Egypt backtracks on reforms

In the past week, political opponents have been jailed and curbs have been put on who can run for president.

After 24 years as the unchallenged head of Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak seemed to be cracking the door to democratic reform. He had promised a constitutional amendment to allow for a competitive presidential election.

It looked as if change, sweeping fitfully through some parts of the Middle East, might be stirring here, too.

But in the past week, there have been ominous indications about the extent of the government's commitment to change. The regime has arrested more than 1,000 political opponents, allegedly attacked an opposition group, and watered down attempts to allow for a democratic presidential election.

"This government does not want any independent political forces to appear, or for the people to live freely," charged Mohammed Akef, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition movement in Egypt, at a press conference over the weekend to complain about the arrest of 1,500 brotherhood members. The government says 600 have been arrested.

The biggest hope for political change rested in Mubarak's promise of a competitive presidential election, expected by October. But Tuesdasy, Egypt's parliament passed a constitutional amendment leaving Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) in control of who gets on the presidential ballot.

"I don't think there will be any figure with stature in the country that can run against Mubarak,'' says Mohammed Sayed Said, a political scientist at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic and International Studies in Cairo. "It will be a true farce. The elections have already lost their meaning."

The amendment requires potential candidates not affiliated with one of the legally recognized parties to garner the support of 15 percent of parliament and 10 percent of the provincial councilors in 10 out 14 provinces to get on the ballot. But the NDP controls 90 percent of parliament and 98 percent of the provincial councils.

This would apparently disqualify the Al Ghad Party of Ayman Nour. Mr. Nour, an independent parliamentarian facing criminal charges on government allegations that he forged signatures on the application for his party license, has been the most vigorous of the opposition leaders.

Members of the NDP praised the new amendment in parliament Tuesday. "This amendment is a great democratic achievement," said NDP parliament leader Kamal al-Shazly, before adding that "Egypt still needs the historical greatness and purity of Mubarak."

What the countermoves will be from reforms proponents - both domestic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the more secular Kifaya, or Enough, movement and foreign players like the US - remain unclear.

Mr. Akef, whose banned but partially tolerated movement has in recent years been careful not to incite government retaliation, signaled over the weekend that he's considering more confrontational tactics.

Asked if he was considering mass protests or a general strike, he said the option to do so remained open - the first time that he's publicly considered mass action. "We have not reached this stage yet, but we will not hesitate if we decide we have reached that stage." The Brotherhood would like to bring Islamic law to Egypt, and Akef says it is "fully committed" to democracy.

In recent months the US, which has given about $2 billion a year to the Egyptian government since it signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, has both called for democracy here but also been careful in its criticism.

Speaking in Latvia on Saturday, President Bush said Egypt's fall presidential election "should proceed with international monitors, and with rules that allow for a real campaign."

He also warned that minor changes will be insufficient. "Selective liberalization - the easing of oppressive laws - is progress, but it is not enough. Successful democracies that effectively protect individual rights require viable political parties, an independent judiciary, a diverse media, and limits on executive power."

At the moment, Egypt has few of these things. The press and independent parties are subject to tight government control and there are few checks on Mubarak's authority. On Sunday, about 350 judges assembled in Cairo in response to Bush's statement and rejected the use of foreign observers, the Associated Press reported.

Opposition political parties are almost nearly terminally weak and complain of being hounded by the government. In addition to the criminal charges against him, which Mr. Nour calls "fraudulent," three buses of his supporters were attacked going to a campaign rally near Cairo on Friday. Al-Ghad officials claimed "government thugs, supported by police" were responsible.

Wael Nawara, an aide to Mr. Nour, says about 80 men with sticks stopped the buses on a road outside the town of Kafr al-Saqor and that the police turned "a blind eye" to the attack. "To be able to run in a fair manner, you have to be able to travel the country and meet people. If this doesn't change, there's no way the election will be fair. All this shows that the regime's spirit is still the same and they're just adjusting the tactics to soothe local and international pressure."

The arrests of Brotherhood members were prompted by rallies in at least 10 Egyptian cities last week with up to 70,000 protesters calling for a repeal of laws limiting political organization and public expression. Those were the largest rallies in at least a year, reflecting the 80-year-old organization's broad support.

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