Egyptians will be voting in September on whether to extend the term of Husni Mubarak as president once more. Opposition to the move is growing, says Ahmad Hamad, executive director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre
Egyptians will be voting in September on whether to extend the term of Husni Mubarak as president once more. Opposition to the move is growing, and Ahmad Hamad, executive director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, told Mona Naggar about the background to the movement
A campaign has been underway for months to stop Husni Mubarak from winning a fifth term in office. The campaign has recently increased in intensity. Why?
Ahmad Saif al-Islam Hamad: This is because there's a growing feeling among the Egyptian people that there's a real need for a genuine political reform, in which the first issue would be a reform of the process of electing the president of the republic. Current practice has a third of the parliament nominating a candidate for the presidency, who is then voted on by the people.
Since the eighties, people in Egypt have repeatedly demanded a change in this practice, with a change in the constitution to allow for real elections between a number of candidates—and without the parliamentary filter.
The changes in the Middle East, especially since the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq, have led to an increase in discontent in Egypt. The reaction of the Egyptian government has been seen as inappropriate, and Egypt's position in the Arab world, and also internationally, seems to have been weakened by Mubarak's policy. And then there are the efforts which are being made by some members of the government to hand over the presidency to Mubarak's son Gamal.
Now several groups have emerged which want to ensure that this issue is brought to the attention of the Egyptian public well ahead of the election itself.
What are the main positions being taken in this discussion?
Hamad: There are two movements which are particularly prominent. One is the People's Campaign for Change (al-Hamla al-sha'abiyya min agl al-taghyir). When this group went public for the first time in September 2004, the government banned its press conference. So the campaign was started in the internet.
Then there's the Egyptian Movement for Change (al-Haraka al-misriyya min agl al-taghyir). Both movements have roughly the same slogan: "No to an extension of Mubarak's term in office, no to the transfer of the presidency to his son, yes to a change in the constitution and the election of a president from a number of candidates."
A third group is mainly present in the internet, the Movement for Peaceful Change in Egypt (Harakt al-taghyir al-silmi fi Misr), which has proposed Amru Musa as presidential candidate and is gathering signatures on its website.
The legal opposition parties have also set up a committee of eight parties under the name Committee for a National Agreement for Reform (Lignat al-wifaq al-watani li-l-islah), in which various contradictory opinions are being represented.
The supporters of the People's Campaign for Change belong to widely differing political groupings. There are Nasserists, Communists, Muslim Brothers, some are politically independent or liberal, many of them linked to the Hizb al-ghad (Party of Tomorrow), and many belong to NGOs campaigning for human rights.
The movement is mainly supported by a political elite. You couldn't say that it's gained any foothold among the wider masses. There are many reasons for that—for example the considerable extent of the despotism of the political system, or the fact that such a movement is something entirely new for Egyptian society.
It's the first time that people have been interested in the battle for the presidency so early in the process. In the past that was a red line which one couldn't cross: it wasn't permitted to criticise the president; in Egyptian society that was as much a taboo as talking about sex or religion.
The fact that people are prepared to cross this red line is a new development. It's been happening for about one and a half years, and that for me is the real achievement. I think that, whoever becomes the new president, whether it's Husni Mubarak, Umar Sulaiman (head of Egypt's General Intelligence—ed.) or Gamal Mubarak, he'll be confronted with a society which won't let itself be stopped from criticising the president and his policies or from questioning his legitimacy.
How does the government react to the activities of the reform campaigners?
Hamad: The government shows a certain amount of tolerance. However, there are attempts to put limitations on people involved with such movements, and to scare off those who are interested in joining.
For example, as the People's Campaign for Change let it be known that it would be starting its campaign with a press conference in the rooms of the lawyers' association, considerable pressure was applied to the association to cancel the press conference, which is what then happened.
And as the Egyptian Movement for Change rented a theatre for a political conference to announce its positions on the extension of the presidency and the hereditary presidency, the owners of the theatre were put under pressure to cancel the reservation.
Since then the rules for booking conference rooms in hotels or with trades unions and associations have been changed. Now a state security official must approve before a booking can be made. The rule is not yet in writing, but it's already being used as a kind of obstacle.
It's the same with the arrest of the president of the Party of Tomorrow, Alman Nur, and his colleague Aiman Barakat, as well as the arrest of three members of the staff of the Centre for Socialist Studies, who have been accused of having called for participation in a demonstration which was held on February 4th at the Book Fair.
At the same time, the government is trying to come over as a supporter of reform. That can be put down to pressure from abroad. At least it matches the picture of itself which the government wants to present abroad.
How will the political situation in Egypt develop over the next few months?
Hamad: I expect a conflict within the government in which there will be three fronts. One front has had enough of Husni Mubarak and wants Umar Sulaiman to take over power. Another wants Gamal Mubarak. And a third is trying for a middle way, in which they support an extension of Husni Mubarak's term of office, in full awareness of the fact that his health is unlikely to allow him to serve the full term, so that they're in effect simply putting off the decision.
Probably it will be the supporters of the middle way who will win out. I have my doubts as to whether Gamal Mubarak has a real chance of taking over the government, for a very simple reason: the Egyptian military will not allow power to fall out of their hands—especially in the context of the sensitive situation on Egypt's borders, in Palestine and Sudan, but also in Iraq.
It's true that the Egyptian military is much less in evidence on the national political stage than, for example, in Turkey, Pakistan or Algeria, but it shouldn't be ignored.
I believe that we'll end up with an extension of Husni Mubarak's term of office, but that this will be overshadowed by a general sense of disapproval. The Egyptians have the feeling that the economic and political crisis and the corruption are closely bound up with the leading figures in the government. That's why Gamal, Ali, Husni and Suzan Mubarak are the subjects of most Egyptian jokes.
Can Europe help the process of political reform in Egypt by applying pressure?
Hamad: The problem is that Europe and the western nations in general don't have a consistent position on democracy and human rights. Let me give you an example: there's a state of emergency in Egypt and there's torture in the prisons. In principle, and correctly so, western governments disapprove of both.
But at the same time, they refuse to notice the state of emergency or the torture on the other side of Egypt's borders. The selective criticism in respect of human rights weakens the opposition and damages those movements which are campaigning for democracy and human rights.
And why? Because it means that the issue isn't human rights, but that there's a secret agenda with demands being made of the Egyptian government. If the government accepts those demands, then the human rights situation will be ignored.
Ahmad Saif al-Islam Hamad was interviewed by Mona Naggar.
© Qantara 2005
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton
Ahmad Saif al-Islam Hamad is the executive director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre.