The ailing 76-year-old president Husni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 23 years with an iron grip, is busy paving the way for Jamal, one of his sons, to succeed him. The recent introduction of dubious political and economic reforms, such as the legalisation of new political parties, is designed to change the popular image of the regime and of Jamal, who has been publicly associated with the changes. The political reforms are too flimsy to make any difference to Mubarak’s grip on power, but they allow the regime and the US, its ally, to take credit fo them. And, more pleasingly to the US government, they leave unaffected the longstanding and relentless war on Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which continues to be banned.
Most Egyptians give the government no credit for introducing these reforms, and are bored by the excessive publicity in the dominant public media. The registration of a new party (known as al-Ghad: the “tomorrow” party) in October, for instance, attracted a small measure of public attention; yet it enjoys no credibility among most Egyptians, who treat it with cynicism and see no future for it. The cynicism is by no means misplaced: the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most effective and longstanding opposition, is still banned and appears to have no hope of ever being legalised. The main reason is that, as an Islamic group, the Brotherhood, though not very radical, will not compromise its principles to please the regime – unlike the old secular ‘socialist’ and ‘liberal’ parties (such as al-Wafa), which have continued to operate legally, though ineffectively.
But the legalisation of political parties, though in theory an important step forward, is not sufficient, given the regime’s grip on the media and the denial of publicity to parties or groups challenging the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP’s annual meeting, for example, is turned into a lavish public occasion, and given extensive coverage in the largely government-controlled media, including television. Ministers and party officials use the occasion to give publicity to the policies and programmes of the regime and the NDP – including the much-vaunted but largely rhetorical ‘democratic reforms’ already in place or planned. But the media is forbidden to give publicity to other parties or opposition groups; their annual meetings are held in privacy and are subject to surveillance by intelligence and security agencies.
One of the highly publicised reforms is the removal of the ‘old guard’ from senior positions in the NDP, the cabinet and even opposition circles. It is true that a large number of positions in the NDP and cabinet are now occupied by members of Jamal’s generation. But most of them are his own personal friends and support the regime’s policies – including the transfer of power to Jamal after Mubarak’s death or retirement. Although they are slightly better qualified to run state (particularly economic) affairs that those whom they have replaced, they have no mandate (or inclination, for that matter) to introduce policies or reforms that conflict with Jamal’s succession, the regime’s links with the US and Israel, or its war on Islamic organisations. Any credible reform of the country’s constitutional and political systems will give considerable leeway to those organisations whose accession to power would crush Jamal’s political ambitions and end Egypt’s links with the US and Israel, as well as reduce or finish the military’s role in Egyptian politics.
The Mubarak government’s ties with Israel are not restricted to diplomatic relations. Cairo is negotiating with Tel Aviv a secret deal involving the sale of Egyptian oil and gas to Israel. It is also negotiating with the US a tripartite free-trade agreement in which Israel will be the third party. In addition to its claim that it is seeking to turn the Middle East into a democratic region, the Bush administration in posing as an advocate of trade liberalisation there. It was last year that it first announced plans for new Middle East trade pacts, putting Egypt and Bahrain at the top of its list of “desirable partners”. “Free trade”, of course, means the opening of Middle East markets to American businesses, as far as the US is concerned, and it seems that in Egypt it is realising those ambitions.
In fact the current economic reforms of which the Mubarak regime is boasting so loudly appear to be partly in response to pressure from Washington. It seems that Mubarak has decided that the improvement of the country’s economic situation will transform the image of his regime and strengthen Jamal’s prospects of succession. Analysts agree that the economic reforms –which involve greater privatisation – are more significant than the political changes, but their introduction is linked to US pressure, as senior officials indirectly admit. Rachid Mohamed Rachid, the new minister of foreign trade and industry, said after meeting Robert Zoellick, the US trade representative, on November 15 that he was optimistic about new agreements. “There is a very strong commitment that we move forward,” he said. “We have turned a corner and we are putting old issues behind us.” Zoellick’s spokesman, Richard Mills, responded by saying that the US was looking forward to Cairo’s proposals for “getting on track to a possible free-trade agreement.”
Clearly a regime that is as oppressive as Mubarak’s and is in the service of Uncle Sam and the zionist occupiers of Palestinian (and indeed Egyptian) land cannot introduce reforms that will reduce its hold on power or give better opportunities to the opposition to overthrow it. Hence the failure to free the media, ban torture in prisons, or release the many thousands of opponents, especially Islamic activists, who fill Egypt’s jails. But by failing to do any of these things Mubarak is provoking the Egyptian people, who are getting increasingly angry and impatient with tyranny, and underestimating their abilities if they decide to act.