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Last Updated: Monday, 1 November, 2004, 10:10 GMT
Egyptian reformists break taboos
By Nyier Abdou

A new group of Egyptian activists and intellectuals has issued a petition calling for broad constitutional reform in Egypt.

The move is a rare case of public, organised dissent among the disgruntled intelligentsia and suggests increasing boldness in criticism of the leadership.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
Mubarak is expected to go for a fifth six-year term next year
The Popular Campaign for Reform, an umbrella group of some 26 human rights and civil society organisations, was formed in early September and has made strange bedfellows of such disparate opposition forces as the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and Communist Party.

"This is the first time we've had a campaign like this on this scale," says Ahmed Seif al-Islam, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and one of the organisers of the campaign. "Different people, different backgrounds, different parts of society."

Signed by some 700 activists and published this week, the petition calls for direct elections and a limit to the number of terms in office a president can serve.

"The constitution gives the president absolute authority," the petition claims. "Fake referendums and elections lead to Egyptians being indisposed to participation."

The group also wants the repeal of the country's emergency law, which has been in effect since the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat by Islamic militants in 1981, when President Hosni Mubarak came to power.

It is widely assumed that the 76-year-old Mubarak will stand in a new referendum when his fourth six-year term expires in October 2005.

Breaking taboos

Even the most oblique criticism of the government has historically been considered taboo.

But prominent political commentator Mohamed al-Sayed Said says this iron curtain is weakening, with major private and political party publications openly taking aim at government policies and even the president himself.

Egyptian society is very fragile and very weak. "We have not reached the critical mass of institutions and infrastructure that it would take to carry out a sustained struggle for democratisation
Mohamed al-Sayed Said
Political commentator
Since the 1952 revolution, Egypt has been run by military strongmen who cultivated an image of what Mr Said calls near "divinity - an all-powerful, omniscient entity" that people "never really dared to criticise".

"I do believe that there is a very remarkable shift in the interaction between the state and political society," he adds.

The loosening of the state's once obsessively controlled image has been most evident since the upheaval caused by the US invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Hands off

Organisers have faced only minor problems with the government since launching their campaign and Seif al-Islam says he does not expect a heavy-handed response.

"They didn't agree to let us hold a press conference," he says. "But there hasn't been any serious reaction from them yet."

Cairo billboard showing Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal with an Egyptian gold medallist
Heir apparent? Mubarak Jnr appeared on billboards in Cairo
Tarik al-Bishri, a former judge and well-known Arab thinker, notes that in recent years, it has been the practice of the government to handle popular movements with moderate forbearance.

"The government can tolerate this kind of movement," he says.

The imprisonment in 2000 of human rights activist Saeddedin Ibrahim, who holds dual Egyptian and American citizenship, became a cause celebre internationally before he was acquitted in 2003.

Fear of the unknown

Increasing pressure from the US for democratisation has led the governing National Democratic Party (NDP) to set out a programme of political reform, but most Egyptians dismiss these as cosmetic changes.

If Mubarak lifts the martial law, if he let's groups form political parties, I think this can start a good debate... If he doesn't do that and he keeps ruling with an iron fist, it could be dangerous for himself and his regime and the country as a whole
Essam al-Eryan
Muslim Brotherhood
Calls for constitutional change have been around for years and speculation that Mr Mubarak is grooming his son Gamal as a successor have fuelled heated debate on the question of who should lead Egypt after Mr Mubarak.

The constitution does not oblige the president to name a vice president and Mr Mubarak has consistently resisted doing so.

Were the president unable to perform his duties, power would pass to the speaker of parliament, who would convene members to nominate a candidate and hold a referendum.

"The constitution itself has so many problems to the point of being totally obsolete," says Mohamed al-Sayed Said.

Long campaign

He adds that while the majority of Egyptians certainly crave the kind of change championed by the Popular Campaign, genuine reform is still a long time coming.

"Egyptian society is very fragile and very weak," he says. "We have not reached the critical mass of institutions and infrastructure that it would take to carry out a sustained struggle for democratisation."

Fear of the unknown is also a powerful stabiliser. Asked if he thought Mr Mubarak would win a direct election against viable candidates Mr Said replied: "Of course. I have no doubt he would win."

The reform campaigners concede that the chances of their demands being met before another referendum gives Mr Mubarak another term are "very limited".

As for the lifting of the emergency law, that too will be a very long campaign, particularly after the recent terrorist bombings at three Red Sea resorts in eastern Sinai.

"I think, realistically, we are in need of a transitional period," says the Essam al-Eryan, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure and former MP.

"We hope that Mubarak's next term will be this transitional period," he says. "If he lifts the martial law, if he let's groups form political parties, I think this can start a good debate in this country and keep Egypt safe."

"If he doesn't do that and he keeps ruling with an iron fist, it could be dangerous for himself and his regime and the country as a whole," Mr Eryan warns.

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