Al-Ahram - 6 March 2005

by Fatemah Farag

President Hosni Mubarak's request to parliament to amend the Egyptian constitution, opening up the political system to free, direct, multi-candidate presidential elections is nothing short of a historic move. On that level no one disagreed.

Al-Arabi and Al-Wafd highlighted their respective "most significant role" in bringing about the change; some touted national dialogue and various local players as key in bringing about change, others highlighted the centrality of the president's democratic vision, and everyone made uncomfortable references to American pressure. After all, the president's decision came after weeks of a press campaign against foreign intervention in local reform and the dire need to unify ranks against US attempts to influence the political process at home. Tirades were written against meddling in our internal affairs.

Only this week Mohamed Abdel-Moneim, editor- in-chief of Rose El-Youssef magazine (26 February--4 March) noted, "this media and political howling campaign tampers with basic strategic relations between Egypt and the US. One side of this campaign finds its pundits in Washington among those who lack correct information and necessary experience. The other side finds its pundits here amongst those who lack honour and a sense of responsibility."

In Al-Wafd on 24 February, before the president's announcement, Osama Heikal noted that US President George W Bush had said to the European Union that Egypt would lead the democratic transformation of the region -- his second reference to Egypt's role following his State of the Union address. "President Bush speaks with great confidence about this matter," Heikal wrote. "It would appear that he knows what we the Egyptian people do not know regarding the implementation of democracy which gives the impression that there is a secret deal regarding the future of the Egyptian people."

Hence, and in spite of the obvious manifestations of support for the decision, the words of caution written by Al-Akhbar Editor-in-Chief Galal Dweidar on 27 February: "There must be an unshakable faith that this unprecedented transformation in our political life be tied to our national security. No fruits can be reaped without preserving our independence and autonomy, and if we do not protect ourselves against foreign intervention which aims at controlling the freedom of our national will."

In the same vein, Abbas Tarabili in Al-Wafd, 27 February, said, "while the Wafd welcomes the move of President Mubarak to amend Article 76 we realise that this historic constitutional move is not easy... it is a change in the basic political infrastructure of the Egyptian system especially as Egypt is passing through an extremely dangerous period [in its history]."

On 28 February, however, Al-Ahram Editor-in- Chief Ibrahim Nafie explained that anyone who had followed the process of reform over the past years and carefully read the president's statements regarding change "could have expected a step of this kind. The only surprise might have been the timing. As far as the content is concerned I do not consider this to be any surprise." Nafie goes on to emphasise that the announcement "comes as part of a comprehensive national vision and in line with pure Egyptian considerations not related to foreign pressure or the attempts by some internal players to outbid [everyone]."

But it seems Magdi Sarhan in Al-Wafd on 28 February could not help but express his surprise. While hailing the decision as "crushing the largest boulder on the road to constitutional reform", Sarhan says, "he [the president] began where no one expected him to; the presidential electoral system. The surprise is that until recently the president himself said that requests to amend the constitution were "faulty". Sarhan claims that only 29 days before Mubarak announced his historic decision he had informed journalists that he opposed the idea of changing the presidential electoral system.

Be that as it may. Adel Hamouda in Sawt Al- Umma on 28 February described Mubarak's decision as a "constitutional coup", and highlighted US "designs" against Egypt. "We have heard from the leaders of the White House, Congress and CIA threats sufficient enough to instigate fear in the whole of humanity." Hamouda suggests, however, that American threats to stop aid to Egypt in an attempt to starve the Egyptian people, or the cancellation of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Cairo cannot have the long-term effect as desired by its protagonists. Especially Rice's threat, as Hamouda is not impressed with being deprived of looking upon her "attractive features, magical charms or exciting legs that are enough to make one lose his mind".

Hamouda says while US talk has "fallen on our heads like a bucket of dirty water" we have not succumbed and have realised that merely answering back to the American war machine is not enough to ward off its dangers -- hence the implicit genius of the president's move. "We will not be able to acquire the respect of the world or our own self respect... until we apply the eloquence of political reform... pumping new blood into all the arteries that have ossified."

Mustafa Bakri's fears of interference, however, are still at a record high. In Al-Osbou this week Bakri says that "America has released its campaign to change the 'horses' while preserving the political system. This means that Cairo is susceptible to infiltration aimed at the head of the system." He acknowledges, however, that confronting foreign enemies should not mean depriving the Egyptian people of their right to freedom, and so the question remains in the balance: "Will President Mubarak allow a peaceful transfer of power to lead towards real reform of Egyptian society on all levels?"

A sobering take on all this panic was made by writer Alaa El-Aswani in Al-Arabi, 27 February. Commenting on the incarceration of political activist Ayman Nour and the subsequent American interest in the case and local reaction to that interest El-Aswani says: "What is truly amazing is that the Egyptian regime opposes foreign intervention only when it is related to the oppression of Egyptians. But in all the other realms of governance the regime welcomes foreign intervention and seeks it out."

Asserting that he is against foreign intervention in the affairs of his country, El-Aswani argued, nevertheless, that the West cannot be reduced to the US administration, and that, furthermore, "in principle, the arrest of innocent people and their torture cannot be considered an internal affair of any state. These are crimes perpetrated against humanity as a whole and it is the right of any human being to condemn [such actions]." El-Aswani makes direct reference to the extra-judicial arrest, detention and torture of 3,000 Egyptians in North Sinai in connection with last year's Taba bombings.

His bottom line is that "if you should hate for someone to interfere in the affairs of your household you should respect yourself."

And what of Ayman Nour? According to Nafie in Al-Ahram on 1 March, the case has been given much more attention than it deserves. Egypt does not give in to pressure by anyone and that Nour's release "is expected".


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