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Egypt: Battling for Democracy

The Judges Club in Cairo.

The Judges Club in Cairo has been the focal point of a fierce standoff between the government of President Hosni Mubarak and an increasingly emboldened pro-democracy movement.

Editor's Note: Following protests and arrests this week on the streets of Cairo, we asked Egyptian-American journalist Fatemah Farag, a longtime resident of the city, to explore the pro-democracy movement in Egypt, both the way it looks on the street and what the confrontations between activists, judges and the government imply for the future of Egypt.

The streets are peculiarly empty for a Wednesday evening -- devoid of the usual constant traffic jams that are the hallmark of downtown Cairo. And yet as I drive past the headquarters of the Press Syndicate, I'm struck by a sense of foreboding that seems to hover over the empty streets.

The Judges Club, an early 20th-century villa long revered as the symbol of Egypt's independent judiciary, is under siege. Police trucks and armored vehicles are everywhere. I glimpse the face of an anti-riot policeman peering through the window of a police truck. Police officers line the sidewalks looking arrogantly at passersby. For weeks now, the Judges Club has been the focal point of an increasingly fierce and potentially ruinous standoff between the government of President Hosni Mubarak and an increasingly emboldened pro-democracy movement.

I continue my journey to Talaat Harb square -- the hub of downtown Cairo -- where another police siege is taking place. Ahmed Fouad Negm, a popular 78-year-old poet known for his devastating political satire, was due to give a recitation there. The police have "politely" turned him away. "Otherwise you'll be beaten and arrested," a police officer tells him and a group of his fans. Around the gathering, black banners hang limply from the offices of the leftist Tagammu Party, lamenting the fate of a nation that for a quarter of a century has been under Emergency Law, ruled by one man and one party.

Across the street, orange banners hang from the offices of Ayman Nour's Al-Ghad ("Tomorrow") Party. The flamboyant Nour, a liberal member of parliament, was the runner-up in last year's first-ever multicandidate presidential election, winning more than half a million votes. He is now serving a five-year jail term on what are widely believed to be fabricated fraud charges. The banners declare support for the party's absent leader and proclaim the party offices to be "the temporary headquarters of the Egyptian national movement."

Leaving downtown Cairo behind, I head to the working-class suburb of Helwan, where I'll be attending a belated May Day rally organized by the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS). It's about an hour's drive, time enough to ponder the fleeting promise of political reform and the sense of optimism that seemed to grip the country in 2005: that democratic change, at long last, was at hand.

A Fleeting Hope of Democracy

In March 2005, President Mubarak called for the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution with a view to allowing multicandidate presidential elections. Leaders of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) talked ceaselessly of ushering in a new era of political reform.

Every week, pro-democracy rallies and demonstrations filled Egyptian streets. It was during these heady times that I talked to Ali Eddin Hilal, one of the leaders of the ruling party and closely associated with the NDP's "reformist" faction. "Egypt is pregnant with change," Hilal told me then. "From day one, the challenge facing everyone will be how to implement the ambitious platform announced by the president. How to provide 4 million job opportunities in six years, reclaim land, build factories and effect a host of legislative reforms? The implementation of all of this requires a fresh look, and by no means are we back to business as usual."

In the past two months alone, the number of arrests, violent crackdowns against unarmed demonstrators, and the intimidation of judges, journalists and opposition movements have reached record levels.

But now we are in May, and "business as usual" is back with a vengeance. In the past two months alone, the number of arrests, violent crackdowns against unarmed demonstrators, and the intimidation of judges, journalists and opposition movements have reached record levels.

The View From a Working-Class Suburb

"It was only a few months ago that the president and his party promised us the creation of much-needed jobs, an end to the Emergency Law and a crackdown on corruption," Kamal Abbas, head of CTUWS, reminds some 1,000 workers gathered in an open dirt soccer field. I've arrived in the heart of Helwan; around us loom the smoking stacks of the cement factories, which continue to spew cement dust over the densely packed shanty houses surrounding them.

Unlike the students and professionals that make up the rallies in central Cairo, this is solid blue-collar country. But the sense of anger and frustration are no different. "Today, the armies of unemployed grow unabated," Abbas shouts through the loudspeakers. "The Emergency Law has been extended by another two years, local council elections have also been postponed for another two years, and as we speak, around 100 activists from across the political spectrum languish in jail and corruption runs higher than could ever have been imagined."

More than half of the Egyptian population lives on less than US$2 a day, according to World Bank figures. Unemployment is around 20 percent. And now the frustrations of daily life are compounded by the talk of oppression. At the mention of the pro-reform judges, hundreds of calloused hands come together in applause. "May God protect them," mutters a bus driver sitting behind me.

Roots of the Confrontation

The government-judges standoff exposes the speciousness of the Mubarak government's commitment to political reform. In a gesture designed to ensure free and fair elections, the government had bowed, after decades of resistance, to the popular demand for full judicial supervision of all elections. Yet last November's parliamentary elections saw widespread vote rigging and a host of other coercive government tactics to interfere with the ballot. Many of the judges took their oath seriously and spoke out against the electoral fraud. The Egyptian judiciary, with its reputation for independence, has long been a thorn in the side of the authoritarian regime. And though the government has managed to co-opt some sections of the judiciary, the Judges Club has shown a commitment to defending the country's rule of law and civil liberties.

