The coming Cairo autumn
The coming Cairo autumn
Thursday, October 7,2010 15:06
By Issandr El Amrani


Political openings in Egypt over the last 30 years have come in waves. Swelling and then retreating, they have had little permanence. Periods of limited liberalization have often been followed by a tightening of the noose. Showing lenience, even largesse, when convenient, the state can suddenly become imperious and even cruel. And sometimes, great changes become ways to perpetuate the status-quo in a new garb.

Many were hopeful when the late President Anwar al-Sadat decided to get rid of the Arab Socialist Union in 1978 and allow multiple parties to compete in elections. It was understood that some areas of state policy would remain “above politics”--the military, security affairs, the presidency--but there was hope that restoring partisan life, which had been suspended for 25 years, could eventually lead to a general improvement in political life. But the regime could not tolerate the uncertainty of free elections and the constitutional hindrance of judiciary oversight, and as a result placed limitations on the new electoral system. The result ever since has been elections that are competitive in that many individuals compete for seats, but carry little political meaning or prospect for change.

In 2005, the Bush administration and the Kefaya movement made Egypt’s parliamentary elections matter. For various reasons, including the regime's need for a scarecrow, the Muslim Brotherhood did well--better, in fact, then it had ever performed since the 1980s when it ran in an alliance with the Wafd Party. The new political opening was contingent on factors external to the regime: its diminishing popularity at home and the unusual ideological zeal of an American president. The Brotherhood's parliamentary success was helpful in countering both as it confirmed the regime’s warnings that it’s “us or the Islamists.” Once that objective was fulfilled, it was time to hem the Brothers back in--especially as they began to display signs of being more accommodating to other political forces and more democratically-minded than they had been before. What ensued, between 2007 and 2009, was arguably the biggest crackdown on the group since the 1960s. In elections, the Brothers’ relative freedom to field candidates did not last as Egypt saw the worst elections in its recent history during this period.

The 2005 elections were part of what was dubbed the “Cairo Spring”--a term that is in large part American propaganda by an administration that wanted to convince itself that its policy of aggressive democratization was working (and would retroactively justify an illegal Iraq war waged over non-existent weapons of mass destruction). Nonetheless, there was a qualitative change in Egypt’s political atmosphere, which gave confidence to investors to launch newspapers and satellite television stations with sensitive political content. Protests were largely tolerated, groups of citizen-activists, like Shayfeenkum, were formed, and a generation of young men and women were for the first time able to believe that an interest in politics wasn’t automatically dangerous. This new atmosphere must have played a role in the relentless wave of protests by workers in recent years, which even if not aimed at achieving large-scale reform, was certainly political. An outsider examining Egypt’s political system between 2005 and 2007 might have seen it as heavily controlled, but still tolerant of limited dissent and enabling a vibrant and daring press. Better than many of its neighbors.

But perhaps this too is changing. This morning’s news that Ibrahim Eissa has been fired from Al-Dostour, a leading opposition newspaper, only two months after it was purchased by Wafd Party leader and businessman Al-Sayed Al-Badawi may be one indication pointing in that direction, as do the political pressures said to have been placed on Orbit and ONTV satellite stations to drop certain talk shows (including, in the latter case, one hosted by Eissa). Another indication is the treatment meted to protestors, including members of parliament, last month when they gathered in Tahrir Square. Such protests were commonplace in 2005--I remember seeing hundreds of Kefaya activists marching up and down Downtown streets with little opposition from the police. Why the different treatment now?

Much as the switch from summer to autumn came suddenly a few days ago, replacing the summer heat with a pleasant breeze, the political atmosphere is changing. Of all the gains made five years ago, Egypt’s burgeoning media scene was perhaps the most lasting and most significant. Remember that a few years beforehand, Eissa--without a doubt the most daring Egyptian print media figure there is today--was out in the wilderness, blackballed by all publications and television stations. It’s too soon to tell whether that time has come again, but there are signs the wind has changed. Editors and journalists, and the people who pay their salaries, are likely to become more cautious in the coming period.

The Cairo spring is giving way to the Cairo autumn. May it not become a winter.