There was a time, not so long ago, when Egypt and Jordan were the poster-countries of political reform and democratisation in the Middle East. In those days, parliamentary elections like those held in Jordan last month would have been hailed as massive progress and a model for all Arab states, especially as the country’s Islamic party lost considerable ground (albeit in the midst of widespread suspicions of vote rigging and other dirty tricks). And even Husni Mubarak, so long the US’s main ally in the Arab world, would have been gently chided for his persecution of opposition journalists, even if his treatment of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood), Egypt’s main Islamic movement and most popular opposition party, was quietly ignored.
But those were the old days. Washington has other priorities now, and there is little criticism of Mubarak's plan to pass political power to his son Gamal, who is in charge of the ruling National Party and widely believed to be already the de facto ruler of the country. Already 80 years old and in poor health, and facing unprecedented popular opposition, Mubarak’s determination to secure Gamal’s succession is at the root of his attack on the Ikhwan and other critics who refuse to be silenced.
That the Ikhwan is the main target of the crackdown is not surprising. It is the largest opposition group, though officially banned, and holds a fifth of the seats in parliament. It puts up its candidates unofficially and indirectly, but voters know that they belong to the Ikhwan and vote accordingly. This Ikhwan is ‘moderate', and though it is determined to introduce Islamic rule it wants to do so only through a ‘democratic system'. But the regime and its western backers, particularly the US, do not want to see any Islamic movement at all, no matter how "moderate" it is or professes to be, to come into power in the Muslim world. The crackdown on the Ikhwan can reasonably be described as a "war". Hundreds of its members have been jailed recently, with more than 40 of them forced to appear before military courts, despite the decision by a court that it is illegal to force them to appear before a military tribunal and that their cases should be heard by civilian courts. Those being treated in this way are not merely junior members of the Ikhwan; they include such senior figures as Khayrat el Shater, the Ikhwan's deputy chairman. The charges against them are as dubious as the means being used to indict them, and include money-laundering and "supporting terrorism". But the members and officials of the Ikhwan are determined not to bow to blackmail by the regime and they continue to be arrested.
Others arrested include journalists –some of them senior editors – who are not even ‘Islamists' and face ridiculous charges. In recent weeks, for instance, four newspaper editors have been found guilty of defaming senior public officials and sentenced to prison terms. In early November, the Union of Arab Journalists felt obliged to issue an appeal to president Mubarak to intervene and end the prosecution of journalists – saying that unless it was stopped other Arab countries might follow suit. Mubarak probably welcomed the appeal for giving the impression that he was not responsible for the arrests in the first place.
However, the Egyptian people know better, particularly those also suffering from poor economic and living conditions. Strikes and demonstrations against the government’s economic policies, and for better pay and working conditions, have added to its sensitivity. Cotton-factory workers, for example, recently staged a widespread strike and protest-marches to secure a better monthly pay-packet than the £13 they currently receive, especially as Egypt is the largest producer of cotton in the world. Faced with this economic unrest, all the government can do is unleash regular crackdowns or issue appeals to the public to believe that the government's economic performance and policies are sound.
During the annual meeting of the ruling National Democratic Party last month, Gamal issued a long statement on the economy, urging listeners to believe that the economic reforms the government is undertaking “are not in the sole interest of the rich” and that they do take into account the interests of the poor. The main preoccupation of the gathering, however, was not to deal with economic issues but to introduce a new procedure for the selection of the party's candidate for the next presidential election -- in other words Gamal's selection as successor to Mubarak.
Whether the Egyptian people will take this without a fight remains to be seen; their anger at economic failures, corruption in high places and the escalating political crackdowns are expected to intensify. Like Abdullah’s regime in Jordan, the Egyptian government is ultimately an authoritarian dynastic dictatorship with little credit or credibility anywhere except in Washington. Add to this anger their deep embarrassment at the Egyptian government’s connivance with US/Israeli plans to force the Palestinians into a false peace with Israel, and the situation is clearly volatile. Husni and Gamal Mubarak know that they risk being removed from power by their people if they are not very careful indeed.