Judicial, media and student agencies are for the first time staging public protests against the autocratic rule of president Husni Mubarak to an extent that makes the recent challenges by political opposition groups, including the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), mild by comparison. Both judges and journalists are apparently fed up with being part of the system that has kept Egyptian dictators in power, and appear to be unwilling to go on helping Mubarak’s scheme to pretend that radical political reforms are being introduced while in fact he is laying down the basis for a fifth term of his own and for the succession of his son, Jamal. Journalists are also angry about being punished for using the ‘reforms’ he claims to have introduced, while students are exploiting the situation to express their intense anger about the plans for Jamal’s succession and about the emergency laws.
Thousands of students all over Egypt demonstrated on campuses on April 12, calling for political reform and an end to the emergency laws. The protests were confined to the campuses because Egypt’s state of emergency – in force for the last 24 years – forbids public gatherings of more than five people without government permission. The slogans chanted included: “no restrictions on political freedom”, “our country is a republic, not a monarchy”, and “no to inheriting power”. The students also demanded the end of restrictions on gatherings of university students. But one of the most worrying aspects of the demonstrations for the government is the repetition by demonstrators of slogans that say, in effect, “enough”: that Egypt’s people have had enough of Mubarak’s rule, and that he must go.
At about the same time senior judges said that their colleagues had been warned they could face “punitive measures” if they attended a general meeting in Alexandria of the Judges’ Club on April 15. But the warning failed to intimidate the judges, of whom more than a thousand attended. They declared their refusal to supervise the presidential election in September or the parliamentary poll in November unless amendments to the electoral law are introduced to give judges the power to exercise full and just supervision. They also decided to hold another meeting in Cairo in May to lay down the basis for complete independence of the judiciary from executive control.
According to Hisham Bastawissi, vice-president of Egypt’s court of cassation, “the first step towards democracy in this region must be the independence of the judiciary”. Yahya el-Rifai, the former president of the court, explained why it is necessary to restore judicial independence, pointing out that this independence had been eroded steadily, with the ministry of justice assuming greater control of appointments and wages.
Egyptian journalists demonstrated on April 18, in smaller numbers, to protest against the imprisonment of three journalists who had been sentenced for criticising Dr Muhammad Ibrahim Suleiman, the minister of housing. They cited Mubarak’s promise to amend the article in the criminal code relating to the detention and punishment of journalists for published comments, asserting that certain elements in government had prevented parliament from carrying out the amendment of the relevant provisions. But despite the small number of protesters, some of them shouted anti-government slogans demanding an end to emergency laws and the exercise of dictatorial power. This was an unprecedented action by the generally docile Egyptian media.
One of the explanations of the increase in popular protest is the Egyptians’ simmering anger at the claim of the Bush administration that it is working hard to push Egypt towards democratic rule. Ordinary Egyptians want to be seen to be responsible for the removal of an autocratic regime in their own country by themselves. But although the rise of popular action is a desirable development, there is a risk of its exploitation by the country’s secular elites, who are responsible for the misrule and corruption in one of the Muslim world’s most important states. They have been used by successive Egyptian rulers to consolidate and maintain power. Even now secular opposition parties are doing very little to remove Mubarak from office, while at the same time trying to secure credit for the growing opposition to the regime. As Dr Muhammad Habib, the deputy leader of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, is quoted as saying at the end of March, their anti-regime and pro-democracy protests are only “bubbles in the air trying to break the fear in the people”.
The Ikhwan itself is divided, however, some advocating drastic and radical action, and others calling for a moderate approach that might even include secret negotiations with the government. Many in the Ikhwan believe that the Egyptian public will not support a radical platform. “We are up against a coercive police regime,” Dr Habib has said. “We are also working with a population that is passive.” But while the regime has been trying to exploit the divisions, at the same time it has been cracking down on the Ikhwan more severely than on the secular opposition parties. Hundreds of its supporters have been put in detention for protesting publicly, and its leaders have in effect been forbidden to leave the country, although there are no judicial orders against their departure; they are just turned away at the airports without explanation.
In fact the Ikhwan has always been the target of official hostility, with no government ever recognising it as a legal body. But governments have tolerated it in an attempt to use it against leftist radical parties. Mubarak, while using the same tactics, has vowed never to legalise it. In these circumstances, the time may have come for the Ikhwan to project a united and radical front not only to the regime but also to the secular opposition parties that are trying to take credit for the protests. The secular opposition is also cooperating with the government to try to stem the tide of Islamic radicalism. To its credit, the Ikhwan has long opposed corruption and dictatorial rule. Thus it is the only existing organisation in Egypt with the credibility to lead public protests in a convincing manner.