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Egypt’s Fight For Democracy

Phar’on, is the Arabic word for pharaoh, carries the connotation of tyranny and dictatorship. It is only fitting then that many in the Arab world refer to Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak as the Great Pharaoh; it is not a term of endearment.

Mubarak came to power in Egypt after the assassination of Anwar Sadaat in 1981, during whose administration, Mubarak headed Egypt’s air force. Since ’81, Mubarak kept Egypt under martial law, and regularly won elections with over 80%. The elections were more like yes-no referenda since he restricted other candidates from running. He cracked down on opposition, driving its most extreme elements to launch militant campaigns against government targets and against tourists, the main driver of Egypt’s fragile economy.

During the years of Mubarak’s rule, Egypt’s economy shrunk. The largest Arab country became dependent on foreign aid, with increased unemployment and deficit. Standards of living worsened, human rights deteriorated, censorship and police brutality became rampant, and Egypt’s standing in the international arena has retreated to the point of impotence.

Mubarak is widely seen as a US puppet, he often goes against the general Arab consensus by acquiescing to US demands. Mubarak is seen by the Arab street, along with King Abdullah of Jordan, as part of the conspiracy to starve and deprive the Palestinian population in order to isolate the Hamas-led government.

Mubarak is also known to miss the Arab League summit when important issues are at hand, like the recent one in Khartoum in March. Additionally, he responds to US pressure to crackdown on Islamic and secular political movements that may reflect the Arab street’s position of opposition to Israel; his brutal opposition to pro-democracy movements are met with tacit approval from the US, which again shows it prefers its dictators to the wild card known as democracy. He is also thought to be grooming his son, Jamal, to inherit his authority.

For a long time, it was very convenient, and somewhat justifiable, to classify Egypt’s opposition as terrorist-led. This contributed to the lack of any credible, peaceful resistance to the tyranny of the regime. But finally, Egyptians are speaking up. It is about time. I was ready to give up.

Over the past several years, a serious, populous grassroots movement has been building opposition to the current dictatorship; it is known as the Egyptian National Movement for Change, “Kifaya” for short, which means Enough. But little news of the movement made it into international media.

On the forefront of the Kifaya movement is El Ghad Party, meaning Tomorrow, was founded in 2004. El Ghad leader and founder, Cairo lawyer and independent MP Ayman Nour, has been in jail for over a year. He is being charged with forging ‘Power of Attorney’ on the petition to register his new party. How convenient.

Through the liberal democratic platform of El Ghad, Nour demanded reform, openness, end of martial law, constitutional reform, end of corruption, and improvement of human rights.

According to public opinion polls he would have presented a credible challenge to President Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections. Though Mubarak does not intend to hold free or open elections any time soon, he still decided not to risk it. He threw Nour in jail before his popularity could grow any further.

Today, the support for the Kifaya movement is growing rapidly, soon after last year’s presidential elections, a large number of judges began a strike to protest election fraud and vote rigging (Judges in Egypt are tasked with observing elections), and the increasing overreach of the executive branch over the judiciary. They continue to protest, especially as more and more of their colleagues are arrested and prosecuted.

Students, professionals, and other members of the public have been holding massive rallies and vigils to protest the government’s ever-increasing brutality, crackdown, censorship, and the worsening over all living situation in Egypt. The government meets their protests with excessive force, attacks on journalists, arrests, kidnappings and torture.

Egypt is a primary US ally; hence it is overlooked when the Bush administration talks of freedom, human rights and democracy in the Middle East, Egypt is the second largest recipient of US foreign aid, after Israel: nearly $2 Billion annually. I’m still looking for the recipient that actually respects human rights. Colombia? As a matter of fact, aid to Egypt is a trade off for befriending Israel, so the moral of the story, if you seek to be a dictator (Saddam) establish a totalitarian regime (Iran’s Ayatollahs) or be a gross abuser of human rights (Sudan’s Basheer) get Israel to vouch for you.

Though the Bush administration occupies hardly any higher moral grounds than those of Mubarak, US aid to Egypt must and should be suspended until there is a complete democratization of Egyptian politics and society; until Ayman Nour and his likes are freed, credible candidates are allowed to run in presidential elections (not only those hand-picked by the president himself), freedoms of press and speech are restored, and human rights are respected.

Kifaya; let’s do away with the tyrant. Egypt has important regional and international roles to reclaim.


