- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

“Something is beginning to happen in Egypt,” reports an Egyptian blogger who goes by the name of “Big Pharaoh,” after President Hosni Mubarak asked the parliament last Saturday to amend the constitution to allow more than one candidate to run in the country’s presidential elections next fall.

What is happening in Egypt is also starting in Lebanon, and will likely spread to other parts of the Middle East. It’s a new phenomenon that can be summed up in a single word — “kifaya,” Arabic for “enough.” Monday, Lebanon’s prime minister and entire Cabinet resigned, satisfying a demand of tens of thousands of protesters.

It may sound strange to hold a presidential election with one candidate, but this has been done in the Middle East for decades. Or to amend the constitution at the behest of another country to extend a president’s term, as in Lebanon.

More recently, millions of Egyptians and Lebanese have started saying “enough” to those practices. Whether in English or Arabic, the message is the same; People have had enough of the region’s political and economic stagnation. There is growing frustration in the lack of participation in government. In greater numbers Middle Easterners are saying “kifaya.”

While slow, democracy fever is starting to catch on. In recent weeks the word “kifaya,” or “enough,” has appeared on hundreds of posters carried by demonstrators in Cairo demanding Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak not run for a fifth term. And, the same word was seen in English in Beirut, carried after former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination by thousands at protests against Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

Mr. Mubarak, a key U.S. ally in the Arab world, received $1.9 billion in financial aid during fiscal 2004, according to U.S. State Department figures. The Egyptian president uses his police and intelligence services to maintain a semblance of democracy. Gehad Auda, an Egyptian political analyst, describes democracy in Mr. Mubarak’s Egypt as a place where “democratic politics were to be conducted in parliament rather than on the streets.”

Summing up the political mood of the country, Egypt’s National Campaign for Change has adopted the word “Kifaya” as its name; Kifaya has been one of the groups demanding Mr. Mubarak allow more than a single candidate for the presidency.

Kifaya, which evolved from an anti-Iraq war group into a movement calling for an end to Mr. Mubarak’s rule, encompasses some 26 organizations of diverging political view ranging from Islamists to Nasserites and communists. Its spokesman, George Ishaq, is a Coptic Christian.

Until now Egypt’s parliament would nominate a single candidate for a six-year term — invariably the president. The people would then vote “yes” or “no” in a referendum where the single candidate would typically win with about 99 percent of the vote. Egyptians are now saying kifaya. It’s time to move on.

Since the monarchy was overthrown in a bloodless military coop in 1952 when King Farouk was exiled, Egypt has had only four presidents; Muhammad Naguib, who ruled for 16 months before his ouster by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who then governed Egypt for 16 years. Upon his death in 1970, Nasser was replaced by an obscure vice president called Anwar Sadat. Sadat ruled for 11 years until his assassination in October 1981. Mr. Mubarak, 77, was Sadat’s vice-president, replaced the assassinated leader and has been in power almost 24 years.

Consider for the sake of comparison that in the same time, the United States has voted 11 presidents in and out of power.

The kifaya factor, and U.S. pressures, is beginning to force Mr. Mubarak, who has governed Egypt with the authority of a pharaoh, to make changes. President George W. Bush had singled out “the great and proud nation of Egypt” in his State of the Union address, which, he said, “showed the way toward peace in the Middle East.” Mr. Bush then added Egypt “can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.”

Mr. Mubarak’s move comes as somewhat of a surprise as Egypt faces growing domestic problems and mounting pressures from the Bush administration to introduce more democratization.

While Mr. Mubarak’s request for a change in the constitution is encouraging, there remain a number of unanswered questions about how fair the next elections are likely to be. Will all candidates be allowed to campaign freely? Will the state-controlled media allow them to air their views without restriction? Will it allocate them equal air time and equal space in the printed press? What sort of harassment are opposition candidates likely to face from the security police?

It remains to be seen how much democracy Mr. Mubarak will allow by next fall when the elections are scheduled when only last month he called reform demands “futile.”

While they welcomed the reform, opposition activists said it did not go far enough, describing it as mostly “cosmetic.” Potential presidential candidates would still need parliament’s approval to run. The government sees this as a precautionary measure that would preclude participation by candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood, possibly the country’s largest opposition group. But the ruling could also be applied to other candidates.

Meanwhile, continued human-rights abuses — such as the arrest and detention of Ayman Nour, a lawyer and representative of the al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party — and the disregard of basic demands for reform will continue building up the kifaya factor.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.


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