Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Egypt in transition towards what?

Social upheaval seems unlikely with coffers filling nicely from gas exports, record canal tolls and booming tourism. But revolutions have happened elsewhere with the same conditions in place

The Hamilton Spectator (Canada)
Jan 14, 2006

An odd text message popped up on Egyptian mobile phones in the last days of 2005. "The price of an ulla leaps to $10," it said. An ulla is not some hot stock on the Cairo exchange. It is a cheap clay jug which, by Egyptian custom, you smash on the threshold of your house when an unwanted guest leaves, to make sure they never come back.

The purported scarcity of ullas was due, as any clever person would infer, to the end-of-year cabinet reshuffle that saw the abrupt departure of several long-serving but widely loathed ministers.

Yet in many Egyptian minds, the desire for door-slamming riddance might apply to the year as a whole.

Apart from the Cairo stock exchange, whose index rose 125 per cent, 2005 was sadly inglorious.

The improving picture for the country's economy made little difference to families struggling as ever with poverty, unemployment and diminishing public services.

Presidential and parliamentary elections, heralded as the most free in decades, turned out nearly as fraudulent as usual, returning the same president of the past 25 years, Hosni Mubarak, at the head of the same ruling party.

Talk of greater human rights was belied in practice by numerous graphic incidents of police excess -- most shockingly by the busting on Dec. 30 of a sit-in by Sudanese refugees that saw at least 27 people crushed or beaten to death by Cairo's riot squad.

Other images of the year that linger:

* A terrorist attack that killed 88 people at the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

* Plainclothes government thugs groping women protesters in Cairo.

* Voters scaling ladders to reach polling stations during November's parliamentary elections after police had blocked the doors to opposition supporters.

* The candidate who was runner-up in the presidential contest, Ayman Nour, being put behind bars for five years on a flimsy forgery charge that many Egyptians interpret as punishment for daring to present a liberal alternative to 77-year-old Mubarak.

Yet if Egypt looks much the same top-heavy, police-ridden state as it has since the 1952 coup that ushered in what some describe as a presidential monarchy, much has changed below the surface.

The most populous (70 million-strong) Arab country is clearly in a transition phase (though no one seems to know towards what).

The clearest portent for some is the dramatic advance of the Muslim Brotherhood. Though officially banned, Egypt's oldest Islamist group won most of the parliamentary seats it contested in November.

Probably fearing an Algerian-style government response should they have done too well, the Brotherhood fielded candidates for just 141 out of 444 seats. Yet it emerged, with 88 MPs, as the biggest opposition block to sit in an Egyptian parliament since the last king's removal.

Such success was partly a reward for the Brotherhood's formidably efficient organization, as well as for its adoption of a more inclusive message that stresses democratic freedoms rather than enforced Islamization.

But it also reflected widespread public anger with the regime.

The Brotherhood may have captured the same kind of popular will for change that has fostered secular movements in Serbia and Ukraine.

The ruling National Democratic Party's candidates lost two-thirds of the races they ran in, despite widespread rigging. The party kept its traditional rubber-stamp majority by coaxing scores of "independent" winning candidates to join, largely in the hope of getting more perks for themselves and constituents.

Mubarak's party, still firmly in charge, has a two-pronged strategy to stay in power.

The Brotherhood's success lets the National Democrats pose as the only alternative to Islamist rule, a stance that appeals to Egypt's worried Christian minority as well as to secular Muslims, many businessmen and also, presumably, many western allies.

Nour's imprisonment and the government's unwillingness to license a long-proposed centrist Islamist party hint that the regime actually wants to keep Egyptian politics polarized.

The other prong is economic. Egypt has pursued liberalizing reforms since the 1970s, but the government's commitment has often wavered, due to concerns, for example, that privatization of state assets would weaken the government's power to coerce workers or supply cosy sinecures to loyal officers.

That hesitancy has lessened: Witness the naming of a new cabinet dominated by prominent businessmen rather than party stalwarts or ex-army men.

With Egyptian coffers filling nicely from gas exports, record Suez Canal tolls and booming tourism, the bet is that economic growth will remain a buffer against social upheaval.

Maybe.

But then some revolutions -- in Iran or France, for instance -- came along just when middle-class expectations were rising.

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