16 Responses to “Egypt’s Fight For Democracy”

  1. Egypt’s internal problems have nothing to do with Israel. Did you know that in the past 20 years Egypt lost the ability to feed it’s own exploding population? Did you know that >90% of all Egyptians still live within 50 miles of the Nile, just like 4000 years ago? Please- Mubarek is a tyrant, but he’s YOUR tyrant.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 12, 2006, 6:04 am
  2. http://euobserver.com/9/21584

    Meanwhile EU MEPs want to ban Iran from FIFA!!!!!! Good for the goose good for the gander.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 12, 2006, 6:41 am
  3. Great post Fayyad.

    Posted by Will | May 12, 2006, 7:49 am
  4. It’s a great story and I’d love to believe that there is a blossoming democratic movement in Egypt (they really need it), but the fact is that is just not the case. The only real, credible opposition in Egypt are the terrorist thugs of the Muslim Brotherhood. If there was a real election held today, the Muslim Brotherhood would get 90% of the vote and these liberal groups would get maybe 5%.

    As far as calling Mubarak an American puppet, well you guys said the same things about the Shah in Iran. And then you kicked him out and look who came to power? The Islamofascists. A hell of a lot worse than the Shah.

    I’m not saying Mubarak is a good guy. He is a dictator and a thug and has done terrible things to Egypt. But he is slightly better than the only real alternative.

    It’s tough for America. I’m sure we would love to give tons of open support to this democratic group. But if we did, then the liberals would lose all their support and look like American-Israeli puppets like you ranted about.

    I think if you stopped concerning yourself with American puppets and conspiracies your people would be a whole lot better off. (just like Americans would have been a whole lot better off if we hadn’t believed Bush’s BS about Saddam and Iraq…)

    Posted by SFLaw | May 12, 2006, 9:16 am
  5. Yeah Fayyad – that post was great.

    Posted by Nadeem | May 12, 2006, 9:23 am
  6. “As a matter of fact, aid to Egypt is a trade off for befriending Israel, so the moral of the story, if you seek to be a dictator (Saddam) establish a totalitarian regime (Iran’s Ayatollahs) or be a gross abuser of human rights (Sudan’s Basheer) get Israel to vouch for you.”

    Huh? I thought you were talking about an Arab state, an Arab dictator, an Arab dictatorship, and then all of a sudden you brought in Israel from left field. What the hell? Not to mention that the paragraph I’m quoting makes no sense.

    You just had to try to get an Israel dig in, right? Sorry my man, but this is your Arab dictatorship of the day, so blame it on your team.

    Posted by TM (Jewlicious) | May 12, 2006, 10:03 am
  7. TM — Was it just a coincidence that US aid and support for the Egyptian regime happened after Sadat signed the Camp David accords?

    Would the US give Egypt aid if it took an oppositional and critical position towards Israel?

    The point is clear. In the Middle East, warming up to Israel gets dictators favorable treatment from the US.

    It is actually indisputable that Arab regimes that are at some level of peace with Israel get the most US foreign aid. Jordan, Egypt, Morocco.

    Posted by Will | May 12, 2006, 10:11 am
  8. What a paranoid view of the world. Egypt and Jordan were rewarded for not waging war.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 12, 2006, 10:35 am
  9. Cozying up to Israel gets US support and having oil gets far more US support and money. The problem you have with your claim is that there are lots of other dictators who have survived for long periods in the Middle East while ensuring that citizens and Islamists do not have any power and these dictators don’t get a cent from the US.

    Point being that the dictatorships are there because of their own internal cultures and politics, not Israel.

    In fact, I would argue that the Palestinians have democracy and the ability to demonstrate openly thanks to their proximity to Israel.

    Posted by TM (Jewlicious) | May 12, 2006, 12:01 pm
  10. “Cozying up to Israel gets US support and having oil gets far more US support and money.”

    Tell that to Iran, Sudan, Libya, and Saddam Hussein.

    Dictators are due to culture? What kind of nonsense is that? So Spanish, Italian, German, British, Indian, Japanese, Korean, cultures all changed in order to go from dictatorship to democracy?

    The cultural explanation is a cop-out. Why for instance are the democratic activists being repressed in Egypt of the same cultural background as the people in power there? Why would the Palestinians — of similar cultural heritage to Lebanese, Syrians, and Jordanian — have different political forms?

    The cultural explanation is weak.

    Palestinians have what little democracy despite Israel. As the reaction to the recent elections shows, Israel works against Palestinian democracy. Also, Israel only allowed 5,000 East Jerusalemites to vote. And it interfered with political campaigning, and even arrested candidates.

