Tangerine dream

Tangerine dream

Opinion piece (Financial Times)
Mark Leonard
12 February 2005

The man I went to see in Cairo is now in prison. I had seen Ayman Nur, the leader of Al- Ghad (The Party of Tomorrow), in the pride of his growing fame and success: at the peak of the growth of a movement which he created and which attracts some of the brightest spirits in Egypt; in his home, amid the clutter of his wealth and in the company of a wife who is also a partner in his work. Now, it may be that his run for power is finished, and with it a liberal, reformist challenge to an Arab autocracy. Egypt, with its 73 million people, the Alexandria library, the pyramids and a history of pan-Arabism has been a pace-setter for the Arab world. But today, it is caught - between reform and stagnation, between being an ally of the west and the original good Arab state, between secularism and resurgent Islam. Above all, it is caught in the ambiguities and mysteries of the time since 9/11: a time in which the skeins of alliances, understandings and deals within the Arab world, and between that world and the west, are being challenged by a disturbing mixture of violence and democracy, threat and promise.

I arrive on a late-December night through the dilapidated grandeur of Cairo, crossing the Nile with its gaudy pleasure boats seeking to recreate the fin de siecle splendour of the capital at its imperial peak. The souks and mosques of the old city are besieged by skyscrapers and neon-lit advertisements for Arab Telecom and Vodafone and injunctions in flowing Arabic script to “Enjoy Coca-Cola”. The old streets teem with gleaming SUVs, Lexus and BMWs engaged in a Darwinian struggle with the rusty 1960s Fiats that sport the black and white livery of the city's official taxis. “Dare to be different” slogans beckon provocatively from funky “veil wear” shops, hinting at a secular western modernity in which anything goes and is allowed to go.

The hints of the streets are mirrored in the public arena. Westerners in town profess themselves excited by what is happening and is likely to happen in this year in which there will be both a presidential referendum and parliamentary elections. Last summer an energetic new prime minister was appointed to lead a cabinet with strong reformist credentials. The Egyptian currency has floated, some tariffs were cut, and in December the government signed a historic trade partnership with Israel and the US creating “Qualified Industrial Zones” in Egypt. The stock market has taken heart: Egyptian shares rose by more than 100 per cent in the past year. The ailing dictator Hosni Mubarak's 41-year-old son, Gamal, the coming power in the ruling National Democratic Party, uses the slogan “Let us reform our own house first” to introduce primaries for leadership posts, creating specialised policy committees and convening an annual congress. Political reforms include setting up a human rights commission under the former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, allowing a new party to be registered and licensing a new independent newspaper Al Masri Al Yawm (The Egyptian Today) which is scathing about the Mubarak regime.

At the same time, per capita income stagnates at about $1,200 a year and economic growth barely keeps pace with that of the population. The ruling party's annual congress last September explicitly rejected direct presidential elections, limits on presidential terms and powers, or lifting “emergency laws” which curtail political and civil society action. Gamal may be promoting a liberalised autocracy rather than a democracy - a “Chinese model” of economic liberalisation to support the continuation of one-party rule. Reform is being promoted: but its limits may be defined by the NDP's - and the Mubarak dynasty's - grip on power.

There is one big difference. It is that Egypt's politics no longer exist in a vacuum, sealed off from external scrutiny by the west's reliance on Mubarak's support in a region replete with oil and political instability. This year started with promises from President George W. Bush to “end tyranny in our world” and that the US will embrace the active promotion of democracy, as against its passive advocacy. “Democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile can know: America sees you for who you are - the future leaders of your free country,” he announced in his inaugural address. Next month members of the G8 and the Arab League are due to meet in Cairo with reform on the agenda. Democracy seems to have advanced in Iraq - albeit at the point of US bayonets. It is being put squarely before the Arab ruling elites as the necessary next step. And in Egypt, at the end of last year, it seemed to be growing up from within.

