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A new political culture emerges in Egypt.

In the aftermath of parliamentary elections held in November of last year, Egypt's younger generation of political activists and journalists are attempting to break with the moribund political system and its leaders.

After 14 years of president Mubarak's rule, there is a feeling amongst the majority of the political and cultural intelligentsia that the experiment in democracy begun shortly before Mubarak came to power in 1981 has not gone far enough. And, further, that political institutions and leaders which should be challenging the state are incapable of doing so.

Egypt's political parties are all led by men over 60 years of age and some over 80, who tend to regard the parties they lead as personality cults. The leftist Tagammu party's Khaled Mohieddin was one of the Free Officers who helped lead Egypt from its British-influenced monarchy to the Nasserist Republic; the Wafd's Fouad Serag Eddin, is a luminary from the pre-Revolutionary Wafd party which fought the British occupiers in 1919 and instituted constitutional democracy; the Labour Party's Ibrahim Shokri is a founding member of the Young Egypt Party whose chief claim to fame is that he helped step up the fight to rid the country of the British in the 1930s, and the Liberals' Mustapha Kamal Murad is a former Nasser and Sadat confidante. Most of the parties were established with the blessing of the state which saw for them a specific use and purpose when Sadat decided to make peace with Israel.

Until recently, the elder the better was the established mechanism for change in the Muslim Brotherhood, the major opposition force in the country. In January a new spiritual guide, 75 year old Mustapha Mashhour was chosen to succeed 84 year old Hamed Abu Nasr who died after only three weeks in the job but still, say analysts, dynamic leadership is lacking.

"Mashhour is in his seventies but is a bit more charismatic than his predecessor," says sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim of the Ibn Khaldou Research Center, "but in no way is he a match for the founder of the Brotherhood Hassan Al Banna or for Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Islamist Welfare Party in Turkey."

"The question of charismatic leadership in the Islamist movement in Egypt has become a real problem now," says commentator Dia Rashwan of the Al Ahram Political and Strategic Studies Center. Since the execution of former Brotherhood leader Sayed Qutb in 1965, Brotherhood leaders have striven to work a modus vivendi with the state, and despite the repression of the movement last year - 54 activists were given prison sentences of up to five years in controversial military trials - the trend favouring non-confrontation with the state remains dominant within the organisation.

This situation has pushed younger members who were saved the ravages of state persecution of the Brotherhood last year to break ranks with the organisation's ageing leadership, who have opted to lie low while the state rages against them - a significant gesture in a group known for its Masonic-style discipline. They hope to set up Egypt's newest political party, Al Wasat, or the Centre, and this presents the first open dissent by the young generation of syndicate activists in their 30s and 40s.

The idea behind Al Wasat is not only a sign of unease within the Brotherhood's ranks but also of restlessness among young activists across the political spectrum. The party includes prominent Christians, leftists and Nasserists who see Al Wasat as one way out of the political dilemma facing the country: the Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and most popular political movement, is for Muslims only - legalize it, say apologists for the regime, and the Christian Copts will demand a political party too, thereby opening the door to sectarian strife as potentially violent as that of Lebanon during the civil war.

"The reality is that there exists a very powerful Islamist movement in Egypt and we must take this force and establish peaceful and moderate channels for it to express itself," says Rafiq Habib, a Christian and one of the party's founders, "the opposition in general, as it is at present, is only meant to be decor. What we aim to do is to activate political life in Egypt, which at present is more approaching political death than life."

There are distinct signs of a revolt in the offing, too, amongst the younger ranks of the Nasserist Party. The most recent of the major parties - they were licensed in 1992 after a four year legal battle - the Nasserists are the least inclined of the parties to defer to authority and play the political party game with the state. "All the opposition party leaders, including the Nasserist Party leader, were former ministers who understand only how to deal with the president of the state," says Amin Iskander, cultural spokesman for the party and member of their ruling body, "this restricts their activity and makes them incapable of breaking the bonds imposed on them by the state."

The younger wing of the party, thought to represent some 60% of the total membership, are hoping to install charismatic 42 year old Hamdeen Al Sabahi, as party leader in elections later this year, to replace ageing Nasserist diehard Dia Eddin Dawoud.

