First Published: March 23, 2007
CAIRO: Sitting outside a quiet ahwa in the heart of Downtown, frustration and doubt hung in the air around bloggers Wael Abbas and Malek Mustafa like the smoke from their shishas. Both men write widely read blogs — part of the much commented-upon blog scene in Egypt — and have been active players in the country’s reform and protest movement for the past several years.
Faced with looming constitutional changes, the bloggers’ confusion and anger is widely felt within the country’s reform movement.
“I don’t think that anyone knows what to do,” said Mustafa, a the 24-year-old author of www.malek-x.net. “We just keep trying and we lose. And we try again, and we lose. It’s like gambling. We don’t have a clear vision of what we’re doing anymore.”
Last Monday the People’s Assembly approved a long list of constitutional amendments that weaken judicial oversight over elections and give the President strong new powers, such as the unfettered ability to dissolve parliament and refer civilians to trial. The amendments will be presented to the country in a referendum on Monday.
Every major opposition movement opposes the amendments, which Amnesty International has called “most serious undermining of human rights safeguards in Egypt since the state of emergency” began at the start of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
The opposition is planning to boycott the vote and hold a large sit-in in Tahrir Square on Sunday, March 25 at 6 pm.
Among Egyptian activists and bloggers, the sense of despair is palpable.
“I can’t tell you what should be done because I am lost myself,” said Wael Abbas, 32, who blogs on www.misrdigital.com. Abbas played a key role in organizing demonstrations for judicial independence last year, a move which has earned him a life of police harassment and constant threats of arrest.
“Before, I was following a compass, but now it is lost,” he said. “Before, I was stealing my freedom from the mouth of this monster, or dog, or lion or whatever you want to call this regime. I was forcing myself on it by forcing freedom of expression on the Internet. I thought I was accomplishing something, but I was wrong. They cracked down on us just like that.”
For the past several months, the country has witnessed its largest crackdown on opposition in almost a decade.
The largest target of the crackdown has been the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood. More than 300 Brotherhood members have been taken into custody, and dozens more are arrested each week.
Forty members of the Islamist organization, including Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat El-Shater, will face a military trial for charges of funding a banned group. The military courts do not allow appeals, and are empowered to hand down death sentences.
“Now people are going to jail just for the things they say — just look at Talaat El Sadat, Kareem Amer,” continued Abbas.
Blogger Kareem Amer was sentenced last month to four years in prison for insulting the president and defaming religion in his writings. Last fall, MP Talaat El Sadat was sentenced to hard labor for comments he made in an interview with the German News Agency that were deemed offensive to the military.
Faced with all this, Mustafa said it can be hard to stay hopeful for the future.
“Everything has been hit by the crackdown and it all feels useless,” he said. “Right now I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Maybe in two years, or five or ten, there will be a revolution in Egypt, but it will not come from people like us or from parliament or the Muslim Brotherhood,” he continued, punctuating the air with the nozzle of his shisha. “It will come from the hungry, from the poor. Everything in Egypt is going downhill. Some people are doing very well, but 90 percent of the country is going downhill.”
“People will revolt,” he said. “When it happens, it will be a big mess. It will be anarchy.”
Abbas and Mustafa are two of the many people who believe that Monday’s nation-wide referendum will be neither free nor fair. Groups like the Brotherhood and the Wafd Party hope their boycott will draw attention to potential vote-rigging.
“The vote will be rigged, I just know it,” said Abbas. “But I wish there would be real elections where the votes counted. If the votes counted, of course I would go and vote, but I know they won’t.”
So far unable to overthrow the regime or derail the amendments, the activists behind Sunday’s protest hope to show the world that there is still some fight left in the Egyptian opposition movement.
The demonstration falls on the same day as a planned visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will reportedly meet Egyptian officials in Aswan to discuss the peace process.
According to US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, the amendments represent “a process of political reform” in Egypt.
"I, quite frankly, don't want to insert the United States government in the middle of what should be a domestic political event in Egypt,” he said.
Like many Egyptians, Abbas and Mustafa are cynical about America’s democratic credentials. Rice’s visit, one day before the referendum, only drives the point home.
“America is like Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar or Genghis Khan,” said Abbas bitterly. “They are all the same. They are all after expanding their empires and getting more resources. The United States is an empire, just like the rest of them.”
Mustafa agreed. “America was never serious about democracy, here or anywhere else. I don’t even think America’s rulers care about their own people, so why should they care about us?”
“I have a lot of faith in the American people,” he continued, “but I don’t know if they can change their democracy. America’s government is like the Roman Senate. There is a very thin slice of rich people governing a lot of poor people, when really they don’t care about them at all. It is kind of like here in Egypt. Only here it is much, much worse.”