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By An eyewitness to the 2005 presidential polls in Egypt, Aditi Bhaduri reacts to the churning that the country is going through at the moment
  • Published 8.02.11

It was exactly a decade ago that Hanan Ashrawi, sitting in her office in Beit Hanina in the outskirts of Jerusalem, told me: “If the Arab world does not change by its own will, it will be changed. If there is no peaceful transition to democracy it will take place violently and I believe that there is a public opinion in the Arab world that is simmering... there is a demand for serious reform and serious democratization... it will not happen by default or by itself, there has to be an active movement. The Arab world has to be part of the contemporary world; it cannot keep falling short, falling behind. There is no room in history for all those who fall by the wayside.”

Ashrawi had then just assumed the role of spokesperson of the Arab League, something unique in a region where women do not enjoy great political or economic participation, and was expounding the failure of the Arab League in solving the Palestinian issue. Not surprisingly, she resigned soon after. Her words, however, seem to be coming true a decade later in the events that have unfolded first in Tunisia, and now, in Egypt. The Arab world is not a homogeneous one. North Africa or the Maghreb is as distinct from the countries of the Levant as the latter are from the oil producing Gulf states. But it is fitting that this churning in the Arab world began in Tunisia — a modern, secular state, with an educated middle class which has distinguished itself from the other countries in the region, taking advantage of its colonial past. And it is not surprising that this unrest has spilt over into Egypt.

Egypt is the unofficial capital of the Arab world. There is an Arab saying: Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads. Egyptians dominate the Arab intellectual scene. The country is home to the hallowed Al-Azhar University, where Muslims from all over the globe study to perfect their knowledge of the juridical aspects of Islam, but whose alumni also include the late Houari Boumedienne, former president of Algeria and leader of the 1954 anti-colonial revolution against the French, and the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder of Hamas. All Arab Nobel laureates, except for Yasser Arafat, are Egyptians. The Egyptian film and music industry sets the cultural trends in the region. Democratic leanings have made themselves felt here from time to time.

I was in Cairo in 2005 when Egyptians went to the polls to elect their president. The Opposition was brutally crushed, with candidates challenging President Hosni Mubarak’s rule being thrown into prison. But Egyptians did not take it lightly. The Kefaya movement — kefaya means enough — was launched, challenging Mubarak’s 25-year-old rule, which he had kept in place with the emergency law since 1981. Its activists were an odd mix of Islamists, Christians, leftists, students, Arab nationalists, intellectuals, with a great number of women in its fold. Their main demands were: transparency in the funding of political parties, multi-candidate presidential elections, and placing a term limit on the presidency. On May 25, 2005, a referendum was held to amend the 76th constitutional clause whereby more than one candidate could stand for the presidential polls. The change was felt to be merely cosmetic — the conditions for contesting the elections virtually negates the possibility of any independent candidate from contesting, while making it impossible for any candidate to win except for Mubarak himself, who was then standing for the fifth term. The Kefaya and the Opposition parties gave a nationwide call to boycott the referendum and held demonstrations in central Cairo. Less than 30 per cent of the electorate voted, though the State-controlled media announced that there was a 75 per cent turnout. I watched how demonstrators suffered police brutalities, the women among them sexually assaulted. Since then, women turned up every Wednesday, dressed in black, calling for the resignation of the minister of interior, on whose orders they had been assaulted.

To show up the sham, the main opposition parties then — the Al Ghad and Tagammu — and two independent candidates — the activist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim and the feminist and novelist, Nawal El Saadawi — announced their intention of standing for the presidential polls (this, too, was a first in the Arab world). But repression followed soon after. The candidate for the Al Ghad party, Ayman Nour, was arrested on charges of forging signatures, while others were barred from campaigning, holding meetings, travelling, or appearing on the State-controlled media. Most of the major opposition parties decided to boycott the polls and Mubarak went on to become president for the fifth time.

But Egyptians had not taken it lying down. Neither was there much sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, who later went on to occupy one-fifth of the Opposition seats in parliament. An impetus for the anti-government movement had then actually been the second Palestinian intifada. Egyptians watched how disillusioned Palestinians rose up against the Israeli occupation, as also against their own corrupt Palestinian Authority. A year later, Egyptians were demonstrating against the Iraq war, and part of their ire was directed against their own government for its inability, or rather unwillingness, to do anything about it. Anti-American and anti-Israel sentiments were perceived to be safer alternatives to exhibiting displeasure with the Egyptian government, which was one of the two Arab countries to maintain diplomatic ties with Israel, and was being paid for it by the United States of America. Yet, the aid never percolated down to the masses, while unemployment and poverty levels increased. Like most autocratic Arab governments, Egypt found it convenient to deflect the people’s angst from itself towards Israel and the US, the countries the Arabs love to hate but long to visit. But Egyptians are also aware of the role that Egypt has played since 2005 in turning Gaza into the prison that it is.

What transpired in 2005 was unprecedented for the Arab street. Six years later, it is only to be expected that an uprising would be of a greater magnitude. Mubarak is now in the 31st year of his rule, the emergency law is still in place, the parliamentary elections held two months ago were totally rigged. Commentators around the world are sceptical that any political vacuum now maybe filled in by the Muslim Brotherhood. This may be true, but it may also be that the popularity enjoyed by the Brotherhood is being exaggerated. After all, in the Palestinian territories it was the Palestinians who were most uneasy with the idea of Hamas coming to power. If the Brotherhood does come to power, it will not have the support of any of the Arab states, just as Hamas did not. Even Salafist Saudis are against the idea of a religious radical group seizing power in any Arab country. And the churning in Egypt may not even stimulate a similar churning in any other Arab state for now.

However, the old order changeth, and it is doubtful that any amount of platitudes by Mubarak will redeem him, even temporarily, in the eyes of those he has treated as his subjects. The first day of demonstrations resulted in four dead, 500 arrested, and angry protests flaring up in every corner of the country. It has got worse now. The overthrow of the Mubarak regime will not signal the immediate democratization of Egypt’s polity. The path ahead is a painful one, but the best start would be to have Mubarak gracefully yield the reins of government to Mohamed ElBaradei, who can then head an interim government till truly free and fair presidential elections, scheduled for September 2011, are held.