Mubarak responds to Brotherhood ’threat’
|Sunday, February 4,2007 00:00|
|By Dominic Moran|
president Mubarak recently instigated the passing of 34 amendments to the Egyptian constitution as his ruling NDP seeks to regain political ground lost to the Muslim Brotherhood. ISN Security Watch discusses the changes with Egyptian political analysts.
Egypt’s lower legislative house, the People’s Assembly, recently gave its initial approval to 34 constitutional changes, as the government of President Hosni Mubarak seeks to respond to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and collapse of secular opposition parties.
While many of the proposed constitutional changes are purely technical, several appear designed to extend the power of parliament by giving it a greater say in policy formation and on the state budget. The legislature will be able to vote no confidence in the government, while the prime minister is to serve as acting premier in the event of the president’s sudden demise or incapacitation.
Other changes are designed to encourage the formation of political parties and to limit the number of independents in parliament.
"Some additions are meaningful in theory but may come to be much less than meaningful when viewed in actuality, such as increased power for the parliament," the director of the state-funded Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Dr Mohamed Kadri Said, told ISN Security Watch.
The secretary-general of the Egyptian Greens, Mohamed Awad, added that proposed changes to the writ of the bicameral legislature’s upper house, the Shura Council, are likely to strip both it and the People’s Assembly of the final say on contentious legislature.
The government is saying "that they should give the Shura Council legislative competence," Awad said, "They forget that if the Shura Council has some powers of legislation, with the parliament, it means that the president would have the right in the case of contradictions between the two councils to judge between them. That is more power to the president, not decreasing [his] power."
If this occurs, the Shura Council would likely lose its role as arbiter of the constitutionality of proposed legislation, he argued.
Most analysts believe that there is little in the constitutional proposals that signals a genuine power shift from the presidency to the legislature, or threatens the preeminence of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
The proposed constitutional changes look set to strengthen the existing ban on the establishment of religious parties, in a move designed to counter the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood – which advocates governance reforms based on Sharia.
With the Brotherhood prevented from running candidates directly, 88 members of the movement won election to the 454-strong People’s Assembly as independents in the 2005 parliamentary election.
The strong performance of the Muslim Brotherhood in the elections sent shock waves through the Egyptian political establishment and has precipitated a series of ongoing security force crackdowns designed to destabilize the group.
NDP concern at the rise of the Brotherhood could be gauged in the delay of local council elections, scheduled for 2006, to 2008.
Mubarak used the 2005 parliamentary poll to force the US to ease its pressure for further civil rights and governance reforms by pointing to the purported danger of a Brotherhood takeover to US regional interests.
Said explained that constitutional emendations would cement "a change in the electoral system that is going to at least be partially be on party [lines], so that will certainly deprive the Muslim [Brotherhood] of competing as a party in the elections, and many others perhaps."
"I think the country is going to move towards some sort of mixed system in which independents are going to be allowed but party lists are going to be the dominant feature," he added.
Since the 2005 election, both the NDP and Brotherhood have moved to delineate the boundaries of their political contest.
The Brotherhood has looked to usurp sporadic civil rights struggles while signaling its opposition to the president’s constitutional reforms, and the movement’s MPs have aligned in parliament with Nasserist legislators to criticize the alleged corruption and cronyism of senior NDP officials.
Brotherhood involvement in anti-government demonstrations at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University in December appeared to prompt an intensification of the months-long crackdown on the group. The protests included a martial arts display by students wearing masks and balaclavas and led to the arrest of 180 students and Brotherhood leaders.
In all over 400 alleged members of the Brotherhood have been arrested in the current clampdown with government officials and the state-controlled press accusing the movement of reforming its paramilitary wing in an effort to establish an Islamic Caliphate.
Seventeen Brotherhood members, including two members of the movement’s governing Guidance Council, were arrested in August after the group’s supreme spiritual guide, Mohammed Mehdi Akef, said in July that the Brotherhood was willing to send "trained" volunteers to fight Israeli forces in Lebanon.
Said said the intentions behind the government crackdowns were, "very obvious: to cut the power of the Muslim Brothers and to cut their appeal and electoral capability. It is basically to reduce the challenge to the existing elite coming from the Muslim Brothers."
Asked by ISN Security Watch if the Muslim Brotherhood was a genuine threat to NDP rule, Said responded, "I would say yes. Not immediate but in the long-run. They are seen to be the only real political party in the country. So, yes, they do form a substantial threat.