Sabahi would present the state with its first opposition leader from outside the 'old guard' with whom the state has established lines of communication and experience, and that is exactly what the state may want to avoid - Iskander claims Sabahi was a specific target of vote-rigging during last year's parliamentary elections.

Predictably, the gerontocracy leads the opposition in parliament. The People's Assembly contains only 14 opposition figures (out of 454 deputies in all), and they are led by the septuagenarian Yassin Serag Eddin, brother of the Wafd Party's leader, and the Tagammu's Khaled Mohieddin, one of Nasser's Free Officer colleagues: only 22 members of the new parliament are under 40.

It was no surprise that the Wafd and the Tagammu should net the largest number of opposition seats - 6 and 5 respectively - since they represent what the state regards as 'responsible opposition', meaning they do not ally with Islamists and are eminently co-optable.

But one disgruntled opposition figure has irked apologists for the regime and the pro-government leadership of the Journalists Syndicate by presenting to the Assembly an alternative to the controversial press law passed by the house last May.

To maintain the facade of action, the syndicate put together a redraft of the press law in December, which was to be - at some unspecified time in the future - presented to parliament. But Ayman Nour - a young business entrepreneur and Wafdist member of parliament - caused uproar when he went behind the syndicate's back and presented the proposed new press law to the house.

Despite the noise its activists can often make, the Journalists Syndicate is kept rigidly in check by the state. It is led by Al Ahrarn editor-in-chief and presidential confidante Ibrahim Nafie, who has skilfully managed to contain anger over the press law and prevent any clashes between journalists and the state. But Nour's maverick action made painfully obvious the extent of the retreat of journalists' since the heady days of last June when a national newspaper strike was a real possibility.

At the same time, a group of young journalists and writers are behind Egypt's newest newspaper, the weekly Al Destour, which began printing in December. Also set up by an agitated younger generation of 30 and 40-somethings, Al Destour is the secular foil to Al Wasat. Its writers have set their political line against Islamists and the old-time opposition leaders vying for favours with the state. In an end of the year review the paper named Tagammu leader Khaled Mohieddin as one of the "ten worst personalities of 1995".

Issa accuses the principal leftist newspaper Al Ahali of having "turned the great Mohieddin into nothing but a pedlar." The response of the leftists has been telling: as well as raising a libel suit against Issa, they described the staff of Al Destour as just "a bunch of kids." But a "bunch of kids", say many analysts, is just what the country's moribund political life needs.

Whoever is to blame for the lack of space for organized political opposition - the government or the quietism of opposition leaders - the consequence has been that the professional syndicates have become political stomping grounds and arenas for experimenting in ideology. The Brotherhood has engaged in this activity most of all, implementing their vision of Islamic charity through extensive social security and health care schemes. As well as increasing services to members, doctors, engineers and lawyers they have run high profile campaigns to help in natural disasters at home - the earthquake in 1992 and the floods of 1994 - and have fought for political causes abroad - relief aid to Bosnia, Chechya, Yemen and Somalia.

All of this has put the government in a distinctly bad - i.e. less Islamic light - and government pressure has been steadily mounting on doctors, engineers and lawyers to vote out the Islamists who took control of their syndicates in 1991 and 1992. Laws were passed in 1993 and 1995 giving the state greater powers to interfere in their elections; accusations of financial malpractice have been directed at the engineers and lawyers - leading in both cases to court orders ordering sequestration of funds until new syndicate councils are elected this year; and Islamist doctors - amongst those jailed in the Brotherhood trials last year - were accused of using the syndicate as a front for funding the Gamaa Islamiya abroad.

Ultimately, the price the Brotherhood paid was the jailing of its most prominent young syndicate activists in controversial military trials last year. One of them, general secretary of the Doctors' Syndicate Essam Al Erian, is seen as the charismatic young Islamist leader of the future, the like of who Egypt's Islamist movement hasn't known in years.

"Many of the younger guys who were jailed recently are sure to emerge as martyrs, and this is something the subtleties of which the regime doesn't understand," argues Saad Eddin Ibrahim. As the old political leaders approach the end of their active life, one political culture is passing by and a new more active and dynamic one is emerging. The state's sole strategy to deal with this phenomenon to date has been to put those who pose the greatest challenge behind bars, while at the same time dangling enough bait in the face of opposition leaders to keep them in line.
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Author:Hammond, Andrew
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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