Protesters beaten as Egypt votes on electoral reform

By Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent

The Independent

26 May 2005

Egyptian plain-clothes police beat up demonstrators in central Cairo - in some cases groping women protesters - as Egyptians voted over constitutional changes that would theoretically allow more than one candidate to stand for president.

But yesterday's street protests, brutally suppressed by the security services, were held to condemn the referendum on the changes, which will insist that anyone wanting to stand against President Hosni Mubarak must have the support of 250 MPs and local councils, all dominated by Mr Mubarak's own National Democratic Party (NDP), before being permitted to participate in the elections. So much for democracy in Egypt.

President George Bush has claimed that the electoral changes are part of a tide of democracy spreading across the Middle East and his wife Laura, visiting Egypt this week, went along with the official Mubarak line. The President's changes in the constitution were "bold and wise," she said, adding that political reform should happen slowly. But slow is not the word for it. If 51 per cent of Egypt's 32.5 million registered voters support the changes in the referendum - which, of course, they will - then Mr Mubarak, we are to believe, may not be alone in standing for presidential election. Yet who will be nominated to oppose him when the NDP calls the shots?

Yesterday's disgraceful scenes in Cairo, however, showed only too clearly what the government thinks of democracy - either the Bush or the Mubarak version. The policeattacked opposition demonstrators in front of tourists and journalists or stood aside to let pro-Mubarak mobs assault the protesters, watching from the side of the street as Egyptian citizens assaulted Egyptian citizens. Members of the opposition Kifaya movement - it means "Enough!" in English - sought protection from the Cairo police but a senior officer ordered his men to withdraw and leave the protesters to their fate.

When a woman tried to leave the temporary refuge of the press syndicate building in Cairo, she was punched and beaten with batons by pro-Mubarak party men who also tore her clothes. Screaming and vomiting, she collapsed in the street, according to a journalist witness from the Associated Press. Again, the police looked on without interfering. Some plain-clothes police beat, abused and sexually groped women demonstrators.

Only a day earlier, police arrested 17 people from opposition groups, adding to the sense of outrage felt by those Egyptians who regard the referendum as a sham. "The regime is still following the dictatorial and repressive methods towards the Egyptian people and opposition," Mohamed Habib, the deputy leader of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood said. Gameela Ismail, a spokesman for the Ghad "Tomorrow" Party - she is the wife of the party's leader, Ayman Noor - condemned Laura Bush for her support for Mubarak. "What she said is really frustrating for most opposition forces in Egypt," she said. "She seems not to know enough about Egypt. I'm really amazed."

The Kifaya Party's spokesman, Abdul Hamid Qandil, reported that two of his members were hurt. "This is the first time this sort of beating and humiliation has taken place here in Cairo," he said, pointing out that it was a common practice outside Cairo where there were no reporters or television cameras. In the countryside - in areas such as the city of Sohag - many voters said they would suffer "penalties" if they did not vote. In al-Arish on the coast, government-appointed school directors ordered their staff to vote; buses carried government employees into Cairo to participate - and to vote for the "changes".

Mr Mubarak has been in power since President Sadat's assassination in 1981, re-elected every six years in single candidate referendums. Government newspapers and television have given little publicity to possible opposition candidates, who will inevitably be turned down by the MPs and councils whose support they must have. Some Egyptians believe - despite his denials - that Mr Mubarak wants his son Gamal to succeed him in six years' time; in which case, of course, the NDP would support his candidacy and he could - mirabile dictu - beat his father in the polls.

By continuing Egypt's state of emergency, Mubarak has effectively neutered the opposition, thus forcing Egyptians to meet in mosques - and strengthening the hands of the theocrats. Like so many other Arab dictators, he has then been able to frighten the Americans into believing that the only alternative to his rule might be an Islamic republic.

President since 1981

The great survivor of Middle Eastern politics, Hosni Mubarak is not only Egypt's longest-serving President, he has lived through no fewer than six assassination attempts.

Now he is trying to convince the world he is no longer a dictator but a freely elected leader overseeing democratic reform. However, no one expects reform to bring an end to the career of Egypt's most durable leader since Muhammad Ali in the 19th century.

Mr Mubarak came to power in 1981 when Anwar Sadat was murdered. He quickly cemented his place at the top, winning uncontested re-election in 1987, a feat he repeated in 1993 and 1999.

Born in 1928 into an upper-middle class family, his education came in the military. He played a key role in the war against Israel in 1974.

He has two sons with his wife Suzanne, who is part Welsh. Although Mr Mubarak denies it, his younger, Gamal, is seen as a possible successor.