Hamdi Hassan, spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition party, said "We were hoping the NDP will be brave enough to either confirm or deny that Gamal Mubarak will be running in the coming presidential elections, unfortunately ... none of the officials talked about the issue.” (2) The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and outgoing head of the UN nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei has announced that he has not dismissed the possibility of running in the 2011 election so long as there are “built-in guarantees” that fraud will not prevail: “I will only consider it if there is a free and fair election and that is a question mark still in Egypt,” he remarked in a CNN broadcast in early-November. (3)
Focus on Egypt as centre stage in Arab affairs has taken a dramatic turn since early-November, however, with current affairs overshadowing future elections. Clashes on and off the field between Egypt and Algeria in the World Cup, host to this year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and serving as middleman in rounds of reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas, attention has been effectively averted from Egypt’s long awaited transition to democracy. Though speculations over the legitimacy of Egypt’s upcoming 2011 election have been sidelined by the World Cup rivalry, the IGF, and Egypt’s failure to broker an effective deal between Hamas and Fatah, they nonetheless contribute in their own ways to the portent of a democratic deficit for an Egyptian demos to be realised in the near future.
Demonstrating Domestic Abuse amidst Bids for Dominance in Arabic Domains
Egypt’s 15 - 18 November Internet convention in Sharm El-Sheikh hosted foreign Government representatives, international organisations, university institutes and the Internet Cooperation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), among other interested parties to the world wide web. Following ICANN’s decision to allow non-Latin top-level domains, Egypt is launching the first ever domain (‘dot-masr’) to use the Arabic script among the release of Russian, Korean, and Hindi scripts. Nine out of twenty two Arab states - the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia - expressed interest in registering domain names.
Though the Sharm El-Sheikh Internet Governance Forum led to a general lull in coverage on the Mubarak family’s political future(s), it was itself a source of some censure in that it revealed a continued pattern of regime abuse. A marginal proportion of Egyptians are Internet users (one report indicates only 15 million internet users out of a population of 80 million), (4) and Egypt is ranked 143rd out of 175 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. (5) Although there are over 300 million Arabic speakers in the world, less than 1% of online content is in Arabic. (6) Reporters Without Borders, among other agencies, have pointed out that “Egypt’s legitimacy to host such a meeting is questionable as it has repeatedly been guilty of violations of online free expression,” noting that “It is astonishing that a government that is openly hostile to Internet users is assigned the organization of an international meeting on the Internet’s future,” and proclaiming that “Egypt is one of the enemies of the Internet and if Internet governance requires a degree of regulation, it should be of a liberal nature and not the kind that the Egyptian Government would like to impose.” (7)
There have been numerous instances of regime abuse over the last two weeks, bringing attention to Egypt as a perhaps undeserving host for the IGF and revealing its yet unabated use of force and coercion in the face of strengthening grass-roots democratic pluralism. Though the Internet provides a medium for a wide distribution of political parlance, in Egypt that medium is not as of yet free in the sense that one can be free from fear if found critical of the Egyptian Government. Police arrested two bloggers - Mohamed Adel, 20, Amr Osama, 19, and their lawyer, Amr Ezz - on 3 November for “spreading false news and rumours liable to disturb the peace.” They were reportedly beaten at El-Azbakeya police station before being released the next morning. Apparently, Adel was detained and tortured previously, enduring a three-month jail term.
Authorities dropped an investigation in late-October involving a police officer, Ashraf Aglan and his brother, Ahmed Aglan, after the two allegedly attacked a blogger. The prosecutor claimed a lack of evidence, though three separate medical reports confirmed Abbas’ claims to abuse. On 4 November, the Egyptian human rights lawyer Ayman Nour, popularly known for his work on defending freedom of expression, was forbidden to leave the country without reason shortly before his sojourn to the United States. And over the weekend of 15 November, Kareem El-Sha’er, an Egyptian blogger and political activist, was reportedly beaten and severely injured by Egyptian security forces.
Furthermore, Reporters Without Borders has yet to receive a reply to President Hosni Mubarak in requisition of the release of Kareem Amer, a blogger who has been held by the Egyptian Government since 6 November 2006. It is rumoured that his release would have indicated the Mubarak regime’s support for free expression on the eve of the Internet Governance Forum, perhaps also indicating unprecedented freedoms in the coming elections. Instead, Egyptian police continue to kidnap and assault those who excoriate the Government.
The World Cup qualifying match between Algeria and Egypt, played out in Sudan, resulted in mass violence both at home and abroad with the 1-0 Pharaoh upset. The tumult provided Egyptian police with the opportunity to seize dissidents. The popular site Bikyamasr reported that Egyptian security forces used the “match’s hype” to “take revenge of young activists like Kareem and other members of El-Ghad Party and April 6 Youth movement.” (8) Given the strategic position Egypt has forged between the US, Israel and Palestine, however, international pressure in redress of these abuses seems unlikely while all eyes are on Palestine leading up to its murky January election date.