Police presence on the street.

An estimated 20,000 police officers were deployed to all but seal off downtown Cairo during pro-democracy protests and sit-ins.

In typical response, the government clamped down. Two senior judges, Mahmoud Mekki and Hisham Bastawisi, were made an example of, presumably to intimidate the rest of the judiciary, and charged with slander and defamation. They faced a disciplinary tribunal Thursday where Mekki was cleared of the charges and Bastawisi was given a reprimand. (Bastawisi wasn't able to attend the hearing, after suffering a heart attack earlier this week.) Much of the nation's judiciary rallied around Mekki and Bastawisi, which included an unprecedented judges' sit-in at the Judges Club. The judges' defiance galvanized the whole pro-democracy movement. Hundreds of activists rallied behind them, and the battle for democracy in Egypt shifted gears. No longer just a confrontation between government and civil society, the confrontation is now also between the government and one of its main branches, pitting the executive against the judiciary.

"The judges constitute a key branch of state authority, and you don't have to be an insider in the upper echelons of power to know that there is a conflict within the Egyptian state," explained Mustafa Kamel el-Sayed, a professor of political science at Cairo University.

"The judges constitute a key branch of state authority, and you don't have to be an insider in the upper echelons of power to know that there is a conflict within the Egyptian state."

Back on the Streets

But on the street, with each passing day the confrontation turns uglier. The day after I drove through a silent downtown on my way to the rally at Helwan, all hell broke loose. The center of the capital -- also the site of the High Court where the ruling in the trial of Mekki and Bastawisi was due to be made -- was under what amounted to martial law. An estimated 20,000 police officers, some uniformed, some plain-clothes, some in full riot gear, all but sealed off downtown Cairo. There were scenes of mayhem inside what democracy activists are now calling "the freedom triangle."

Eyewitness accounts, photographs and video footage show police brutality. A high-ranking police officer would point his finger at a lone activist walking down the street and dozens of men would rush to beat him to the ground with sticks, with fists, with boots. A female journalist, Abeer el-Askary, arrived back at her paper badly bruised, clothes torn. She described being brutally beaten, then being snatched into a police car where she was sexually molested, after which she was thrown half-naked into the street. The organization Reporters Without Frontiers said it was "shocked" at police attacks against journalists and lamented, "It is becoming more difficult for the local and international press to cover stories that displease the regime."

According to the latest figures, 250 people were arrested and are still being held in detention. So eager was the government to make an overwhelming show of force that a police van drove off an overcrowded bridge killing six people and injuring more than 20. The nation was stunned by the police violence that was unleashed at unarmed demonstrators and anyone else -- including journalists -- who happened to be in the way.

Paving the Road for the Next Mubarak?

Cairo University's El-Sayed suggests that the ferocity of the clampdown is meant to pave the way for Mubarak's son, Gamal. "Gamal has denied any political ambition, but many people in Egypt do not believe these denials," he says. "And if the judges continue to challenge the regime, this might cast doubt on the legitimacy of its future. Hence it is important for the political leadership to teach the judges a lesson and show all political groups that it will spare no effort to suppress any opposition."

El-Sayed says the government will continue to use these methods, including extending the Emergency Law and postponing municipal council elections -- scheduled to take place early this year -- for two years. The objective, according to El-Sayed, is "to gain time and successfully transfer power within the regime's ranks."

The recent crackdown was a high point in an escalation of state violence that began in late April when police beat up a judge and dragged him across the street because he was videotaping the violent breakup of a group of activists supporting the judges' sit-in. A few days later the police once again attacked pro-democracy activists and arrested 100 people -- approximately half of which are from the Muslim Brotherhood.

While the pro-democracy movement has been spearheaded by liberal and leftist activists, last year's parliamentary elections clearly showed that the most powerful opposition force in the country is the Muslim Brotherhood, which captured an unprecedented 80 seats. For the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood's electoral success and that of Hamas in the Occupied Territories is argument enough to justify authoritarianism. The regime's message to the United States and Europe, both of which had been urging Egypt to democratize, is that it is either "us or them."

"The Egyptian leadership perceives that the U.S. interest in promoting democracy in the region has waned," El-Sayed says. "I think the position of the U.S. administration now is that democratic elections in the region [will] bring enemies of the United States into power."

And although the political elite in both Cairo and Washington may consider events here during the past few weeks to be "business as usual," tension continues to mount on Egyptian streets. In the arenas of the privately owned opposition-party press, the headlines this week read as follows: "Expecting a Sudden Collapse of the Regime" (Al-Arabi); "The Regime Falls" (Sawt Al-Ummah); "They Beat Us With Their Shoes!" (Al-Osbou); and "Egypt Under the Security's Shoes" (Al-Fajr). According to one political analyst, who preferred not to be named, "This is the kind of situation that begs a coup d'etat scenario."

Fatemah Farag is a senior journalist at Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. She has written extensively about police repression, the pro-democracy movement and Egyptian government policy in areas such as labor, employment, the environment and conservation.