Democratic Winds Blow in Cairo

Sacking of controversial minister mobilizes population, encourages legal opposition. REFORM CURRENTS

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

EMBOLDENED by President Hosni Mubarak's dismissal of his controversial interior minister, Egypt's opposition is embarking on a campaign to expand the democratic opening the government has allowed since the mid-1980s. The sacking last Friday of Maj. Gen. Zaki Badr has combined with events in Eastern Europe to galvanize the political opposition.

``It's the first time since the 1952 revolution that a president has responded to public opinion,'' said a member of the socialist Tegamu party.

The interior minister was widely despised here for frequently using crude epithets in speaking of political opponents and for relying on the nine-year-old emergency laws - particularly detention without trial - in dealing with the nation's Muslim fundamentalists.

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``We have to use this to open the small window of democracy,'' says columnist Loutfi El Khouly, another Tegamu member, speaking of the successful public campaign to remove General Badr.

Like no other event in years, the Badr affair mobilized and captivated a large number of normally apolitical Egyptians.

After months of turmoil over the minister's practices, the affair came to a head when it became clear there was an audio tape of inflammatory remarks he had made about highly respected Egyptian intellectuals and opposition leaders.

On Jan. 9, Al Shaab, the newspaper of the opposition Islamic Alliance, reported the existence of the tape and demanded Badr's removal. After another opposition organ was temporarily confiscated by Badr's security forces for reporting similar remarks made about government ministers, Badr was dismissed.

Political analysts say that several factors besides the tape contributed to the decision to remove Badr. Influential government officials weighed in against him. Also, Mr. Mubarak is faced with the prospect of imposing tough austerity measures in the near future to deal with the country's deepening economic crisis, and will need the good will of opposition parties. And there was Eastern Europe.

``Eastern Europe was surely one of the factors in Mubarak's decision,'' says Adel Hussein, editor of Al Shaab. ``It is influencing all the Arab leaders in the area.''

King Hussein of Jordan took the first step in the opening up of the authoritarian political systems of the Arab world when he called parliamentary elections last November in the wake of rioting over austerity measures.

Egypt led a move toward democratization in the mid 1980s, but the reforms have not gone beyond free speech. And as the economic crisis worsened, it seemed Egypt might revert to a more rigid system.

Roundups of Islamic fundamentalists, according to reports here, were continuing unabated.

According to editor Hussein, 10,000 Islamic militants were arrested under emergency laws last year and 4,000 are still being held without charge. The Arab Human Rights Organization recently issued a report accusing Egypt of routinely using torture.

Besides encouraging the political opposition, the Badr sacking has dissipated the morose atmosphere here, and boosted Mubarak's popularity.

But it will probably not change the government's policy toward the fundamentalists, analysts say.

Mubarak chose as his new interior minister Mohammed Abdel Halim Moussa, a man with a reputation for toughness. In his first comments to reporters, Mr. Moussa said, ``Our policy is to firmly hit the outlaws.'' Of the Islamic militants he added, ``They have no legitimate basis for their existence.''

While it may continue to play rough with the militants - who use intimidation and occasional violence to achieve the aim of an Islamic state - the regime is likely to go easier on the legal opposition. And they intend to push the envelope outward.

``The political system has to be reshaped,'' says Mr. Hussein.

``Since the events of Eastern Europe, we have a suitable time to demand change.''

He adds that the opposition Islamic Alliance will press for more steps toward democratization, including an end to the state of emergency and a ``cancellation of laws against political freedom'' (laws restricting the right of assembly, the right to demonstrate, to form political parties, and to strike).

But even without such changes, Hussein is feeling fortified. ``The average man now feels he can do something,'' he says of the pressure that brought the Badr dismissal. ``That's a very healthy atmosphere.''

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