The Nexus of Tightropes: Between Egypt, the US, Israel, Fatah, and Hamas
The relationship between the United States, the most influential outside actor in Middle Eastern affairs, and the Arab-Israeli Middle East took a few turns following Obama’s election and subsequent Cairo speech. For successive US Governments, Egypt has played the ‘friendly tyrant’ wherein the US would forgo pressuring the Government to adopt more ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ styles of rule in exchange for patronage and cooperation to the US following the Camp David Accords in 1978, which secured a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt to date. Classically, the United States has supplied Israel and Egypt with tremendous military and economic support, and could thus exert significant pressure on Mubarak to hold freer and fairer democratic elections and commit to the principles of human rights (or, alternatively, the self-styled Cairo declaration [the ‘Islamic’ model of human rights]) if American priorities favoured a democratic Egypt.
Yet Egypt’s role as mediator between Fatah and Hamas places Cairo in a strategic position vis-à-vis Israel and the United States, one that dissuades the latter to pressure for Egyptian democratic reforms while supplying the aegis to potential Palestinian stability. While, on the one hand, Egypt cannot be seen as permitting Hamas to negatively affect or influence its Government’s decision making, and must be weary of the Muslim-Brotherhood inspired Hamas radicalising segments of its population, on the other, it is absolutely imperative for Egypt that it is not viewed as supporting Israel, or the US, or suppressing the Palestinians, for that matter, while it continues to destroy tunnels it finds at the base of the Gaza-Egyptian border.
Following ‘Operation Cast Lead’ and concomitant pressure from Israel, Egypt has had to tighten its border security with Gaza, heavily monitored also by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Egypt’s continued efforts towards reconciling Hamas and Fatah thus demonstrate its support for Palestinian aspirations for unity and self-determination. In another display of solidarity, during a recent visit from Israel’s President Shimon Peres, Mubarak insisted that Israel stop besieging Gaza, and criticised the Israeli Government for requiring the Palestinians to recognise the Jewish character of the state, in addition to excluding East Jerusalem from negotiations.
There is some speculation that Obama’s recent Cairo speech, viewed by many as an attempt to restart US relations with the Arab/Muslim world in promoting cooperation between ‘Islam and the West,’ has had the effect of silencing Egyptian critique of unfair and uneven US policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In particular, Obama’s initial position, in line with Arab and Palestinian views, that demanded a halt to settlement expansion before peace talks could resume, has slid downhill in the face of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence on continued ‘natural settlement growth,’ and ‘economic peace’ as a precondition for political peace. Egypt’s reticence to confront this shortfall and inconsistency in the Obama administration’s policies is said to stem from the US President’s landmark speech, delivered from the revered Cairo University.
There are scant indications that Fatah and Hamas will sign on to Egypt’s proposed Palestinian unity framework. While some reports state that Egypt will attempt to resume inter-dialogue towards the signing of a reconciliation pact by the end of November, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, enigmatically denied the charge, while a Fatah negotiator appears to have confirmed it. To date there is neither indications that such talks have occurred, nor that they are likely to occur in the short while. Some reports allude to
Egypt initially suspended efforts to restore workable relations between Hamas and Fatah in October following a Hamas rejection of an Egyptian proposal to reconcile the two and bring an end to the political split between the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The split first widened in June 2007 when Hamas overtook pro-Abbas forces and subsequently seized control of the Gaza Strip. The West Bank remains the dominion of a Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, though Hamas was democratically voted into power in the last round of general Palestinian elections.
As it stands, the US and Israel do not accept Hamas as a partner in negotiations, and President Mahmoud Abbas garners only partial legitimacy from the Palestinian people, divided as they are between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and the Hamas ruled Gaza strip. Hamas maintains that President Abbas’ term came to an end in January 2009, and was illegitimately extended for another year. With reconciliation talks producing a paucity of hope for, in the least, a resumption of normalisation between the two Palestinian factions, the January 2010 parliamentary and presidential elections have been pushed back. The Palestinian Election Commission decided to set a new date in December.
For as long as Egypt can remain inserted in the Hamas-Fatah talks, it can stake a claim to the Israel-Palestine and thence the US-Israel-Palestine (Hamas-Fatah) nexus, and retain more freedom of movement in securing its domestic policies and agendas by force, free of pressure from the US and the international community. This includes refusing election monitoring, like it had in the previous election, in addition to clamping down on the Muslim Brotherhood, an act widely viewed as “a precursor to changing political dynamics in Egypt, particularly with regard to presidential succession.” (9)
Prospects for meaningful democratic transition in Egypt look bleak as the Mubarak regime serves its purpose as the ‘acquiescing tyrant’ to the greater US and international aspirations for Palestinian-Israeli peace. And for as long as the Palestinians remain divided, Egypt appears to be in a good position to remain firmly embedded in a nexus of regional issues that will postpone the question of Mubarak’s succession to yet another, more favourable, day. Given the inadequate reportage and register of Egypt’s domestic curtailments of freedoms on US radars in public discourse, the likelihood that Mubarak’s son is being groomed for his father’s post, and that the United States will allow it to happen uncontested, appears to be the most evident scenario for Egypt’s (un)democratic future.
(1) Matthew Gordner is an External Consultant with Consultancy Africa Intelligence