El-Baradei and the hope of change in Egypt
The former director general of IAEA Mohamed El-Baradei returned to Egypt last week after living abroad for long years as a diplomat and then as a head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Before his return, he expressed his wish to contest the next presidential election against President Mubarak in 2011 IF certain conditions were met. These include, changing the present constitution, holding the election under supervision of the judiciary and in the presence of international observers to ensure a fair and transparent electoral process. At present, the constitution has been amended to become a tool for persecuting political opponent than a constitution. Interior ministry organizes the electoral process and fabricates the results using different tactics including casting votes on behalf of dead citizens. President Mubarak, in power since 1981, had changed the constitution making it impossible for any one to win the election unless he is from his party. He also incorporated the emergency laws, imposed since the British rule in 1923 and made tougher during Nasser and Mubarak’s eras, in the constitution to constitutionally crackdown on any opposition. Although he did not disclose his intention, Egyptians know that the purpose of changing the constitution is to tip his son, Gamal, to succeed him in the presidential post without significant opposition. However, independent media, political parties, intelligentsia and even common Egyptians have been criticizing and opposing Mubarak’s move to monarchise Egypt. Mubarak has two sons: Gamal who is the president of policies’ committee in the ruling National Party and Ala’a, the business crocodile who controls and manipulates the financial and economic sector.
Before his arrival in Cairo, the government launched a campaign to disrepute El-Baradei making different accusations against him from being an American and Swiss agent to being politically immature. However, when El-Baradei arrived, thousands, mostly youths, went to receive him despite the blockade of all roads leading to the airport by security forces. A week after his arrival, El-Baradei announced the formation of “the National Society for Change” making it an umbrella group for all opposition including political parties, societies and individuals. This raised the hope for changing Egypt to a democratic country ruled by law and protected by human rights. But will the change happen? Many observers inside and outside Egypt are asking this question. The answer needs a quick look at the ground realities in Egypt.
- The army has been ruling Egypt since July 1952 coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. It is now the oldest military regime in the world. Army is the most privileged class in the society. No criticism of the army is allowed. No reports about corruption inside the army can be published. No accountability. Its influence is above all. According to Human Rights Watch on March 1, 2010, a 20 year old student of engineering was arrested and would be tried before a military court because he wrote on his blog about a teacher whose son was forced to leave the Military Academy later discovered that this was to make room for the son of an influential individual who would make financial contributions to the academy. Military officers are in all diplomatic missions everywhere working under the cover of diplomats. They are governors, heads of private and public sector companies and foundations. Military is the main and most important pillar of the regime. President Mubarak belongs to this institution.
- Police state is the second pillar of this regime. The whole society became under control of the most brutal security agencies that do not give the benefit of doubt to any opponent hence corruption, nepotism, absence of rule of law, extra-judiciary killings, torture, arbitrary sentences and military and summary courts. Sleeping moles are everywhere in universities, mosques, churches, NGO’s, trade unions, factories, schools and even homes. The nation is living in a state of political suffocation. A person like al-Zawahri, the second man in al-Qaeda for example, had committed no crime except participating in a demonstration when he lived in Egypt. He was arrested and brutally tortured before leaving the country to become an international terrorist, instead of a medical doctor, in Afghanistan. The recent example is the arrest of four Belgian citizens in Egypt and three of them might have died under torture according to the Belgian daily Le Soir of February 4, 2010. Security and army officers working undercover in diplomatic missions including in Europe monitor, report and persecute their compatriots living abroad. It is true that Mubarak allowed in recent years a margin of freedom but that was out of economic compulsions as political repression along with tremendous economic hardships would be fatal. On the other hand, he wanted to show the world some democratic face even by allowing what is not allowed in the democratic Europe. For example, he allows Christian private TV channels to attack the religion of Islam and Islamic private channels to refute Christianity thus keeping the people busy and the tension between the two communities high. However, we can see the real face of the regime in a written answer to an MEP question on 24 October 2002, when the then commissioner for external relations Chris Paten wrote, “The commission is aware of the extensive use of death penalty in Egypt and of wide range of offenses for which the death penalty can be imposed. Although there is relatively little official data available, Amnesty International figures indicate that executions in Egypt rose from 35 between 1981-1990 to 213 between 1991-2000. In the five year period 1996-2001 Egypt sentenced 382 persons to death 114 executions were carried out”. Most if not all of these executions were against Mubarak’s political opponents.
- The regime is so rigid that it could not see the international wind of change and adapt itself accordingly. One example is changing the economy from socialism to free market economy. The process started in mid seventies without setting any laws to protect the consumer or regulate the private sector and control its potential greed, which ought to dominate in the absence of adequate legislations. As a result, business tycoons backed by the Mubarak dynasty have taken over the economy, health sector, education, communications and even media using all legal and illegal means to enhance their wealth and pushing towards the bottom the middle class that used to form the great majority of the population. Thus, the vast majority now lives in abasing poverty.
