Egypt Faces Challenges on Road to Democratic Reform

After 24 years in power, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has called for a multi-candidate election in September. Egypt has been singled out by the Bush administration as a country that ought to lead the way to democracy in the Middle East. This is the first of three pieces on the prospect of democracy in the region.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

First lady Laura Bush visited a church today in Israel. She said the Christian church in a mostly Muslim city shows that people of different faiths can live together. The first lady is visiting sites that are sacred to three major religions and yesterday she found herself in the midst of protests while visiting sites considered holy by Muslims and Jews.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The first lady has now moved on to Egypt, a country where pressure is building for democratic reform. Demonstrators and even Egypt's judges have challenged the 24-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Their demands come in the Arab world's most populace and most influential nation. From Cairo, NPR's Deborah Amos starts a series on the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.

(Soundbite of people talking)

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

This is the unofficial headquarters of a protest movement known as Kefaya or `Enough' in English.

Mr. GEORGE ISHAK: Hello.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, George.

AMOS: It is the cramped downtown office of George Ishak, one of the movement's founders. He is a Coptic Christian. The white-haired educator, in a suit with a cell phone, seems a surprising revolutionary. His office, the war room in April(ph), when Kefaya expanded the movement by mounting demonstrations in 14 Egyptian cities, including Cairo.

(Soundbite of people talking)

AMOS: Behind his cluttered desk, Ishak took calls from activists who had embraced Kefaya's simple protest message.

Mr. ISHAK: Enough for corruption, enough for this long period for government, enough for everything. We want change.

AMOS: Ishak says Kefaya is a loose and broad coalition that includes moderates, Islamists, students and judges as well as Egyptians with no particular political philosophy except anger over President Hosni Mubarak's long grip on power and alarm that Mubarak's 41-year-old son, Gamal, is being groomed as his successor.

Ishak and other activists monitored the protests, heard that security police were already moving against demonstrators in other Egyptian cities.

Mr. ISHAK: They beat them and they slap them on their face with very strong way and they arrest them and sent them to the prison.

AMOS: Determined, he prepared to protest in Cairo, knowing he could be beaten or jailed.

Mr. ISHAK: (Foreign language spoken) You are strong enough?

AMOS: What will happen?

Mr. ISHAK: We're fighting now.

AMOS: This is new in Egypt, says Moheed Taki(ph) with Cairo's Ibn Khaldun Center. The movement is small but significant, he says. Demonstrations shown on Arab satellite television channels has real impact on public opinion.

Mr. MOHEED TAKI (Cairo's Ibn Khaldun Center): People who are silent for a long time and have considered that politics is an area they shouldn't approach and it's too dangerous have now planned some kind of revival, feeling there is some hope.

AMOS: Others are also on the front lines.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

AMOS: The day of the demonstrations, an independent weekly newspaper published an unusual front page story, tips for protesters. Read by translator Mandy Fami(ph), the first rule: Always take the subway.

Ms. MANDY FAMI (Translator): Be careful not to take any other means of transportation because the minister of Interior intentionally blocks the roads.

AMOS: Some Egyptian newspapers are taking on President Hosni Mubarak as never before, says Hisham Kassem, editor of Egypt Today, an independent Arab language daily.

Mr. HISHAM KASSEM (Editor, Egypt Today): Now it's almost open season. I don't read anything on Mubarak anymore. It's boring, you see? If I start reading and it's on Mubarak, I say, `What new angle can they attack him from?'

AMOS: The anger is homegrown, says Kassem, but the opening is American-made. President George Bush says democracy is his number one priority in the Middle East. The administration has leaned particularly hard on Cairo which has received more than $60 billion in US economic and military aid.

Mr. KASSEM: So here is a regime that now has to do an about-face, to do 180 degrees, and they don't have the know-how. Mubarak is a military manager. Democracy is something he's not familiar with, but the pressure is even getting harder.

AMOS: Pressure not just from Washington, also now from Egypt's judges, who charge the government rigs elections and says they will not supervise the presidential vote in September without guarantees of independence, and there is the pressure from the streets.

(Soundbite of protesters)

AMOS: What direction this new political awakening will take is unclear.

(Soundbite of protesters)

AMOS: When 250 Kefaya protesters gathered on the steps of a government building recently, their demands were for constitutional democracy but adamantly against American foreign policy. The Islamists here want more religion in politics and society. They all demand a tougher stand on Israel. Dr. Isam al-Arryan is one of the founders of Kefaya. He's also a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, officially banned by the government but the oldest and most popular opposition force in the country. His vision for the new protest movement is to pressure for a democratic Egypt, independent from the United States.

Dr. ISAM AL-ARRYAN (Kefaya): George Bush destroys our land, destroys our dreams, destroys our life. I hope that Mr. Bush lifts his hand from this region. We can face our problems alone.

AMOS: Sentiments the Mubarak government warns will only become stronger, says Mohammed Kamal(ph), an adviser to Mubarak's ruling political party.

Mr. MOHAMMED KAMAL: Reform is not as easy as the Bush administration thinks it is. Too much reform, too quick reform might lead to instability. Reform is a risky business.

AMOS: After 24 years of autocratic rule, Mubarak has taken a risk. In February, he called for the first open and direct presidential election in the country's history, but his party and parliament effectively sets the rules on who can challenge him in September's election. The guidelines seem to rule out any Islamist candidates, a message, says Moheed Taki of the Ibn Khaldun Center, that Mubarak intends to tightly control the pace of change.

Mr. TAKI: He's always raising the fear of the bogeyman. If you are going to push me too far, too quickly, you will destabilize the area and who are you going to get? You're going to get the Islamists. Do you want the Islamists?

AMOS: This argument was strengthened by recent suicide attacks in Cairo against tourist targets, this one near the Egyptian museum where police tried to seal off the area. Some here believe radical Islamists see this time of political unrest as an opportunity, and that could also set back reforms. Still, Ahmed Galal, an economist with an independent think tank in Cairo, believes change is now inevitable.

Mr. AHMED GALAL (Economist): I do know that there is a democratization process that's taken place over time. It's taken place in all sort of subtle ways that are very hard to see from a distance.

(Soundbite of protesters)

AMOS: Even close up, it's not always clear. On the streets of Cairo, not much has changed. Only a new protest movement has given voice to the anger. Again, Ahmed Galal.

Mr. GALAL: We don't really know how does a country move from a state of authoritarianism to a fully democratic regime.

AMOS: How Egypt finds the answer to that question matters to the rest of the Middle East.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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