Page last updated at 13:03 GMT, Friday, 20 May 2005 14:03 UK

Winds of change blow through Egypt politics

By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC News, Cairo

Pro-Mubarak demonstration
Among all the opposition protests have been pro-Mubarak rallies

"Political congestion" is the phrase Egyptians are using to describe a deepening stand-off between the opposition and the government.

The opposition is not strong enough to bring down the government. But the government - wary of a possible international outcry - cannot quash the opposition by force.

Two snapshots of what is happening on the streets of Cairo illustrate the situation quite dramatically.

On the day parliament approved a change to the constitution to allow Egyptians to choose their president in a direct vote for the first time in their history, the opposition movement, Kifaya, called a news conference to denounce the proposed amendment.

Kifaya says the change puts insurmountable hurdles in the path of anyone wanting to challenge President Hosni Mubarak, who has led Egypt for 24 years and may still run for another six-year term in elections in September.

We believe in democracy and political pluralism. What we want is civilian rule within an Islamic framework. There should be no contradiction between democracy and Sharia
Mohammad al-Sayyed Habeeb
Muslim Brotherhood

Shortly before the opposition news conference was due to start, the ruling National Democratic Party bussed its "supporters" - a crowd of poor women from the countryside - to the venue, carrying banners and chanting slogans in support of Mr Mubarak.

One woman I spoke to did not appear to know why she was there. "It seems that there is an election," she added, oblivious to the man trying to stop her talking to the media.

Demonstrations everywhere

As the pro-Mubarak chanting continued, members of the Kifaya movement were forced to retreat and held a chaotic news conference inside the building.

Outside, the riot police threw a cordon around the entire area, turning the political stand-off into a real traffic jam.

The second "snapshot" incident occured a few hours later, when the interior ministry deployed 10 armoured trucks full of soldiers in riot gear and dozens of plain-clothed policemen to prevent another demonstration in a different part of town.

A group of engineers had called a protest outside their union, which has been under government control for the past 10 years. The engineers want to hold elections for a new board.

Riot police and demonstrators in Cairo
Riot police have been out in force and hundreds of protesters arrested

The sight of so many anti-riot police ranged against a handful of men was a sign of the regime's growing nervousness in the face of mounting frustration and resentment among Egypt's relatively small, but increasingly bold, political class.

In recent months, protesters have taken to the streets in a way not seen in Egypt for decades.

Men and women calling for Mr Mubarak to step down dare to make their demands in public demonstrations. Many protesters have been arrested, because under emergency law, the right to demonstrate is severely restricted.

The change in mood came last year with the emergence of the Kifaya movement, an umbrella organisation that brings together secularists and Islamists.

Kifaya, which means "enough" in Arabic, is a short and pithy way of expressing the resentment and desire for change its members feel, but it is not yet the political mass movement it aspires to be.

Tough restrictions

Under the constitutional amendment allowing multi-candidate elections, only a political party that has been registered for five years and holds 5% of seats in parliament can nominate a candidate.

Existing party leaders will be exempted from this restriction for September's election. But independent candidates must be endorsed by 250 elected members of parliament and local councils.

These conditions, the opposition says, are absurd because they will make a nominee dependent on the support of his political rivals to run for the presidency.

If the elections were not rigged, I would be happy with a requirement of 50% backing in parliament
Ayman Nour
Opposition leader

But the government says constraints on presidential candidacy are quite common in other parts of the world.

Parliamentary speaker Dr Ahmad Fathi Serour - a stalwart of the ruling NDP - points to the French constitution, which stipulates that the candidate must have 500 signatures of elected politicians; and to the constitution of Indonesia, which requires that parties have 15% of seats in the parliament to nominate a presidential candidate.

The problem is not the 5%, says Ayman Nour, the articulate and ambitious leader of the new al-Ghad party (Tomorrow).

"Everyone in Egypt knows that the parliament elections in Egypt are rigged," he says. "If the elections were not rigged, I would be happy with a requirement of 50% backing in parliament."

Biggest party banned

Under the new constitutional amendment, the country's largest and most popular group will also be effectively barred from nominating a candidate. The Muslim Brotherhood is outlawed as the Egyptian constitution bans religious political parties.

The group itself says there can never be true democracy without its involvement.

Al-Ghad rally in Cairo
Ayman Nour addresses supporters at a chaotic rally

Deputy leader Mohammad al-Sayyed Habeeb denies any contradiction between democracy and the application of Islamic Sharia law, which the group is calling for.

"We believe in democracy and political pluralism," Mr Habeeb tells me at the group's office in Cairo.

"What we want is civilian rule within an Islamic framework. Just as there is civilian rule within a liberal, or capitalist or socialist framework, there can also be civilian rule within an Islamic framework.

"There should be no contradiction between democracy and Sharia, which has to be implemented, but only with the full backing of the people and never to be imposed upon them."

Some analysts believe the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood has only added to its popularity. Imad el-Din Shahin of the American University in Cairo says there may be some exaggeration of the power and popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Dr Shahin says that the Egyptians sympathise with the underdog and "the Muslim Brothers have been denied their legitimate rights".

Cut off from politics

But despite the current intense activity on the political scene in Egypt, the majority of Egypt's 70 million people remain cut off from politics and more significantly from the agenda of the opposition.

"We are farmers, we don't understand politics," said a ferryman who transports farmers and their fresh produce from a small island in the Nile to the urban districts of Cairo.

Some of the passengers laughed and giggled when I asked them whether they would vote again for Mr Mubarak in the forthcoming presidential election. They all said yes.

Perhaps it is not surprising that they feel the way they do about Mr Mubarak.

Many of them have grown up with him, and they continue to be fed a diet by the state media of Mr Mubarak as a great hero, almost a national symbol.

And as long as political activity is so severely restricted, and the government keeps its stranglehold on television and radio, then the opposition will continue to find it difficult to reach out to the wider public.

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16 May 05 |  Middle East

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