Mubarak has pledged to end a state of emergency in place since the assassination of his predecessor Anwar Sadat in 1981. Under emergency regulations it is illegal for five or more people to gather together and security forces have extensive powers of detention.
The Al-Ahram weekly reported that independent MPs, brought into the NDP to bolster its majority in parliament, resisted the 2006 extension of emergency powers. Multimillionaire NDP MP Ahmed Ezz was rumored to have paid out LE40,000 (US$7,000) per MP to buy their votes.
The president has also come under significant pressure to revoke the state of emergency and institute security reforms through the recent public dissemination of two videos showing the torture of detainees by police.
"The government has said that it wants to end the martial law," Said explained, "That is, it will make room in the constitution for an anti-terrorism law which is a certain substitute to martial law, [which] may perpetuate some of the powers given to the state by the martial law – we are not very clear on the precise formulation."
Said added that the proposed amendments were likely to give the new anti-terror law "constitutional power rather than just legislative power, which is something debated very heatedly in this country."
Small US-backed liberal parties and their left wing counterparts tended to fade from view after the 2005 elections.
President Mubarak’s closest challenger in the presidential election, Ayman Nour, was jailed for the second time in December 2005 after allegedly forging signatures on his al-Ghad party’s official registration submission. His party has since divided into two competing factions.
Several other parties engaged in internecine bloodletting in 2006 with the most dramatic the burning of al-Wafd’s Cairo headquarters in a 10-hour battle between opponents and supporters of leader Numan Gomaa.
Awad said that one of the reasons for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood was the "weakness of the opposition parties," which he claims have been subject to government manipulation.
"They are not playing any role. That is because the NDP is hiring the presidents of the political parties," Awad said, "and that means that we do not have any opposition political parties here."
Said added, "The party system is a shambles, it is very, very bad and it has lost credibility. But the government wants to put greater emphasis on party life as it is determined to beat the Muslim [Brotherhood] […] But the road is going to be very, very hard because all major political parties […] are practically breaking apart."
The proposed constitutional amendments appear to offer the judiciary greater freedom from official oversight, abolishing the positions of Socialist Prosecutor, the Court of Values, and the Supreme Council of Judicial Authorities.
However, the judiciary will also lose its role as election monitors.
The Judges Club led opposition to alleged widespread electoral fraud, and has become a symbol of Egypt’s civil rights struggle. The government moved to punish two prominent justices, Mahmoud Mekki and Hesham Bastawisi, last May due to their revealing the names of judges who allegedly participated in vote rigging during the 2005 parliamentary election.
A new judicial law passed in May fails fundamentally to grant justices the independence from the executive they have been seeking and looks to be unaffected by the proposed constitutional emendations.
"There will [be] an electoral commission which could be a big loss or a big gain depending on the exact wording, which has not been seen yet," Said said.
"If it is going to be anything like the experience we had in 2005 with the [electoral commissions], we are really very scared of this simply because it may skew the election result," he added.
Despite a recent pledge to continue as president "as long as my heart is beating and I’m breathing," Mubarak has continued moves to promote his son Gamal within the NDP as his likely successor.
Given that Gamal lacks the high-level military experience of his father, the president has appeared concerned that his son lacks a natural support base within the armed forces or NDP crucial to his succession as premier.
For this reason, Gamal has been given authority for a series of reform efforts and new policy initiatives as head of the NDP’s powerful Policies Committee, including the September announcement that Egypt intends to restart its mothballed nuclear program.
According to reports, the party’s poor showing in the 2005 elections was used to force members of the NDP old guard from positions of power, including parliamentary whip Kamal El-Shazli.
Gamal’s supporters have since received promotions in the NDP with members of his circle taking control of at least two key party offices.
Referring to the December speech Said said, "President Mubarak made it clear that he is not going to do that [tawreeth] and that he is going to continue until the last breath. For some time now we take it that the whole issue of inheritance is off the political agenda at this point."
Nonetheless, the proposed constitutional amendments appear to marry well both with US interests and those of the businessmen supporting Gamal, reflecting moves to open up the Egyptian economy and limit the traditionally dominant role of the public sector therein.
"Many of the [constitutional] articles that they want to modify […] are related to [certain] economical views regarding the role of the state in economic life," Awad said. "They are aiming to reflect the new economic life of Egypt, which follows the liberal economic line."
Asked if Gamal Mubarak and those around him were responsible for some of the constitutional amendments Awad said, "I think so."
Mubarak Steps Up Fight on Muslim Brotherhood