- As lawlessness prevails, every domain in the country is collapsing; economy, health services, education, transport, security etc. The premier preoccupation of police forces and security agencies is to provide security to the regime leaving the people in absolute insecurity and injustice. In the absence of any visible achievements, heads of the regime including Mubarak and his two sons became enthusiastically involved in football battles. To divert people’s attention from real issues and government failure, the regime resorts to orchestrating frequent superstitious dramas, sectarian riots and even controversial religious decrees or fatwas. For example, when international media reported Egypt’s building of a steel wall at its borders with Gaza and blocking the international humanitarian aid convoys from crossing over to help the Palestinians, the government broke the news of Mary’s appearance in some churches. Millions of Muslims and Christians spent nights in the streets to see her instead of looking to what is happening in Gaza or what the regime is doing. A few days later, the Naje Hmmady incident took place in which six innocent Christians were killed.
- The opposition is weak, fragmented and in some cases financed by the government. No one is allowed to emerge as a national leader so the regime can continue to survive and the beneficiaries of the status quo can benefit more. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, the strongest opposition group, started having cracks. Nonetheless, this banned group will win in any fair and transparent election not because the people want it but because they want to get rid of Mubarak and his dynasty.
This is a very brief description of the present situation in Egypt. One may ask if it is so bad, why the people do not revolt. The answer is that:
1- The nations differ in characteristics. The Egyptians do not revolt. Historians have seen one revolution only in the country’s modern history in 1919 against the British. The belief in God-cum-King from the days of Pharaohs is still vigorously working in the psyche of today’s Egyptians.
2- In a police state like Egypt with the army influence in the background, it is impossible to organize any strong popular movement. Egyptians are also naïve in politics.
3- Throughout the history, Egyptians depended on armed forces for change. This means that any change should come from the armed forces in any form and any uniform. It has been a prominent political phenomenon in the history of Egypt right from the Pharaohs, to the Muslim dynasties of the Fatimids, the Mamluks, the Ayyubis, the Ottomans, and even the British rule until today. The masses have never been the key player in bringing a change. It has to come from above. In today’s situation, this means the army is the key instrument of change.
It seems difficult. He tried to assemble the opposition on one platform but a number of political forces have not given him yet their clear support especially the leftists and Muslim Brotherhood. It is also impossible for Mubarak and his family to give up power. There is a consensus among opposition on changing both the constitution and Mubarak dynasty but big opposition forces will not agree unless El-Baradei offers a future formula, which appeals to the interests of all of them. This, of course, will have to be through give and take, which can undermine the process any time.
Moreover, El-Baradei’s success is subject to what the army wants. There is a clear resentment among the small ranks and according to some sources there have been at least seven small and big mutinies and coup attempts in the last couple of years; all of them were aborted and dozens of officers have disappeared. However, the military institution is still the decisive factor in any change in the future.
1- The fervor of El-Baradei’s demands for change would fizzle out because of failure to reach an agreement with other fragmented political forces. In this case, Mubarak, in any model, will remain.
2- El-Baradei may succeed in creating a strong movement that will force the military institution to ensure a safe exit for Mubarak and his family but in such a scenario, the army must tailor El-Baradei’s demands in a way that keeps its privileges intact. This would mean changing the face and not the foundation of the regime. Having been a negotiator in Camp David accord with Israel, El-Baradei may be acceptable to the army who would also not like to replace Mubarak with Muslim Brotherhood.
3- The regime would use its tactics for El-Baradei’s character assassination including scandalizing him in a way or other so the people may lose confidence in him. He will then become a mere intellectual sitting in the opposition side or a leader of ineffective opposition group. Cases of Sa'ad-el-din Ibrahim and Ayman Nour are well known precedents.
4- The regime may physically eliminate him in one of its organized dramas.
What Europe should do?
For Europe, the main fear is from Muslim Brotherhood. Europeans believe that if they come to power, they will nullify the peace agreement with Israel and launch war against it. Therefore, they prefer Mubarak with all his evils to stay. However, this fear is exaggerated and unjustified, as Muslim Brotherhood cannot do this in a regime where the army controls everything and the army is relaxing and does not want to fight any more wars.
Europe should first admit the failure of Barcelona process and other similar initiatives in developing democracy and human rights in partner countries. It is a waste of time and taxpayers’ money. It should also make any financial assistance conditional to tangible democratic reforms. Most if not all of this assistance goes to the rulers’ pockets while the situation of democracy and human rights is deteriorating despite spending 3 billion euro annually on Barcelona partners including Egypt since 1995. Europe’s silence over crimes of the kind Mr. Paten mentioned flies in the face of its claim of defending human rights and freedoms. What did Europe do to change this situation? And what support did Europe give to thousands of political prisoners suffering in the Egyptian jails?
Supporting the demands for change in Egypt is a moral obligation on Europe and it is time for Europeans to break their silence and practice what they preach. Their support this time should be clear and loud before the situation gets out of control. El-Baradei, literary means in Arabic saddle maker, needs a horse and Europe can be the Arabian horse that may take him and his supporters a few miles on their long way to freedom and democracy.