By Michael Goldstein
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In public, Mubarak uses this popular distrust to fend off pressure to reform. Government apologists turn Bush-hatred against those arguing for more democratic reforms, ideas perceived as American-born and thus tainted. They call international human-rights groups “neo-colonialists.” Mubarak’s well-practiced line is that reforms must emerge from “our culture” and take place at their own pace, all in good time. If outsiders dictate the pace, they would push for too many freedoms too fast and Egypt would surely lapse into chaos.
He makes a similar argument to Americans: Turn Egypt into a democracy, and you’ll put the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of a 70-million-strong nursery for terrorists on Israel’s border. Democratic reform, he warned, “would play into the hands of terrorism, which will not be confined to the Middle East but will reach Europe and the United States. If the extremists win, you can forget democracy.”
Yet, faced with discontent at home and pressure from abroad, Mubarak has named a human-rights commission and announced that journalists will no longer be thrown in jail. Was it a hurried attempt to burnish his image before his trip to Bush’s Crawford ranch in April? Or a general’s tactical retreat: Give a patch of ground while warning that democratic change could spread anarchy from Morocco to Pakistan?
Most likely it’s part of his long-running balancing act. People who have worked with Mubarak, the former commander of the Air Force, tell me his first concern is security — whatever it takes to keep the country stable. Faced with an obstacle, Mubarak makes enough short-term moves to “muddle through.”
It makes forecasts especially tricky. The 75-year-old Mubarak has never appointed a vice president, although in the past few years he appeared to be grooming his son Gamal, or “Jimmy,” as his heir. Then, in January, Mubarak announced that Egypt, unlike Syria, was a true republic, implying that the presidency wouldn’t pass from father to son.
But that doesn’t mean the decision will be put in voters’ hands, either. In the past year, reformers have worked up the nerve to call for multiparty presidential elections, although everybody expects to see Mubarak on next November’s referendum, running for his fifth six-year term.
“All this speculation about ‘Who’s next?’ is a waste of analysts’ hours,” says Hisham Kassem, the president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the publisher of The Cairo Times. “Mubarak is a military man who runs his presidency like a war room. The Egyptian people are his enemy, and he believes in taking the enemy by surprise. Only Mubarak knows what Mubarak is doing next. Somebody needs to tell him, ‘What’s in your head is public property.’”
When Senator John Kerry visited Cairo a few years ago, he met with Mubarak, Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s secretary general, and Kassem. Kassem’s office has become a necessary stop for anyone wanting to hear an unflinching assessment of the political scene. His English-language weekly reflects its publisher. In the past month, the State Department issued a damning report on human-rights abuses in Egypt, and Human Rights Watch held a press conference to publicize a report detailing the torture of gays in prison. The regular Egyptian press either ignored the reports or treated them skeptically. The Cairo Times covered the Human Rights Watch report and had already run a two-page piece on police torture, complete with a picture of an officer swinging a baton at a man on the ground.
Kassem’s opinions are liberal (free markets and free thoughts) and so stand out from those of others under the reform tent. Ibrahim and his attorneys involved in the human-rights movement lean left. Mubarak, in their view, is too close to the Americans; it’s the $2 billion in annual aid that props him up. They refuse to work with the government, whereas Kassem’s group accepted the government’s invitation to join the national human-rights council. Kassem also vocally welcomes American and European pressure.
Such a stance is guaranteed to draw fire from nationalists. It was Kassem’s new Arabic daily that El Osboa tied to Halliburton. One of his reporters, Charles Levinson, wrote articles on torture in Egyptian prisons that appeared in the Cairo Times and American papers. On a return trip from California, Levinson wasn’t allowed to leave Cairo Airport. State security police dropped him in jail for the night, and the next morning put him on a flight back to the United States.
When complaining about accounts of human-rights abuses or other examples of perceived mistreatment in the American media, government bureaucrats whose job it is to apply a nice gloss on such things unpack the straw man. They attack China. “You can get on the Internet anytime you want, you know, and see anything,” they say. “You can’t do that in China.”
Or, “You can say whatever you want here. Not like in China.”
In fairness, Egypt is no China. And it’s no Saudi Arabia, either. There’s a Parliament. Women walk along the Nile unveiled, vote and stand for election — some are even judges. Internet service is free except for the phone call. You can even go see The Matrix Reloaded once the censor is finished with it.
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