Muslim. The Copts, an indigenous Monophysite Christian church, are the largest and most important minority, some 12% of the population.
Sources: The World Guide 2003/2004; The State of the World’s Children 2003; information supplied by the author.
Last profiled May 1993
With the opposition largely denied representation (whether through banning parties, intimidating voters or rigging the poll count) in either parliament or local municipal bodies, political life in Egypt revolves entirely around the ruling National Democratic Party, in which there is very little scope for dissent. The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest opposition force and runs its own welfare and support services. There is a lively, if battered, human-rights movement. But the state encourages a dominant ethos of Islamic conservatism (partly to keep the Brotherhood quiet) and is unperturbed by the widespread public apathy towards politics.