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Democracy and the ruling elite

CAIRO: Political protests have become a common scene in Cairo in recent weeks. While yesterday s wide-scale demonstrations concluded without violence, previous protests were less benign with plain-clothed and uniformed security forces beating demonstrators. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif described previous protests, which were concerned with free press and an independent and effective judiciary, as dominated …


CAIRO: Political protests have become a common scene in Cairo in recent weeks. While yesterday s wide-scale demonstrations concluded without violence, previous protests were less benign with plain-clothed and uniformed security forces beating demonstrators.

Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif described previous protests, which were concerned with free press and an independent and effective judiciary, as dominated by special interest groups at a breakfast with mainly foreign journalists on Saturday.

Most of them are special interest groups, said Nazif at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East. Sometimes it’s the press, sometimes it s some judges … These are people who are rightfully asking for certain things. We listen and we react, but at the end of the day I think we have a process in place that is well designed [so] that when we have this kind of more opening of the environment protests [occur].

The prime minister later dismissed accusations of violence by police when he told Reuters that protestors who take to the streets must be thugs since there are other channels for expressing dissent.

I am frankly fed up by the fact that people are blaming those who are trying to keep the peace against the people who are trying to break the peace, he said.

The heavy-handed approach of the government in dealing with demonstrators has been criticized by both the European Union and the United States.

EU Ambassador Klaus Ebermann told The Daily Star Egypt earlier this month that this approach contradicts the Egyptian government s own stated policies. We are worried and we don t understand it, says Ebermann, and the friends of Egypt and those who want Egypt to show the new Egypt of business and of change have difficulties to explain this.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick is more explicit, explaining that such actions strike me as not only wrong actions but mistakes, like beating people up and the heavy-handed security reaction to these things. And the reason I say this is that I think that they conflict with the government s own desires and interests and where they want Egypt to go.

Yet labeling freedom of the press and independence of the judiciary as special interest implies a fundamental lack of understanding of the process of democracy and accountable government.

If he considers that justice is a special interest, well it is a special interest for everybody, leading activist Aida Seif El Dowla tells The Daily Star Egypt. And when it comes to the press, it s about freedom of expression [and] people s right to know what is really going on, to have access to information and not to be kept in the dark regarding what s going on in the country or who is ruling the country. So I wouldn t actually define accountable information and justice as special interest; they are pretty public.

But does the ruling elite really misunderstand such political basics or is there more behind Nazif s response?

I think the government understands that freedom of demonstration is dangerous, says Seif El Dowla. They understand that freedom of the press means dissemination of information regarding what is happening among the ruling circles. They understand that the independence of the judiciary means actual judicial supervision of elections.

Nazif and Zoellick are both keen to emphasize that the protests are nevertheless a manifestation of positive political developments, because citizens feel safe enough to express their views on the street.

It s certainly not a pretty sight, says Zoellick, but it s also encouraging in a way that you now have the people of Egypt trying to step forward and say, Now that there s a more open process, we want to take part in it and we re going to insist on our political rights.

With regard to the standoff with the judiciary – which was sparked by the summoning of Judges Mahmoud Mekki and Hisam El-Bastawisy, who called for the investigation of mishaps in last year s presidential elections, to a disciplinary hearing – Nazif believes the situation was properly resolved.

The judges problem has been dealt with through, again, a very sound legal process, said Nazif. The president could have interfered, [but] he didn t because he respected the law.

Seif El Dowla cites in response the comments by Mekki and Judges Club President Zakaria Abdul Aziz on the process and on the Judicial Council that stripped Mekki and El-Bastawisy of their immunity.

Zakaria Abdul Aziz described the chairperson of the [Judicial Council] as a tyrant and a corrupt person on Al Jazeera, she says. Mahmoud Mekki said that the process was useless [and] was not legitimate.

There are also overarching political forces that influence the government s reaction to the protests. Zoellick explains that the Egyptian officials probably feel a certain defensiveness because of their help and cooperation on issues … whether it be Sudan, the Middle East peace process, Afghanistan, Iraq or others, and I think there is a fear about Islamic radical movements.

Seif El Dowla adds that there is a domestic element as well. Although Gamal Mubarak, the head of the ruling party s Policy Secretariat, has repeatedly denied that he intends to succeed his father, President Hosni Mubarak, many opposition activists are suspicious.

All this [is] in the context where they are preparing for a succession of Gamal Mubarak and any form [of protest] is not wanted, says Seif El Dowla. They d rather have a silent judiciary. They d rather have a silent press. They d rather block any access of people to the streets to demonstrate, and I think they are the ones that have a special interest in behaving the way they have lately.

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