Egypt's Political Opening Exposes Frailty of Opposition

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, center, prepares to leave Sharm el-Sheikh after hosting a Middle East summit in February. The bombings Saturday in the resort city have undercut his claims of having created security and stability.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, center, prepares to leave Sharm el-Sheikh after hosting a Middle East summit in February. The bombings Saturday in the resort city have undercut his claims of having created security and stability. (By David Silverman -- Getty Images)

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 28, 2005

CAIRO, July 27 -- Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president for 24 years, will announce his candidacy for a fifth term Thursday, officials say. The event will be carefully scripted: He will declare his intention in Shibin al-Kom, the gritty Nile Delta village where he was born 77 years ago. Protocol will be followed, they say, and his party will then nominate him to stand for election Sept. 7.

But as Mubarak looks past the barely contested vote, little else in the largest Arab country seems assured.

After months of expectations -- high hopes for change that followed this spring's protests in Lebanon and Mubarak's own hints at more political freedom -- the longest-serving ruler of modern Egypt today is struggling through a season of discontent. There is nascent dissent against him, and far broader frustration over decades of perceived stagnation. Three nearly simultaneous bombings Saturday in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, which killed as many as 88 people, have undercut the mantra of his government -- security and stability. Beyond his election this fall is another for parliament in November that will be viewed in the United States and elsewhere as the barometer of whether Mubarak will inaugurate long-awaited reform.

"Everything in the next year will depend on what happens in the next few months," said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "It's a critical moment."

Hardly anyone in Egypt views Mubarak's days as numbered, barring problems with his health or a decision to step down.

Always more tactician than visionary, he has proved himself a survivor through assassination attempts, a stubborn insurgency in the 1990s and regional crises that once led him to war. This time, he may benefit from the very irony of change: The new liberties provided to his opposition have revealed its divisions and weakness. The bombings, Egypt's worst terrorist attack, have cowed fiery opposition newspapers, at least for now. Frustration aside, many of Egypt's 77 million people seem reluctant to enter the political fray.

But the sense of decline in Egypt is often painful, and many see it in sharper focus now as Mubarak gets older and speculation on his eventual successor -- perhaps his son, perhaps a general -- is the country's favorite gossip. Some openly draw comparisons between Egypt today and the malaise in the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s. And nearly every political setback is read as a further sign of the country's diminished standing or, worse, the state's inability to navigate crises.

As Mubarak prepares for another six-year term, a question is often asked in his bustling capital: What will the alternative to him be?

"It's like a soccer game," said Fahmi Howeidi, a prominent Egyptian columnist and government critic. "You see goals scored here and there, but you don't know how it will end. The government might lose the game, but we have no idea who would win."

A Diminished State

There's a popular joke these days traded in cafes in Cairo and by text messages on cell phones. Mubarak's aide enters his office at the palace. He asks the president, "Isn't it time you write a farewell speech to the Egyptian people?"

The president looks at him, confused.

"Where are they going?" he asks.


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