ON THE STREETS OF CAIRO, THE OLD CULTURE OF quietism and subservience to an illegitimate regime was slowly being eroded. In a country long neutralized by a potent mixture of apathy and despair, the numbers were still small, but small was better than nothing. At least, now like never before, Egyptians were braving the blows of regime thugs to say “enough.”
Eight months ago, Egypt was an altogether different place. But with their December 12th protest at the Supreme Judicial Court, an assorted bunch of leftists and nationalists who called themselves “Ki fava” would break the taboo and usher in a new phase in Egyptian politics. It was the first explicitly anti-Mubarak protest in 24 years and it would not be the last.
What followed were heady days of promise, quickly followed by the crushing grip of a powerful authoritarian regime, slightly shaken but still determined to stay in power at any cost. While President Hosni Mubarak and his cronies dutifully paid lip service to the need for reform, they, at the same time, began embarking on a systematic campaign to silence the opposition. But the opposition itself was becoming more emboldened, more willing than ever to push the limits of political discourse. After the leader of the Uberai Al-Ghad party, Ayman Nour, was arrested, the U.S. began putting unprecedented pressure on the Egyptian government to open up its political system. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s decision to cancel her March trip to Egypt did not go unnoticed.
In response to the mounting domestic and international pressure, Mubarak announced that Egypt, for the first time in history, would hold multi-candidate presidential elections in the fall. It wasn’t as if Mubarak had suddenly found a copy of Locke lying on his bedroom floor. Rather, it was the act of a master, cosmetic reform couched in the grandiose language of democracy. The Bush administration’s cheerleaders interpreted the announcement, prematurely as it would turn out, as a vindication of America’s “forward strategy for freedom.” The events that followed would betray a different story.
In late March and April, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best-organized opposition group, finally awoke from its self-imposed slumber. It organized a series of spirited protests calling for constitutional reform and greater freedoms. Not surprisingly, the regime – knowing that America only gets angry when secularists are arrested – responded ruthlessly, putting its infamous secret police to work. Since then, thousands of Muslim Brothers have been arrested in what has been the most devastating crackdown on the group in decades.
The Brotherhood and several secular opposition parties boycotted the May 25th referendum on the proposed election reforms (“reforms” which essentially guaranteed that Mubarak would handily win re-election). Hovering around polling stations, pro-Mubarak thugs beat and sexually harassed protestors while policemen stood by watching. What was more surprising than the government’s heavyhanded actions, however, was the tepid American response, leading to Egyptian opposition claims of being sold out. The words of Laura Bush – who famously just one week prior had called Mubarak’s reforms “bold” and “wise” signified everything that Egyptians feared was true about America’s high-minded, but misguided, efforts to encourage Arab democracy.
Indeed, it was a far cry from the soaring rhetoric that the Bush administration had once employed so liberally. In his inaugural address earlier this year, President Bush assured us that America would no longer support Arab dictators in the name of stability and the status quo. With lofty words harkening back to a different time, Bush pledged to stand by those who fought for Arab freedom: “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” But, like most things in this most troubled of regions, it was not to be.
As of late, the protests have proliferated as demonstrations have become an almost weekly spectacle. The gap between the opposition and the government has only widened. The danger of escalation is real. In such a context, Condoleezza Rice’s recent June trip to the Middle East took on an added significance. Perhaps she would use the opportunity to recommit the U.S. to the goal of ending Arab autocracy. She did not. During what was billed as a major policy speech at the American University in Cairo on June 20th, Rice had some tough words about emergency laws and the lack of basic freedoms in Egypt, but there was no indication that she or anyone else was planning on doing anything of substance to pressure Mubarak to move toward real democracy. In the Q_and A session, she made clear that the U.S. had not engaged with the Muslim Brotherhood and “we won’t.”
After her speech, Rice had a much-touted meeting with the Egyptian “opposition,” most of whom in fact turned out to be “reformists” with close ties to the ruling National Democratic Party. It did not go unnoticed by Egyptians that the Kifaya movement and the Muslim Brotherhood – the two opposition groups most vehemently opposed to U.S. foreign policy – were not invited.
What Rice said, but more importantly what she did not, made clear that the Faustian bargain with friendly Arab tyrants had been dutifully reaffirmed.
The U.S. looks likely to sit on the sidelines, as Egyptians fight for the soul of their country. The notoriously fractious opposition is still just that, although, there are tentative indications that diverse groups are making common cause around a pro-democracy, anti-Mubarak platform.
After Rice’s departure, during a conference in Cairo, the Brotherhood announced a broad-based “National Coalition for Reform and Change” intended “to exercise peaceful pressure on the regime, through legal and constitutional means, to make it respond to democratic change.” The secular Wafd Party has reportedly joined the alliance while Ayman Nour’s Al-Ghad has expressed support for the idea. Several prominent personalities have also lent their backing. Magdi Ahmed Hussein, leader of the banned Islamist-leaning Labor Party set the tone when he said that “there should be one goal for this alliance – toppling Mubarak and his family rule.”
After much hesitation, the Brotherhood appears to be shedding some of its longstanding caution and reaching out to secularists and leftists. Where it was once reluctant to cross ideological lines, the Brotherhood is now asserting itself as leader of Egypt’s fledgling pro-democracy movement. Earlier this year, it released its own program for reform in which it committed itself to alternation of power, popular sovereignty, and the protection of minority rights. Recently, it has made a concerted effort to reach out to Coptic Christians, the one group which fears the Brotherhood’s growing influence the most. During its April protests, Brotherhood members held signs saying “Copts are Egyptians” and, in what may be a sign of a possible rapprochement between the two communities, Rafiq Habib, a well-known Copt, has come out in support of the Brotherhood’s reform coalition.
A circus-like atmosphere pervades the various hubs of opposition activity. Ayman Nour has become something of a celebrity and makes regular cameos, to great fanfare, at different opposition events. In a time where politicians live in protected bubbles, Nour still regularly holds town hall meetings with the impoverished residents of his Bab elShari’aya district. During his trial, hundreds of wellwishers would wait outside the courtroom cheering and chanting.
Today in Egypt there is a sense of possibility and that, by itself, is an accomplishment. Nour’s Al-Ghad party, Kifaya, and, now, the Muslim Brotherhood have given the Egyptian people reason to hope that a past of stifling dictatorship will be replaced by a new generation of leaders who believe in a democratic future.
Of course, a democratic breakthrough will not come easily. There remains a pervasive state apparatus as addicted to power as ever. America, for the time being, appears unwilling to exert real, sustained pressure on Mubarak. Without U.S. pressure, the presidential elections this fall, like the referendum which preceded it, will be rigged, controlled, and managed.
The regime will continue to resist, but the tide has shifted. The Egyptian people have made clear their desire for change. It was a few hundred courageous protestors, standing in defiance on December 12th, who set in motion a process which would, beyond everyone’s expectations, take a life of its own. That process continues today. The momentum, now, is with the reformers.