Political opposition and Democratization in Egypt

In Salon Ibn Rushd by CIHRS

What choices available to the party and non-party, legitimate and illegitimate, opposition forces as the political regime’s intentions to restore the pre-winter 2004 situations by an iron fist are stating to elaborate. The regime has already confiscated the right to demonstrate and arrested hundreds by dint of the emergency law so as to face the peaceful political opposition. On the other hand, a certain constitutional coup is in the pipeline at the cost of the chapter on the rights enshrined in the existing constitution, in preparation to promulgate a counterterrorism bill permanently identifying and constitutionalizing the definition of “Emergency”. In addition, a new wave of legislative suppression campaigns is being launched under the guise of political and constitutional reform.

Attempting these questions, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) organized a seminar in the framework of Ibn Rushd Salon under the title “Back to Square One.. The Opposition’s Hard Choices”. The seminar was moderated by Bahey Eddin Hassan, CIHRS Director.

Mr. Hassan started by saying that the decision on banning demonstration was not confined to the very day of the disciplinary trial of the two judge deputies of the Cessation Court; rather there had already been a political decision to confiscate, or stymie, the right to demonstrate. Mr. Hassan pointed out that human rights demonstrations in front of Qasr el-Nil police station were banned days before; a senior state security officer, moreover, openly declared that from then on, demonstrations would not be permitted as they had been the previous year. Mr. Hassan argued that the Emergency Law was used more widely over the last weeks as hundreds were arrested. In addition to the methodological flagrant targeting of media workers and pressmen, as well as press cameras in particular which received deliberate smash. He pointed out that Egyptian security bodies all cold-bloodedly resort to all ways and means to prevent recording or documenting the violence they use, and impose restrictions on freedoms including using brutal torture techniques against political detainees.

Mr. Hassan added that the complementary part to this rather grim picture represents the widely held analysis that the activities Egypt have been witnessing for over a year and a half have not succeeded in motivating the public, contrary the opposition’s aspirations. Bahey ascribed this to the fact that systematic eradication of politics, taking place over the last 50 years, was not affected by the events that started a year and a half ago.

Adel Eid, a Kefaya Movement Member, started reviewing the development of the context surrounding demonstrations over the past period. Starting two years ago, demonstrations were tolerated by security men to a limited extent to give a false impression that demonstration is allowed and opposition does have a margin of freedom. He said that security used to allow small gatherings kept under control; if their numbers increase in a burdensome manner, it would rationalize them but not, according to a senior officer, with force.

Mr. Eid added that such demonstrations managed to attract many citizens, the matter which added to security apprehension, and made security forces impose a security band around such demonstrations in their marches down the streets.

The real turning point that appeared afterwards constituted in the judges crisis, Mr. Eid added. The volume of demonstrations did not increase, rather two major factors started to come to surface: a certain dialogue about solidarity between forces aspiring for change and the judges who call for reform: a solidarity that any form of which was approved of by the regime, as manifested in the highly exaggerated dense security mounted around supporters of the judges; while the second factor was related to the brutal acts of violence used in breaking up such forms of protest, as happened with the Kefaya activists’ sit-in in front of the Judges Club in a manner that outperformed the Israeli barbarism against the Palestinian people.

Mr. Eid affirmed that Kefaya Movement will resort to all powerful parties that can pressure the present regime, stressing that the regime carries out all instructions if issued by foreign parties, and turn them down if made domestically or by the citizens.

Real Reform
Dr. Abdul-Hamid El-Ghazaly, Professor of Economics, Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University, and the Advisor of the General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood argued that Egypt is, undoubtedly undergoing a real crisis stemming mainly from a regime that does not want to cope with modernity. Mr. El-Ghazaly then reviewed photos of the conditions we are undergoing, central to which was the tragedy of beating a senior judge with shoes; the question, then, was: what might the ordinary citizens face! when hundreds of young people were imprisoned and abused irrespective of their professions. Mr. El-Ghazaly said that the system we have is not even a single party system, rather a system of a single person possessing all powers controlling everything, whether in the economic, social, or cultural realms.

