The full article is not online, but Joshua Hammer's look at the upcoming presidential race in Egypt in the April 5 New Yorker has some interesting moments. Hammer spoke with a number of Egyptian insiders and well-known regime critics, as well as both Gamal Mubarak, the scion of President Hosni Mubarak and heir apparent, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the former IAEA chief and Nobel laureate who's currently being hailed as a possible challenger (though he is not currently eligible to run and has said he's not a candidate unless the rules change).
Gamal tries pretty hard to bamboozle Hammer, telling him that the Emergency Law that's been used to enable the Mubarak dictatorship is a necessary and prudent measure and that the upcoming election in 2011 "is going to be free and fair" (fat chance).
"The Emergency Law has never been used to disband a political party, to close down an independent channel or newspaper," Gamal told Hammer. Nonetheless, he said the government was planning to replace it with, in Hammer's words, "a more narrowly defined anti-terrorism statute." They've been saying that for years.
The Emergency Law is pretty horrible, but it's not the only tool in the regime's toolkit. Far from it. The Constitution itself contains plenty of clauses designed to keep the ruling party in power. NGOs are kept on a tight leash. The judicial system, while it retains some residue of integrity, is full of judges who take money under the table and can be relied upon to return the "right" verdict. The security services have thoroughly penetrated all the opposition groups that matter and brilliantly play them off one another to prevent the emergence of a broad coalition for change. And, of course, the largest opposition group, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, remains illegal and key members seem to go in and out of jail on a weekly basis -- even though the Brothers have a strong presence in Parliament as "independents."
The younger Mubarak also denied the press was stifled in Egypt. "Now there are talk shows, independent newspapers," he told Hammer. That's true-ish, but misleading. Reporters Without Borders rates Egypt 143 on its 2009 Press Freedom Index, just behind Kazakhstan and ahead of Swaziland. The government also runs a vast array of media outlets that routinely smear opposition figures, painting them as Israeli or American agents and leveling allegations of corruption against them. It leans on advertisers not to buy space in independent papers, and those independent publications that use state-owned printing presses often experience mysterious delays when they have a damning story about the government. When I lived in Egypt from 2005-2006, one paper used a printer in Cyprus to avoid this problem.
There always seems to be just enough ferment in Egptian politics to keep hope alive for those hoping for real democratic change. But the regime is pretty adept at keeping it to just that -- hope.
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