    Palestinian democracy though does owe something to Israel, though not as a result of Israel’s intentions. Being diplaced, the Palestinian developed numerous political factions. Their alliance in the face of Israeli oppression helped bring about the political pluralism necessary for democracy. Also, ironically, I think that since the PA is not a true government, it makes the stakes lesser — and the Palestinians can afford a true contest over the authority. If there was real power at stake, I’m not sure if the conditions for democracy are strong enough. I.e. with so much poverty, a foreign occupier, and lack of mobility, if it was a real government, we’d likely not see a largely peaceful contest for votes.

    Posted by Will | May 12, 2006, 12:16 pm
  11. Saddam Hussein used to get lots of support, as do Kuwait and Saudi. Libya does get support now, but it was long in coming because they had no shame attacking other countries.

    You don’t buy that it’s cultural that every Arab country save for one or two are totalitarian states usually headed by a single strong, usually secular man or family? That’s not cultural? Okay, how do you explain it?

    Um, Palestinians have democracy because of Israel. Period.

    As for voting in Jerusalem, Israel was primarily opposed to Hamas, a terrorist organization, on the slate. But in any case, they did allow the Jerusalem Palestinians to vote anyway:


    The candidates they arrested were…Hamas candidates.

    In the end, by the way, the Israelis even relented on the elections having this terrorist party run which is how Hamas got into power.

    Why do Palestinians have democratic elections when no other Arab states save for one have them? What makes the Palestinians different from all other Arab states? ISRAEL. Simple and sad but true.

    As for your final remark, I’m afraid that everything I read and hear tells me the Palestinians take their democracy and their government very seriously.

    Posted by TM (Jewlicious) | May 12, 2006, 2:31 pm
  12. Will, Kabobfest, et al… the US and Israel are not to blame for the dictators in the middle east. You need to stop blaming all of the middle east’s problems on jewish conspiracies. The US and Israel are not the reason why there are dictators in the middle east. You’ll be better off the moment you stop blaming all your problems on America and Israel and focus on the real culprits.

    And remember the last time you overthrew a dictator for being an American puppet… you overthrew the Shah in Iran and ended up with the mullahs.

    Nobody likes these dictators but they are better than the alternative Islamic fundamentalist theocrats.

    I’m with you on supporting the liberal groups in Egypt. Maybe I should be careful about that though, lest you start accusing them of being America pupplets?

    Posted by SFLaw | May 12, 2006, 11:07 pm
  13. Yes, great post indeed. Here’s a directly relevant article.


    The New York Times
    May 13, 2006
    A Poet Whose Political Incorrectness Is a Crime


    THIS is my sweetheart,” said Ahmed Fouad Negm as he gently kissed the dried head of a dead tortoise, patted its shell and tenderly put it away.

    Mr. Negm was on the roof of his apartment building, high above the sprawling, chaotic, filthy, garbage-strewn neighborhood of Mokkatam, where he dispensed with formalities and introduced himself as a man who loved a tortoise.

    “Glory for the crazy people/In this stupid world.” The words were carefully painted in yellow on the wall, right beside the tortoise. They were his words, the words of a poet, a harsh critic of power, who spent 18 of his 76 years in prison largely because Egypt’s leaders tended to despise his words.

    It was vintage Negm, a kiss, a comment, a bit of poetry. Mr. Negm (pronounced NEG-um) is among Egypt’s most popular poets and has been for four decades. He is regarded as the first to have written in colloquial Egyptian, and from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Gamal Mubarak, a son of President Hosni Mubarak, he has skewered those he feels have led a once great country to the tangle of poverty and indifference played out in the fetid landscape beneath his rooftop.

    “Congrats our groom,” he wrote in a widely circulated poem about Gamal Mubarak’s recent engagement to a woman nearly 20 years his junior. “You of fortune and fame for whom we’re all inheritance/Be merry, be game/We couldn’t care less!”

    Mr. Negm is a bit of a folk hero in Egypt, and has remained popular even while the street, his street, has turned away from his largely secular vision of modernity. The changes on the street have only fueled his contempt for the ruling elite. Their illegitimate government, he said, has made Egyptian identity less distinct and more defined by faith.

    “The government has always been run by pharaohs, but in the past they were honorable,” Mr. Negm said, returning to one of his favorite topics. “Now, Egypt is ruled by a gang, led by Hosni Mubarak, and he is only there because America and Israel support him. He does not have the support of the street.”

    It is that contempt for power, his giving voice to a desire for justice, that seems to keep him popular, keeps his books selling and recently led to a revival of a popular play called “The King Is the King,” which showcases his poetry.