Some political movements are forged in the white heat of revolution, on the factory floor, or in darkened rooms at the midnight hour. But the first meeting of the Supreme Council of Al- Ghad takes place on December 21 2004 above an upmarket toy shop whose windows burst with Barbie dolls, plastic AK47s and Christmas trees. After three failed applications, the party has finally been given legal recognition - just seven weeks before the meeting - by Egypt's Political Parties Affairs Committee, the body set up by Mubarak to decide which parties are allowed to contest elections. In the committee's 28-year history, Al-Ghad is the first serious opposition party to gain its approval. It is an extraordinary breakthrough.

Young women wearing orange headscarves and T-shirts greet the arrivals and usher them upstairs. They have laid the room out with Fanta bottles, because they match the fledgling party's official colour and embody its “tangerine dream”. People are kissing, smiling and touching each other with excitement. An activist I know takes me in; our progress is interrupted by greetings from a famous actor, a former judge, an MP, an academic, a newspaper editor, a business mogul, the former president Anwar Sadat's nephew, the grandson of the secretary general of the nationalist Wafd party which led the movement for Egyptian independence, and the granddaughter of a pasha who also led that party. Political power is handed down from father to son in the Middle East: it is natural that the new party should seek out the relatives of the dead to bless the plans of the living. Yet at the same time, the leaders of Egypt's “orange revolution” seek to throw off that legacy. The new 48- page draft constitution they have drawn up for Egyptians includes the phrase: “We, the Egyptian People... “ Jefferson is called in to challenge the Egyptian political order. “We are the owners of this nation, and partners in it, not day-labourers,” the document continues, “citizens and not subjects.”

As we wait for the proceedings to start, a bearded elder with a head-dress appears, jarring with the mainly young, western-dressed audience. He looks unworldly and talks slowly, wearing a long hooded cloak and an Arab rosary: a sudden intrusion of a past which the Al- Ghad mise-en-scene had seemed to wish to leave behind, even scorn. But then the vision takes out a mobile phone and checks his text messages - after which he talks to me, saying his name is Abdelfatah Elshafei, a member of parliament. “I'm initially a founder of the Neo- Wafd Party. But I feel that Wafd has got lost. The hope is the Ghad party, because it is youth and it is the future. The founders have a comprehensive programme and have called for a 'third way'. If there is no rigging of the elections, and transparency and voter registration and judicial supervision of the whole process starting with registration, we could get 100 seats.”

We are waiting in the crowded room for the arrival of the leader. On the walls is a colourful synchronic mural, with pictures of the key figures in liberal politics across Egypt's history. Al- Ghad's Egyptian antecedents are vital: for all that its bold declaration of democracy and freedom has an American accent, the party must not be dismissed as a collection of foreign stooges. There is a sudden hush. Ayman Nur bursts into the room like a child who has eaten too much sugar, all pumped up with gaiety and excitement. Wearing a regulation black and orange tie, he kisses, grips hands, huddles briefly with different groups. The meeting starts over an hour late with a high-tech PowerPoint presentation on party strategy. But when the exhausted participants finally leave the building, they have picked up pledges of $1.5m to support a new party newspaper.

I arrive at Mona Makram Ebeid's regal apartment on time and wait patiently on the doorstep, under the solicitous eye of a boy servant, until the newly appointed secretary general of Al- Ghad makes her appearance. She is the granddaughter of Makram Ebeid Pasha, the most renowned Coptic politician in modern Egypt and secretary general of the Wafd party when it dominated Egyptian politics between the first world war and the Nasser revolution. Ebeid is Al-Ghad's most prominent symbol of continuity with Egypt's liberal past.

She arrives like a hurricane to sweep me into her flat, blowing open the doors and hurtling into a large room lit by hydra-headed crystal chandeliers. The sofas are Napoleonic. The coffee table groans under a collection of ivory artefacts. Around the side of the room are sepia photographs of her ancestors in silver frames. Chinese pottery, marble pedestals and Islamic script mingle with bottles of fine Cognac and gin. I scan her bookshelves and find an anachronistic mix of leather-bound volumes that would be more at home on the shelves of a European aristocrat of the 1950s: Little Lord Fauntleroy sits alongside four volumes of the speeches and writings of De Gaulle, Raymond Aron's Histoire et Politique beside A.B. Ulam's The Bolsheviks.

