WHAT is happening in Egypt-the largest Arab country with a current population estimated at 84 million, with almost half of it living in urban areas and a diversified economy dependent as much on agriculture, industry and service as on tourism? It has had a chequered political history since June 18, 1953, when it declared itself as a Republic. It has had its ups and downs. The first President General Muhammad Naguib was forced to resign in 1954 by Gamal Abdul Nasser who was responsible for nationalising the Suez Canal in 1956. Nasser died in 1967 to be succeeded by Anwar Sadat. It was Sadat who made a historic visit to Israel in 1977, which led to the 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 which led to Hasmi Mubarak succeeding him.
Though Egypt was officially named a Republic in 1953, it has been under Emergency Law since 1967 (with the exception of an 18-month break in 1980) and has been ruled autocratically by Mubarak in whose hands lay all executive power. In Egypt democracy is a sham. Mubarak has consistently managed to get himself elected and while his fifth term ends in September this year – he has promised not to stand for election again – nobody has ever been under any illusion that he was elected in a free and fair election. Actually less than 25 per cent of the country’s 33 million registered voters went to the polls in the 2005 election, and that, too, under tight political control.
We get some rough idea of political situation in Egypt today if one studies the constitutional changes voted in by the Egyptian Parliament on March 19, 2007. One change prohibits parties from using religion as a basis for political activity which, surely, is admirable. Another allowed the drafting of a new anti-terrorism law to replace the Emergency legislation in place since 1981. Other changes authorise broad police powers of arrest and surveillance, end of judicial monitoring and gives the President power to dissolve Parliament. These changes – some thirty four of them – have understandably raised hackles leading to widespread protests in the country.
As Alaa al Aswamy, a distinguished Egyptian novelist told The Hindu (February 1) in an interview “There has been deep dissatisfaction in Egyptian society for a long time and life has been for ordinary people, a crushing ordeal”. A national revolt against the prevailing government, in the circumstances, was only to be expected; only the very size and commitment of the protesters has come as a shock to many observers. That protest should, as a matter of course, have been expected, considering prevalent conditions described in a 2006 report on Egypt by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) which spoke of routine torture practiced in Egypt, arbitrary detentions and trials before Military and State security courts and discriminatory personal status laws that put women at a disadvantage.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate, some 91.0 per cent of Egyptian girls and women have suffered female genital mutilation. Human Rights, supposedly have been routinely suppressed in Egypt with corruption being unbridled. The end-January revolt against Mubarak, with over a million people swarming at Tahrir (Liberation) Square in protest has to be assessed against this background. It is incorrect to presume that only the poor and the unemployed were in the fray. The Opposition to Mubarak cuts across all sections of society and is led, among others, by so distinguished an Egyptian as Mohammad El Baradei, a former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), besides being a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. What will Egypt be like if the public has the last say and Mubarak is driven into political wilderness? Mubarak is no Saddam Hussein.
Indeed, so far, the United States has been the largest supporter of Egypt and has been receiving billions of dollars of aid from Washington, even as Pakistan has been. The United States wants a friendly state in the Middle East and is not shy to annually provide Cairo with around $2.2 million since 1979. Washington has also been turning a blind eye to Mubarak’s administrative ways, even when Freedom House in 2005 rated Egypt’s political rights as almost non-existent, rating 6th in a scale of seven (‘Not free’).
Washington must now be wondering how Egypt will fare without Mubarak. Will he be given asylum in the United States? And who can foretell who will come to power, should elections be preponed? Fears are being expressed that the Muslim Brotherhood might come to power. There are, however, optimists who believe that though Egypt is Muslim, it has a sophisticated elite, a well-educated Middle Class which will not easily give in to religious fundamentalism. Reports that the US is trying to establish links with the Muslim Brotherhood suggest that Washington did not expect removal of Mubarak and is now thinking afresh.
For the United States to find an independent-minded Egypt getting out of hand would be plain disaster. President Barack Obama must have given the matter a great deal of thought before he moved to address fellow Americans on January 28. In a balanced talk he said: “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny… and the United States will standup to them… Violence will not address the grievances of the Egyptian people. And suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away… “Obama actually recalled a speech be made in Cairo shortly after he was elected President when he said “all governments must maintain power through consent, not coercion” and that “that is the single standard by which the people of Egypt will achieve the future they deserve”.
Wise words are appropriate for the occasion. But it should surprise nobody if any future administration in Cairo will keep its distance from Washington. And, perhaps, it is time now for India to take a more active interest in Egypt, an interest which has been quietly slipping over the years following the end of the Cold War. Mubarak had shown too slavish a mentality towards the US. This may not continue in any coming administration and India must cash in on it, for its own good as much as for peace in the Middle East. Times are changing and so must countries, whether it is Tunisia, Jordan or yes, Egypt.