Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Stirrings in Egypt

The fall of Saddam Hussein has opened debate over "regime change" in other Arab countries.
By Kamel Labidi

After initial feelings of anger and humiliation at the occupation of an Arab capital, the swift toppling of Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime has led to widespread calls for the urgent democratisation of political institutions everywhere in the region. In Egypt, journalists, intellectuals and political activists have crossed traditional "red lines" to publicly criticize President Hosni Mubarak for the first time since he came to power in 1981.


The humiliation felt by Arabs has no parallel since the crippling defeat inflicted by Israel in 1967 on Egypt, Jordan and Syria. But unlike the Israeli occupation of Egypt's Sinai peninsula, Syria's Golan Heights and Palestine's Gaza and West Bank, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq has given birth to unprecedented public criticism of authoritarian Arab rulers and brought together political activists of different trends.


The new pressure for democratic change, seen as vital if the region is to forestall further outside interference in its affairs, has come even from analysts and writers close to the Egyptian government.


"'Regime change' is knocking at the door of every Arab capital," said Reda Helal, assistant to the editor-in-chief of Egypt's official Al-Ahram newspaper. Arabs, Helal said, "cannot afford to delay any longer the transition to true free and democratic rule - the underpinnings of good governance, which safeguards the liberty and prosperity of the nation and the individual citizen."


Similar sentiments have been voiced at the opposite end of the political spectrum.


Hussein Abdel-Razeq, a leading figure of the leftist Tagammu Party and coordinator of the National Committee for Democracy, called the collapse of the Iraqi regime "a message to all non-democratic governments". He said it was the absence of political parties and a strong civil society that caused the Iraqi regime to fall almost without resistance. Ma'moun El Hudaibi, Supreme Guide of the banned Muslim Brotherhood Movement, said, "It is a shame to wait for the United States to impose on us political reforms that Egyptians have never stopped calling for."


The dramatic developments in Iraq have had the effect of improving relations among a wide range of Egyptian opposition parties whose relations have until now been tainted by mistrust and lack of cooperation. In a recent statement, the leaders of four legal opposition parties, leftists and human rights activists said, "The time has come to rid political life in Egypt of all fetters and put an end to attacks on basic rights and public freedoms."


"The humiliating Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq would not have occurred, and its independence and sovereignty would not have been abused, had this country and its people lived in democracy," they said.


They called for the repeal of the Emergency Law, which curtails the right to peaceful assembly and association and free speech, and demanded constitutional reforms to limit the excessive prerogatives of the president, allow free and fair elections, and free institutions from the hegemony of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) before the end of the current presidential term in 2005.


The Emergency Law was enacted 65 years ago and interrupted for only six years since. Egyptians have lived under its shadow constantly since 1981, when a radical Islamist group assassinated President Anwar Sadat. The law provided the justification for the detention of hundreds of anti-war protesters including two opposition legislators, Hamdeen Sabahi and Mohamed Farid Hassanein, in March. Human rights groups said some of those detained were ill treated in police custody.


President Mubarak, who heads the NDP, was re-elected unopposed in a national referendum in September 1999. Egypt's 22-year-old constitution puts no limits on the amount of time he can serve as president.


Public criticism of President Mubarak first surfaced just after the beginning of the war in Iraq when a group of 28 intellectuals of different political trends - Islamists, leftists and even Al Ahram columnists - took issue with his assertion that blame for provoking US military intervention in the Gulf should be shouldered by Saddam, because of his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. In a public statement ignored by the state-controlled media but highlighted by the Nasserist weekly Al Arabi, the intellectuals called the US-led war "a new colonial aggression - not only against Iraq, but against the whole Arab world."


Subsequent statements by Mubarak expressing solidarity with Iraqi people and stressing their right to freely elect their leaders failed to silence mounting public criticism of his tight grip on power and the regime's close ties with the United States.


The collapse of the Iraqi regime also led Egyptians to take their courage with both hands and tackle issues until recently considered taboo, such as the issue of Mubarak's succession. More and more political activists and intellectuals are now warning against preparing Mubarak's son, Gamal, to take over from his father. Mubarak turned 75 earlier this month.


In 2002, Gamal Mubarak was promoted to number three in the NDP's hierarchy, fuelling speculation that discreet arrangements were under way for him to succeed his father. Earlier this month, Gamal Mubarak said the issue of succeeding his father is not on his mind. But analysts said his words did not sound like "a firm denial".


Kamel Labidi, a former director of Amnesty International Tunisia, is a freelance journalist in Cairo.