Speaking in a raspy voice, she tells me that she is not just the first woman to run a political party in Egypt, but throughout the Arab world. She is an academic (graduated from Harvard), an activist (runs an NGO called the Association for the Advancement of Education), but above all she is the heir to a political dynasty linking the British colonial era with today's Egypt. She tells me that she grew up in Alexandria, attending the prestigious English Girls' College: “It was the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Not Cannes, not Nice. So we grew up in a totally different atmosphere.” Although she is a descendant of one of the grandest Coptic Christian families (the faith accounts for about 10 per cent of the population), she doesn't practise religion. “I think it is as rude to ask someone what their religion is as it is to ask them how much their suit cost. I was brought up in a very cosmopolitan atmosphere, so all this talk about religion is new.”

Ebeid is clear that things are changing: “The Pandora's box has been opened by George Bush. The internal pressures have been reinvigorated and people are speaking out, which they never did so openly or vigorously before. There is a sense of malaise. The question of the rotation of power is on the table. The question of term-limits is on the table. Change is now inevitable. The government can't say we are foreign stooges because we have been saying these things for years. The Ghad party is a home-grown thing. It is not part of the Bush project.”

She says there is a vacuum between the government and the Islamists: “We are investing in that vacuum.” When I ask her how, she explains that Al-Ghad offers a third way between the stasis of the existing regime and the reactionary harking back to the past of the religious parties. “Our first thing is the appearance of the membership and leadership. We are young. The leader is 40 years old, which has never happened before. We are modern. We talk about globalisation, access to the ideas of the west and justice. Young people who felt marginalised can have a platform and a voice. We want to instil a sense of hope, a sense that Egyptians are no less than the Indonesians and Malaysians who have made it. We want to draw people away from Islamism.”

Ebeid is the link with the past and at the same time a liberal icon, and - as a woman - the harbinger of a future that has yet to find a voice. It is, though, hard to see this aristocratic figure bonding with the poor and needy on the streets of Cairo or reaching out to the uneducated masses in the north-west provinces. This is the job of Al-Ghad's youthful leader and populist-in-chief, Ayman Nur, and his wife and political companion, Gameela Ismail.

Nur and Ismail are made for television. They are young, attractive, overflowing with energy and surrounded by beautiful children. An MP for 10 years, he is the son of a parliamentarian whose 30 years of service date back to the time of Nasser. Nur first made his name as head of the students' union in Cairo, and in his work as a campaigning journalist exposed torture in Egypt's police stations. He has lived mainly in the Egyptian capital, though he had a spell of postgraduate study in Moscow and a stint as editor of the Arab newspaper Al Hayat in London. Ismail juggles roles as the head of the Nur Foundation (the charity they use to do community work), the party's director of communications, a stringer for Newsweek, mother, and being the Davina McCall of Egyptian state television (she presents two regular reality-TV shows).

Nur has been called the Egyptian Tony Blair. His youth, charisma and pragmatism echo the image of the British prime minister when he came to office - as well as the promise of a fresh start for a country fed up with a long-serving and discredited regime. He explains to me that he has written 23 newspaper articles about how the “Third Way” could apply to Egypt. Like Blair, he instinctively tunes into the thoughts and desires of aspirational Egyptians.

Ebeid didn't buy her own furniture, but the Nurs certainly did. Their vast penthouse covers the top floor of an Egyptian apartment block: avid collectors, they have filled their home with mail-order catalogue chic: ancient pistols, gramophones, statues of parrots and horses. In the corner of the room is the biggest television screen I have ever seen, left on as we speak. As we settle down for the interview, their 12-year-old son comes into the room to ask permission to watch a DVD of Fahrenheit 9/11. As he leaves, a red-coated servant appears to take our orders.

Nur speaks in a low whisper - he has been giving speeches non-stop for the last few days and has completely lost his voice. Ismail translates (he prefers not to speak in English, although he seems to understand it). He starts by setting out his mission. “We will try to build confidence in the souls of the people that this party is an alternative to the ruling party that will take over power without causing nightmares or unrest. We want to break the grip of fear within people. We want to talk about the issues people never dared discuss before: the succession of Gamal, the extension of the president's term.”

