For some years president Husni Mubarak and the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood) have somehow co-existed, Egypt’s largest opposition-group and world’s oldest Islamic organisation being widely described as “banned but tolerated.” The ban (which is based on the country’s constitution, which prohibits political parties based on religion) prevents the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen from contesting elections or seeking political power, but not from speaking out against the regime’s excesses. In practice, however, it has to do so strictly within the boundaries set by president Husni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since 1981.
The exclusion of the Ikhwan from the political process has enabled Mubarak to force smaller political parties, which are allowed to contest local and parliamentary elections, to abide by the rules of the extremely corrupt system he has imposed on the country. But now, for the first time, the Ikhwan and the hitherto largely loyal political groups have thrown caution to the winds, organising street protests and calling for the boycott of the referendum on May 25, which has been organised to gain approval of the constitutional amendment that Mubarak proposed recently.
The resulting crackdown on the Ikhwan and, to a lesser extent, on the other groups, was extensive, and increased in intensity as the referendum on the constitutional amendment drew near. At the beginning, more than 1,500 members of the Ikhwan were arrested, including Essam Erian, one of the group’s leaders. The group refused to be intimidated, and many members, including senior leaders, were taken and imprisoned. According to analysts and media reports, both sides are determined to raise the stakes, with the Ikhwan emphasising its Islamic agenda as a new policy. With many of those arrested being anti-US, and given the Ikhwan’s increasing radicalisation, it is not surprising that the US – which claims to be working to establish democratic rule in the middle East – is silent about the regime’s oppression. But it is not only the Americans who are being tolerant of the corrupt and criminal regime, and indeed cooperating with it. Sweden, which considers itself the most democratic and progressive country in the world, recently arrested and sent to Cairo an Egyptian activist who was being sought by the Egyptian security forces. It is widely known and frequently reported that those detained in Egyptian prisons are often tortured or even killed. The arrest in Sweden in fact coincided with the announcement in Cairo that one of the activists arrested in connection with the recent bombings had died in prison. The authorities say he killed himself.
The amendment of article 76 of the constitution, proposed by Mubarak, purports to allow the nomination of candidates to contest the presidential election in September. But actually it does nothing of the sort: it demands that prospective candidates be endorsed by 250 ‘elected’ officials, whose institutions are controlled by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), headed by Jamal Mubarak, the president’s son. The NDP has 90 percent of the seats in both houses of parliament, and more than 98 percent of seats on provincial councils. Moreover, the draft law requires parties to be at least five years old to put forward candidates: a demand that, for instance, prevents the new and popular Ghad (Tomorrow) Party from contesting the elections. Of course, the Ikhwan cannot put forward any candidate in any case, because it is banned. The draft constitutional amendment shows clearly that Mubarak’s new ‘democratic move’ makes no provision for any real challenge to his candidacy, and it is not surprising that even the American media have condemned it, calling on president Bush to intervene.
The Washington Post, for instance, observed in an editorial on May 18 that few Egyptians had expected Mubarak to allow a fully free election, but that “even the government’s tamest opponents have been offended” by the draft constitutional amendment, adding that “only the tiniest or moribund” parties recognised by the government will be allowed to put forward candidates. The country’s “largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, would be excluded,” it said. The editorial concluded: “George Bush insists that... Egypt’s government cease harassing the opposition, tolerate peaceful political activity, guarantee equal access to the media, and give judges the independence and authority to prevent fraud, with the assistance of international observers. Without these reforms and others, Mr Mubarak’s election will be a fraud.”
The reference of the Washington Post to the judges is not surprising, as representatives of the country’s judiciary have decided publicly that they will not supervise the elections unless they are granted full independence before the poll. This is an unprecedented public action by the judges, and a development that must have encouraged political parties and activists to be more daring than usual. But of course Bush took no notice of the Post editorial, as is usual with the press, and as Mubarak knows always happens to journalists’ effusions.
The most interesting development, however, is the radicalisation of the Ikhwan, whose traditional reluctance to challenge Mubarak directly is partly responsible for its survival so far. The organisation should work harder to prepare for the introduction of Islamic rule in Egypt, and not be content with demanding the removal of Mubarak and his son Jamal from power. That must happen eventually, though not yet. Whenever it happens, it will be a welcome development.