Mr. El-Ghazaly then pointed out that people augured well at the 2005 elections which was considered a mediocre step on the right track. He added that the first two stages of the elections were fine, despite certain notorious violations; the third stage, however, witnessed a retrogression of the regime to its old methods, as it resorted to the use of violence using rigging and thugs, and sometimes even killing – literally, as 14 people were reported killed. The prime minister himself acknowledged that if things had gone naturally, the Brotherhood could have secured more than 44 seats plus the 88 seats they already gained in the parliament.

Mr. El-Ghazaly explained that everyone supported the amendment of article 76 of the constitution. However, he warned against de-contextualizing the amendment, which had happened already, as the amendment came out with certain ambiguous phrases. Mr. El-Ghazaly argued that the regime’s practices cannot be described as anything to do with reform, but rather the re-establishment of the already existing corrupt system. One of the regime’s key figures made 40 billions in 6 years, while 50% of the Egyptian people are under poverty line, El-Ghazaly reminded.

Mr. El-Ghazaly then emphasized the necessity to work within a framework of public order, law and a functioning constitution until these laws and constitution would be changed peacefully in a fashion compatible with our modern age. He pointed out that the Brotherhood insisted that the first stage of reform should be political, particularly article 76 organizing presidential elections, and article 77 so that the presidential term in office would be limited to two terms only, the duration of each not exceeding 4-5 years. In addition to amending the plethora of articles that give the president ownership of the country, as well as limiting the president’s powers, and totally separating between the three powers.

Mr. El-Ghazaly, then, called for supporting the Judges Movement and conducting free elections, ensuring free syndicates and civil actions and securing freedom of association. He equally emphasized that the Muslim Brotherhood found the way out of the present situation in maintaining the identity that the Other has been trying to wipe out, and in adhering to the Islamic scriptures as a way out of such crises.

A Paralyzed Regime

Mr. Hassan then took over again to comment that both Mr. Adel Abdel-Ghany and Mr. El-Ghazaly did not touch upon public actions in the next stage, the matter that suggested that both Kefaya and the Muslim Brotherhood had already taken the decision not to keep on demonstrating. Kefaya representatives had argued for prosecuting the police officers responsible for abusing demonstrators, while the Brotherhood showed interest in a peaceful change within the public framework.

Dr. Osama el-Ghazaly Harb, editor-in-chief of al-Siyassa al-Dawliya (International Politics) newspaper, argued that the present developments in the Egyptian arena –in this very historical turning point– marked a quite significant and radical change in political life in Egypt. He added that this is a historic moment to the development of the Egyptian political system, aged more than 50 years, and no more able to function properly. Mr. Harb cited the unprecedented widespread corruption, massive unemployment, deterioration of public and higher education, deterioration of health services and living standards country-wide as well as the inability of the economic system to attract foreign investments.

Mr. Harb contended that there is a certain public pent-up anger against the political regime, and that demonstrations are not the only form of venting out this anger. In evidence, Harb argued for the latest elections events as the majority of the Egyptian society abstained from participation, the matter which marked two forms of protest. The NDP even culled only 25-27% of votes despite the flagrant rigging recorded. Without this intervention then, the NDP could have obtained far less than this percentage. Harb deemed the ways Egyptian citizens used for expressing protest are much sophisticated than the demonstrations per se. In addition, one main pillar of the political system – the Judiciary – has already been flagrantly dilapidated. He added that the main forces within the Egyptian middle class – principally represented in tradesmen – among journalists, writers, engineers, etc. constitute a main component of the wide-ranging protests in the Egyptian society. Out of this, Harb concluded, that we have to recognize using objective criteria that there is a spirit of protest, some form of change, and that there is a certain development; if demonstrations should be one of these criteria, so let it be the simplest and last one.

Mr. Harb explained that demonstrations in Egypt are quite immeasurable, that’s because public actions along the Egyptian political history have been related to certain very important conditions. He pointed out that in this historical context, Egypt will not go back to square one, for there is a historical transition towards development taking over in the form of political change and developments in the whole world – and Egypt is no exception to this rule.

