Egypt and Ireland: A Study in Contrasts
Deaglán de Bréadún
What happens in Egypt in the coming weeks and months will have repercussions for us all. For example, the peace treaty with Israel could be in peril and, if that broke down, we could be looking at another war in fairly short order. It puts Ireland’s problems in perspective. At least we have a stable, consensual democracy, although failure to deal with the economic problems we face could ultimately put that at risk too.
Events in Egypt are reminiscent of the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. The Shah’s regime was even more authoritatian than Mubarak’s and the appearance of the masses on the streets seemed to presage the arrival of a modern democracy. What we got was rather different from what was expected at the time in the West, to put it mildly.
There seem to be moves afoot to arrive at some form of compromise between the current rulers of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. That may not be possible and the advent of an Islamic regime is probably inevitable. Whether it is on the model of Tehran or, say, Ankara/Istanbul will be crucial to peace in the region.
Despite our international image as a ‘rebel people’, the Irish situation is comparatively quiescent. There have been marches and demonstrations but, by and large, dissent has been channeled through the media and the parliamentary system. Greece, too, after some initial turmoil, appears to have settled down. Everything depends on whether the economic crisis is indeed coming to an end, or if there is worse to come.
The following is a report the present writer filed from Cairo just over four years ago. It reflects the political climate in Egypt at the time: placid on the surface but with strong undercurrents. Even in a political system deeply unfriendly to their aims, the Muslim Brotherhood were doing well in elections. There was also a brave willingness on the part of secular political dissidents to go against the State machine.
Irish Times, 9 December 2006: With the Middle East in turmoil, Egypt remains a haven of relative calm, but for how long? Deaglán de Bréadún from Cairo:-
Cairo is a city of teeming millions where cars and people pour like a river along the streets, but it is also a very pacific and safe place. Egypt may be number 111 on the United Nations Human Development Index – compared to Ireland at number 4 – but the theory that poverty and underdevelopment breed violence and crime does not apply to this country.
Apart from sporadic acts of terrorism against tourists and tourist resorts, for the most part Egypt is a haven of stability in an increasingly disturbed region. But with Iraq gripped by civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once again at boiling-point, Lebanon in turmoil and neighbouring Sudan torn with strife over Darfur, how long can Egypt remain relatively calm and peaceful?
It’s a critical question for US foreign policy and for international stability. As elsewhere, radical Islam is on the rise in Egypt. In parliamentary elections last year, the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 out of 444 seats despite operating in an environment where the rules are set by the governing National Democratic Party.
In the Cold War era, Egypt was a client-state of the Soviet Union and relics of that time still survive in the country’s economy. In the small clothing-shops on Cairo’s Talaat Harb street, underworked assistants stand listlessly at the counters and there is a different person to look after every stage of your purchase from browsing through wrapping to handing over the cash.
The last time I saw this phenomenon was in Moscow in the early 1990s during the transition from the Soviet economic approach which was so memorably summed up by the cynical worker who said: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”
Considerable efforts have been made in recent years to modernise the Egyptian economy, and growth is now running at more than 6 per cent a year. Attracting foreign direct investment is critical to the continuation of this growth but many obstacles remain.
The appalling traffic situation in Cairo is the most obvious disincentive to anyone seeking to do business there. The streets are clotted with cars, many of them ancient Ladas or other Soviet-era vehicles. Zebra crossings are rare and pedestrians wander carelessly between the cars, seemingly oblivious to their own safety.
At the same time there is a vibrancy and energy about the city that is very attractive. And despite the fact that I was frequently the sole westerner in the crowd, nobody even gave me an unfriendly look, never mind a hostile word or gesture.
The Metro Cinema on Talaat Harb Street is showing two films arising from the 9/11 events, World Trade Center, starring Nicholas Cage, and United 93, about the doomed plane which was apparently retaken by the passengers after it was hijacked.
The leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, was born in Egypt and the hotel I stayed in is located in Giza, the Cairo suburb where he grew up. Fundamentalism is said to be growing in Egypt, but although I saw many women wearing the hijab or head-scarf on the streets of the city there were very few who had adopted the full veil or niqab.
Egypt’s Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosni, caused a storm of controversy last month when, echoing Britain’s Jack Straw, he spoke out against wearing the niqab, which he said was “a symbol of backwardness”. In an interview, the minister, who is also a well-known abstract painter, said that “women with their beautiful hair are like flowers and should not be covered up”.
A media colleague based in Cairo said that if Egyptian elections were genuinely democratic the Muslim Brotherhood would be running the country. This is the dilemma for George W Bush and the White House policy of encouraging democracy in the Middle East. The results may very well be unpalatable, as in the case of the Hamas victory in Palestine and the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria.
There is also a secular opposition in Egypt, known as Kifaya, or “Enough” in English, as in, “I’ve had enough of this regime and its behaviour”. Speaking to The Irish Times, spokesman George Ishaq stressed that Kifaya was not a political party but “a movement for change”.
The primary weapon used by Kifaya is peaceful demonstration. The first was a two-hour silent protest by 2,000 people on December 12th, 2004, outside the High Court in downtown Cairo. “This style of protest is a very new model for Egypt,” said Ishaq. A similar demonstration is planned for the same venue on Tuesday next.
The aim is to build the maximum amount of unity among the opposition. “I want all the people,” says Ishaq. Kifaya seeks to build unity among all who have had enough of what Ishaq calls the “despotic regime” with its corruption, police brutality and “everything you don’t like”.
He claims a membership of 18,000. The 67-year-old Ishaq has a leftist background but now describes himself as “a social liberal”. He admires Brazil’s Lula da Silva and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. “We are on the side of Lula and Chávez.”
He and his associates opposed the Camp David Agreement signed between Egypt and Israel in 1978. But he says he is not opposed to having peaceful relations with the Israelis: “We are very keen to keep the peace, but a fair peace.”
Egypt, which has operated under emergency legislation for the past 25 years, is not the easiest place to be against the government. “They are listening to my telephone 24 hours a day and they put microphones everywhere,” says Ishaq. “We don’t care, because if you are struggling for freedom you have to pay the price.”
On the pro-government side, Dr Mohamed Kamal, a senior member of the ruling National Democratic Party, says the country is moving towards democracy: “We have a vision, we aspire to transform Egypt into a democratic system. We have achieved a lot over the past few years.” He points to the holding of the first multi-candidate direct elections for the presidency and the “very competitive” parliamentary elections which gave the opposition “big numbers” of seats.
“Our record on human rights is improving,” he says. “There is unprecedented freedom of expression today in Egypt.” He says there is a proliferation of opposition and independent newspapers and that most Egyptians have access to satellite TV stations. “So Egypt is different today, but we still have a lot to do.”
Egypt’s President Mubarak, who visited Ireland this week, is one of the world’s longest-serving heads of state. Although he remains vigorous and lively at 78 years of age, speculation is growing about his successor. The most likely candidate is his 42-year-old son Gamal, known to his friends as “Jimmy”. Meanwhile, the opposition looks set to grow. Given the level of instability in the region as a whole, the Egyptian story is likely to contain some interesting chapters in the next few years.