Nur thinks and acts like he means business, bringing something of the nous and professionalism of the US political strategists Dick Morris or James Carville to a country unaccustomed to political competition. “We are trying to break the monopoly on politics held by the government. We are starting a newspaper and trying to get a radio licence so that we can get our message out. We will present a shadow cabinet for the first time ever. For the first time we will present a shadow budget that will expose the flaws in the official one, setting targets for change rather than just listing items of expenditure. We want to deliver the message that we are competent people who can present an alternative.”

In Egyptian politics, elections are usually carved up in advance, with opposition parties deliberately not contesting all the seats, and an arcane electoral system that requires every constituency to elect both a “white collar” and a “blue collar” representative - a system that ensures the government wins comfortably. In the last election almost 200 of the 454 candidates stood as independents to give the illusion of a contest, before rejoining the NDP once the voting was over. Nur has enough of a desire for self-preservation to balk at contesting every seat, but he is certainly pushing hard: “We want to end the situation where the opposition does the government's work for it. Last year only 2 per cent of the 42,000 local government seats were contested by the opposition. We want to stop the government from winning with no effort. We will run in all the constituencies, but not in all the seats.”

Hisham Kassem is a long-haul fighter. He was editor of the Cairo Times, the main English language liberal news magazine, in which he laid into the Mubarak regime. (The magazine was closed down last year.) He is chairman of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights, a beleaguered NGO that tries to keep the police state under surveillance. Now he has reinvented himself as chief executive of the new Arabic liberal newspaper, Al Masri Al Yawm, which was launched in June last year with the backing of leading Egyptian businessmen. He is standing for election for Al-Ghad in the Qasr Al-Nil constituency in downtown Cairo.

Kassem's office building is a dusty, decaying Art Deco construct in Cairo's diplomatic quarter. Pushing past the numerous guards, I am overwhelmed by the smell of paint. Kassem's office is so new that it doesn't have a handle on the door. Like the party he is fighting for, his newspaper rests on the promise of youth: “We mainly have young journalists who are not corrupted by the cat-and-mouse game of Egyptian politics. We decided to train them from scratch. We recruited 300. They have lots of energy but are not that reliable and do not file every day. We will weed out the best 150.”

Kassem feels that change is in the air again. “There was no criticism of Mubarak between 1993 and 2003, but now it is open season on him.” But as he speaks, he exposes the gulf between desire for change and the ability to bring it about on the ground. The key barrier to political change, he says, is the ubiquity and the autonomy of the Egyptian state.

Academics have written about the phenomenon of the “rentier state” to describe autocratic regimes that raise revenue by extracting external rents rather than taxing their citizens. In most Middle Eastern countries, the rents come from oil. For Egypt it is geopolitics. The regime extracts rents both from the oil-producing countries in the Gulf and from their western patrons. This money is used to create a deep network of patronage that brings large segments of the intelligentsia, the middle class and the working class into the regime's sphere of influence. An estimated seven million people work directly for the state bureaucracy, almost a million for the army and security services, while a system of state subsidies on basic goods and services keeps important economic and social sectors on side. Generous salaries and high spending keep the military and security agencies loyal. The fact that so much of Egypt's revenue comes from outside insulates the government both from the demands of its citizens, who are not asked to pay much tax, and from the need to reform. Egypt receives more than $1bn from the US and almost as much from the EU. Kassem, in the course of a drive around Cairo, explains to me what the rentier state means in practice. “See that television building there? It has 11,000 votes. They are collected in boxes of 900 votes. If 800 out of 900 are not for the government then everyone can forget their bonuses.”

The network of control extends beyond state employees and their families: nothing will move in Egypt without the approval of the governing party. Even though the private sector now makes up 70 per cent of the economy, the balance of power has not shifted. The formal bureaucratic procedures are so cumbersome that most economic activity depends on political patronage, or it is simply driven underground. A good example is the housing sector. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, working with the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies, has estimated that, if an Egyptian follows legal procedures to build and register a dwelling after acquiring state-owned desert land, he would have to perform 77 bureaucratic procedures in 31 offices. The process would take from six to 14 years. The result is that the vast majority of people resort to bribery or break the law. An estimated 62 per cent of Cairo's population lives in housing that does not formally exist. De Soto's book, The Mystery of Capital, claims that those informal homes alone are worth 30 times the value of all shares on the Cairo Stock Exchange, and 55 times the value of all foreign investment ever recorded in Egypt, including the Aswan Dam and the Suez Canal. And what is true for housing is equally true for manufacturing products or delivering services. Capitalism might be advancing in Egypt, but it is a crony capitalism that increases the patronage of the ruling party rather than challenging its grip on power.