    HE had laughed and smoked his Merit Ultra Lights as he climbed the rickety wooden ladder through a narrow hatch onto the rooftop above his apartment in a public housing block. He loves to smoke. He loves to curse. He loves to boast with a wink and a smile that he was married six times, that his current wife is 30 and that his youngest daughter, Zeinab, who is 11, is not forced to adhere to the strict religious practices that have spread throughout his country in recent years.

    “I am free,” Mr. Negm said, as he scratched his head with long, carefully cut fingernails. “I am not afraid of anybody because I do not want anything from anyone.”

    And then, looking down from his rooftop perch upon a pile of rotting trash, where children, dogs and donkeys competed for scraps, he lamented what has become of Egypt.

    “This is not Egypt,” he said. “I weep for Egypt.”

    And then a return to levity.

    “Coffee,” he hollered over the ledge to the sidewalk six stories below. “Bring tea to Uncle Ahmed,” he called in his raspy, cigarette smoker’s voice.

    That’s how people know him. Uncle Ahmed.

    He has no formal education. In fact, as a young man in Cairo he was sent to jail for theft and forgery. But it was there, behind bars, that this slender man, with a narrow face and a large full nose, found his voice.

    In 1959, he published “Images From Life and Prison,” a collection of poetry he wrote while in jail on a theft charge. A few years later, back on the outside, he became partners with a blind traditional singer, Sheik Imam Essa, and together they developed a biting satirical repertoire that won a huge national following and the enmity of the head of state.

    “The state of Egypt is submerged under lies,” Mr. Negm wrote after the Arab defeat by Israel in 1967.

    And the people are confused

    But everything is O.K. as long as our damned masters are happy

    Because of the poets who fill their stomach with poems

    Poems that glorify and appease even traitors

    With God’s will, they will destroy the country.

    Egypt tried pan-Arab nationalism under Nasser. It tried peace with Israel under Sadat. Both men jailed Mr. Negm for mocking their leadership. President Mubarak, who has avoided the bold moves of his predecessors, has not yet jailed Mr. Negm, but that has hardly spared him from Mr. Negm’s contempt.

    As the sound of a donkey braying echoed through the neighborhood, Mr. Negm deadpanned, “Mubarak is giving a speech.”

    Few people in Mr. Mubarak’s Egypt would talk like that, especially to a foreign reporter. But Mr. Negm delights in being flip, caustic and dangerously politically incorrect.

    “They are not rulers, they are dogs,” he said of the Arab heads of state. “I challenge all our kings and leaders to step into the street without their guards for five minutes.”

    MOMENTS later, he was nearly blasted out of his plastic chair when the call to prayer boomed from four speakers mounted on a nearby roof. He instantly feigned spitting toward the source of the sound, and then mocked the chanting imam. “His wife will not let him speak at home, so he tries to impress us with his big voice,” he said. “Then he goes out and steals.”

    It is all said with a smile and a laugh, and there is usually a punch line or coarse word to inspire a laugh. He is, after all, Uncle Ahmed, dressed in poor clothes, living in a small, crowded apartment in a small, crowded neighborhood.

    Need directions to his apartment? Just stop and ask in the market. Anyone will know. Past the woman using a rag to wave flies off a vat of cheese. Past the child grilling fish to sell. To the third block of apartments, up five flights and it’s the apartment to the left.

    Make an appointment, and maybe he will keep it. Maybe not.

    “Egypt is a candle submerged by the river,” he said, when asked if Egypt still holds its role as the center of Arab thought and culture, and if not, why. “When the earth is dark, Egypt comes out of the river and lights the world.”

    But he despairs that the light he calls Egypt is, at least for now, not burning brightly. “The people down there are not Egyptians,” he said. “They are oppressed people.”

    Posted by Ibrahim | May 13, 2006, 10:49 am
  14. I’m amazed that some people reduce hundreds of years of history to phrases such as “the reason that the (insert name of a people) are (characteristic) is because of (insert one or two word answer).

    Don’t you all think things might be just a little more complicated than that?

    Posted by Elizabeth | May 13, 2006, 7:57 pm
  15. I’m sure it’s some Jews’ fault. Let’s blame them. Ok we’re done here.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 15, 2006, 7:45 am


  1. […] a good president, but there are many others who actually lead the opposition to the regime and the demands for freedom and democracy for many years and enjoy far more credibility and street credentials. Those include Mohammed Badii, leader of the […]

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