Mr. Harb then explained that Egypt in 2006 is radically different from Egypt in 2004. He added that there are three demands that should be adhered to by the pro-change forces, first of which is that Egyptian opposition forces should reorganize themselves, pointing out that the present parties were planted in an undemocratic environment, that the constitution itself is undemocratic, and press and media are nationalized, the matter which gave rise to party journals. It is no coincidence after 25 years that the role of political parties just vanished in a way that obliges Egyptian opposition forces to rebuild themselves and their political powers in the form of real parties representing the people, and really voicing the demands of the different political and social powers, of the laborers, peasants and the middle class. He deemed this moment suitable for genuine, unbiased parties to appear authorized by the Party Committee, the matter which would constitute a real challenge for political and party forces.

Mr. Harb added that we are undergoing a real juncture in the history of political Islam, meaning, that ideological and political variant affiliations are in the ebb now, instead, more than ten years of discordance will come to an end. There is a consensus, in fact, that certain priorities are not negotiable in terms of egypt’s democratization process.

Mr. Harb then digressed to the third point based on recognizing the environment and foreign factor, explaining that foreign support of any political movement is, undoubtedly, both positive and crucial. It only entails political and moral support, not interference as some would claim. He stressed that the battle for democracy is a real fully-fledged battle, and that it should be noted that foreign powers are merely seeking their own interests. Harb concluded that we are not in square one, that we have moved forward and that there are certain tasks that should be achieved.

A Crisis of Legitimacy
Taking the floor, Dr. Hassan Nafa’a, Professor and Head of the Political Science Department, Cairo University, argued that we are facing a real crisis, a real juncture in the history of the political system. However, he pointed out that diagnosis of such a crisis differs due to the accumulated failed policies at different levels, and the regime’s tendency to serve the interests of the rich at the cost of the poor, the matter which made citizens bitterly feel the severity of the crisis. There is, still, another dimension that triggered the crisis, namely the legitimacy of the regime.. Nafa’a pointed out that this does not necessarily mean Mubarak’s regime, rather the regime established by the July 23rd Revolution, given the difference between the characteristic nature of the three presidential figures following, namely Abdel-Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.

Nafa’a affirmed that renewing Mubarak’s fifth term-in-office has been abreast with Gamal Mubarak’s, the President’s son, rising influence, bringing to question the notion of power-inheritance and the legitimacy of the present regime. Hence the historical role played by Kefaya Movement loomed large. Whereas, the way such political parties were created had an influence on making such parties play a marginal, rather than an active, role in political life.

Nafa’a affirmed that the outbreak of the legitimacy crisis highlighted the fact that what is really needed is not changing the different policies, but rather the central point to remedying the policies’ shortcomings is for the regime to be legitimate, meaning truly elected, through realizing a political and constitutional reform that will change the autocratic nature of the regime to a liberal and democratic one. He further pointed out that the crisis is not only confined to the regime – it is also societal. He argued that all political activists, no matter what their ideologies are, should agree on the way to manage society so that the minimum would be that whoever ensures majority through the ballot boxes, will rule only according to the points agreed upon, and based on a new constitution. The matter which means that the central issue is how to create a new constitution laying the grounds for an agreement based on the rules of the game in terms of managing society. The issue is being proposed to the candidates to choose for themselves.

Dr. Nafa’a expounded that there is a certain perfect democratization model constituted in the president’s call for a neutral government representing the Egyptian public; that should have the adequate powers to function properly during such a transitional period. Through this government, a new legal party status will be instituted so that free elections would run at the end of this transitional period, which might span over 3 years. He explained that the problem is who can respond to the call and fulfill the task for formation of the very society which has not attained a stage of maturity yet. The main reason for this lack of confidence is, indeed, lack of contribution between forces even worse than the existing conflicts between the various movements and the government. Some parties, he added, employ partisan discourse. Dr. Nafa’a concluded by expressing confidence in the generations to come seeking change even within such parties.

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