The holy grail for Ebeid, Nur and Kassem is to develop a popular constituency for liberalism. The opinion polls show that a large majority of Egyptians support democracy as the best form of government (98 per cent agreed with this statement in a World Values Survey poll in 1999, compared with 87 per cent in the US and 78 per cent in the UK). But this support remains passive rather than translating into broad-based political organisations - parties, social movements, trade unions or pressure groups - that could provide a counterweight to the authoritarian regime.

Egypt has yet to develop the sort of mobilisation for democracy that we have recently seen in Georgia or Ukraine, or Eastern Europe before them. Whereas in Eastern Europe and Latin America, support for democracy was aligned with nationalism or socialism, in Egypt it has not found an ideology to attach itself to. Yousri Moustafa, a human rights researcher and activist, explains the dilemma: “Most ordinary people are still speaking about justice rather than freedom. Many human rights have no roots in our culture, like women's rights and pluralism, because of poverty. The groups that support political reform are the same groups that are anti-US, anti-Israel, anti-globalisation and anti-Iraq. It is a small community based in Cairo that has no grass-roots support.”

This is largely because of the government: it has used the state of emergency, its security apparatus, and patronage to co-opt or outlaw all secular opposition, leaving the mosque as the only site for political mobilisation. The Muslim Brotherhood - which dates back to 1928 - remains the most important opposition group. Its longevity owes much to its cell-based structure (making it difficult to infiltrate) and its willingness to work within the system by renouncing violence and fielding only limited numbers of electoral candidates (who run as independents as the Brotherhood is still formally banned). The Islamists have built a bedrock of support by filling the gaps left by the inefficient state, running health centres, schools and trade unions. When the state failed to help those affected by the 1992 Cairo earthquake, the Islamists stepped in, giving $1,000 to every homeless family. The World Values Survey showed that trust in the mosque is higher than any other institution (51 per cent had “very great trust” in the mosque compared with 23 per cent in TV and 16 per cent in the government).

But Nur argues that Mubarak has built the Islamists into a bugbear in order to prevent a secular opposition from emerging. “The Egyptian government has helped the Islamists a lot by exaggerating their power in order to threaten the west and make them afraid of democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood were very strong because others were very weak. But if there is a liberal party in operation it will threaten the Muslim brothers as much as the government. We have some experience of that. A few months ago we both had to organise emergency conferences within 24 hours. After 75 years of activism, they managed to pull in 5,000 people. After just a few months of activism, we attracted 3,000.”

Nur's goal is to use the Islamists' own techniques to challenge them in their heartlands. In his working-class constituency of Bab Al-Sha'araya, Al-Ghad has opened up a community centre that offers computer access, a library, and English language training. Every Wednesday he and his wife hold meetings there where they help ordinary Egyptians to navigate the country's bureaucracy. The community centre has become a magnet for people looking for help with housing, schools or the police.

Many Egyptians agree that it should be possible to carve out a space between the patronage of the government and the welfare provision of the Islamists - citing Egypt's own history as proof. In the semi-liberal period before Nasser came to power, there were Muslim parties - but they didn't get a single seat in parliament because other forces were allowed to contest the elections. The Islamists thrived, by contrast, under Nasser's autocracy because there was no alternative. They became martyrs, preaching from their prisons, becoming more and more radical.

Now, Kassem argues, the Islamists' day has gone. He feels that they are only a force to be reckoned with because the political stage in Egypt has been artificially emptied: “Open up the system and let us all compete. The strongest point about the Brotherhood is their one-way communication system, which is starting to break down. They have a platform because no one else is allowed in the field. People are starting to call for facts and figures. They had 50 years of 'Brother raise your head, the age of tyranny is over' and 'Trust in God'. The most powerful people in politics today are bank managers and business people.” For these reasons, many Egyptian liberals do not want an immediate shift to democracy. They favour a transitional period of two to three years to let everyone build their cases - Islamists, liberals, socialists - and then elections.

