The stage is set in Egypt for the final act of a thirty-year old authoritarian regime that has held tight control over the nation under the auspices of emergency rule.
Five years ago, under international pressure to hold multi-party, competitive elections for the office of the presidency, Hosni Mubarak made a series of cosmetic constitutional changes that would allow for other candidates to compete against him. Compete is a loose term – there was never any doubt that Mubarak would win. Eligibility requirements stipulated that candidates had to be a member of an official political party for a minimum of one year before the election, and that the party had to carry a minimum of five percent of seats in a parliament dominated by the president’s own National Democratic Party. Ayman Nour surfaced from the el Ghad party, but a smear campaign, coupled with embarrassing allegations and a prison term stripped Nour of any chance to run again or build on his modest 13 percent return in 2005.
For the cynic, 2010 will be another year of rigged elections, forcefully disbanded protests, tightened control of politically active NGOs, and the further grooming of Gamal Mubarak – the youngest son of the current president. Ayman Nour is the only major oppositional candidate who has announced his intention to run for president; several Muslim Brotherhood members have been unlawfully arrested; and US policy has shifted under Obama to put even less pressure on Mubarak to open up the country’s political process.
Despite the seeming parallels between the 2005 multi-party excitement and the current buzz of reformation, a potential game-changer is a new political force – Mohamed ElBaradei. According to the constitutional amendment passed in 2005, he cannot legally run for president, but as the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Nobel laureate, ElBaradei is in a unique position to press for change. His international profile and growing internal celebrity has allowed him to openly criticize the regime, and organize discussions between policy actors, human rights NGOs, and the fragmented opposition groups. ElBaradei’s Facebook group has over 210,000 members and he has granted interviews on the Western media circuit, appearing in the likes of the Guardian and the Washington Post. And while major government newspapers have attempted to cast his 12-year tenure at the UN and his extensive time abroad as a sign of his disconnect with the Egyptian people, he has garnered support from inside Egypt. The few public appearances he has made in Egypt have resulted in large, class-crossing turnout and minimal government crackdown.
In February, he started the National Association for Change that outlines clear goals for constitutional reform, including open elections and more relaxed regulation of the registration of NGOs. The state has drastically constrained new NGO formation and activity, forcing many political active NGOs to register as civil corporations – a semantic difference that denies effective groups access to substantial amounts of US aid. The group has become an umbrella organization for scattered movements like the April 6th Youth Movement, reform candidates, and NGOs pressing for change. ElBaradei publically invited the workers involved in the May 2nd 2010 protests for a minimum wage hike to join the NAC, further subsuming a variety of oppositional and disenfranchised groups. And while groups like Kifaya (Change) have attempted to maximize the “cooperative differentiation” in the Egyptian oppositional sphere whereby groups “maintain a public face of solidarity towards the movement’s targets while differentiating themselves in communications with their constituencies” (Abdel-Rahman 2009; Bandy and Smith 2005) ElBaradei is the first symbolic individual to coordinate collective protest against repressive constitutional amendments. Cooperative differentiation is especially important in countries with such effective executive regimes. Without the ability of groups to coordinate in pressing for tangible goals, the required amount of political momentum would be impossible to muster given the ideological differences in the fragmented oppositional sphere. Having a common target can unite groups of varying backgrounds and make political compromise possible when reformation occurs and the official political sphere opens up.
By galvanizing these separate movements, and organizing discussions between traditionally wedged groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and secular reformists, ElBaradei has managed to concentrate the force of a traditionally frazzled opposition landscape to pursue specific, landmark changes in the entrenched one-party system. Though the Muslim Brotherhood has substantial political power because it effectively delivers aid when the government fails to, it is not as powerful as the Mubarak regime would like the international community to believe. A powerful Islamist organization ready to take-over at any moment of weakness, would and does, lend Mubarak substantial leverage in negotiating with western nations, particularly the US. ElBaradei managed to garner the group’s support for particular reforms, and an MB official agreed to consider voting for ElBaradei if he were to run for the presidency in 2011. Though the MB platform differs from ElBaradei’s own, they do share a similar view of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, a view that radically deviates from the Mubarak regime’s current policy of aiding Israel in sequestering Palestinians and denying the delivery of aid across the Egyptian/Palestinian border.
This type of collaboration and cross-platform dialogue would not be possible if it were not for a now virtually unitary target in Egypt: the president and his National Democratic Party. Response from the Government, aside from the push to alienate ElBaradei by casting him as an outsider, has been limited. Amendment 86 in the Egyptian constitution criminalizes protests for reform to change the constitution, meaning that the government has domestic legal recourse to prosecute ElBaradei, even if they choose not to. It is his international profile and his presence in the international media as the point person for the opposition movement that likely protects him from any overt action on behalf of the Egyptian authorities.
Riot police crushed the annual April 6th protest by beating protestors, unlawfully arresting activists, and confiscating camera equipment from journalists attempting to cover the event. A permanent security presence downtown is in place to prevent any such gatherings, and a slew of other protests have been forcefully disbanded before critical masses could accumulate. All of this government activity has been defended by the regime as necessary to maintain order and ultimately to prevent fair elections which they argue will lead to Islamist rule. Using the boogeyman of internal and regional security, Mubarak has managed to quell American support for reformists. Regionally, other Arab governments have shown solidarity with Mubarak’s regime: in Kuwait, expatriate Egyptians gathering to support ElBaradei have been deported; in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, websites launched to organize support for ElBaradei have been shut down within hours of launching.
But the emergence of an organized opposition, led by an Egyptian international figure may be the tipping point for reform that has so long eluded a nation struggling to regain lost civil liberties, and the higher standard of living that accompanies them.
Abdel-Rahman, M. 2009. "With the Islamists? – Sometimes. With the state? – Never! Co-operation between the left and Islamists in Egypt" British Journal for Middle East Studies. Vol (36):1.
J Bandy, J Smith. 2004. Coalitions across borders:Transnational protest and the neoliberal order. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Mahadi, R. and P. Marfleet. 2009. Egypt: The Moment of Change. Zed Books Ltd.
Alix Dunn is writing in her personal capacity