But all this talk about democracy could be premature. On January 29 - barely a month after the meeting of Al-Ghad's Supreme Council - Ayman Nur was stripped of his parliamentary immunity at a meeting he was not invited to, arrested, and put in prison. He was accused of forging 1,187 of the signatures required to register the new party. A magistrate has ruled that he must be kept in custody for 45 days pending further investigation. The reasons for his arrest are murky, and the process even more so. The paperwork for the arrest was rushed through on a Friday - a public holiday - and the powers used come from emergency laws designed to protect public security rather than tackle bureaucratic irregularities. Paperwork that normally takes days was rushed from the prosecutor to the prosecutor-general to the minister of justice in a single day, and finally passed on to the Speaker of parliament, who signed the forms at 1am on Saturday. Nur's supporters also claim that he was then beaten up and thrown on the floor outside the parliament building before being taken to the prosecutor's office for an all-night interrogation.

Returning to Cairo this week, I found Gameela Ismail fending off attacks on Al-Ghad - and her husband - on several fronts. “First they took Ayman and now they are trying to take the party away,” she says. “They have stopped the newspaper from being published and now they are trying to overthrow Ayman and the secretary general.” Although she is fighting back tears, Ismail remains in control. Juggling three mobile phones which ring constantly, she tells me how 14 state security agents burst into her house in front of the children, taking away computers and papers and rifling through Nur's medicine, removing samples of his tobacco, inspecting his gun and confiscating his chequebooks. “The goal is to try and find another crime to discredit him with. They were looking for drugs or, worse still, evidence that he has received money from foreigners. That is the worst crime you can commit.”

Ismail fears the party has been infiltrated by the security services and she and Nur have discovered that some of the allegations that led to his arrest were made by a member of the party who, she says, joined under a false name. Meanwhile a battle is raging for control of the party, and there are rumours of moves to overthrow the leadership. But the most immediate front is the battle to save Al-Ghad's newspaper. The first issue, focusing on Nur's plight, was due to appear on Wednesday, but was blocked by the state amid a dispute over the paper's controversial editor, who has previously written a critical biography of Mubarak.

Ismail is also very fearful for Nur's health. A registered diabetic, he has received treatment for heart problems and is passing blood in his urine. Although she has lodged three petitions - complete with certificates - calling for him to be transferred to hospital, Nur is being held in a dirty and crowded cell with 80 other people. Most ominously, the Sout Al Oma newspaper ran a story saying that he was suicidal, which the family have interpreted as a threat.

Rumours abound as to why he was arrested now and what the long-term consequences will be. Some note that the NDP was starting a process of dialogue with the opposition on the day of his arrest and Nur had cheekily suggested that Mubarak should represent the NDP as the other parties would be represented by their leaders. Others claim that Nur had been too outspoken at a meeting with Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state, the week before. Many think that the arrest is an attempt to discredit the party, foment divisions among its leaders, and maybe even stop it from contesting the elections while Nur is investigated. By arresting Nur, Mubarak has thrown down a gauntlet to Bush a week after his inauguration speech. And through provocative diplomacy he has alienated the Europeans by refusing to recognise a delegation representing the EU presidency that came to express concern. Now we will see if the project for political reform in the Middle East is real or rhetorical.

Mubarak continues to trade on Egypt's strategic significance to manage the pressure for change. By being constructive on the Iraq issues at the Sharm al-Sheikh summit this week and promising to help with Israeli disengagement from Gaza, he is buying time for his regime. A senior European diplomat concedes: “Democracy poses a double conundrum for the west. Do you want the Islamists in power with their policies on gender, pluralism, etc? Do you want to threaten Egypt's policy towards Israel, Iraq, etc?” The big test will come next month when the British government, as president of the G8, and the Arab League are due to host a joint summit on democracy and reform - in Cairo of all places. If the summit goes ahead with the situation unresolved, what hope there was for democracy in the Arab world will be languishing with Nur in his cell.

Mark Leonard was director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform (2005-2007)