Ending the Silent War in Egypt

By Hala Mustafa
Saturday, December 24, 2005

CAIRO -- While much attention has been paid to the violent attacks and intimidation directed at the opposition during Egypt's recent parliamentary elections, the involvement of the country's security forces in political life is not limited to this sort of visible confrontation. The real threat of Egypt's state security apparatus, as in many other Middle Eastern states, is that it continues to secretly manipulate the entire political system. American and domestic efforts to promote political reform in the region will achieve only cosmetic changes, of the kind we've seen so far, unless this clandestine chokehold is broken.

In Egypt, it is no secret that the security services are deeply involved in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), selecting high-level officials and most of the party's candidates for elections. As a result, in the recent parliamentary elections, many official NDP candidates were defeated by party dissidents who ran as independent candidates. Nominees of the secret police, it turns out, aren't popular with voters.

Even the NDP Policies Committee -- established three years ago as the party's vehicle for reform -- could not escape the clutches of the security services, which promoted a group of phony reformers to positions of influence and visibility in a false response to America's call for political change. Meanwhile, genuine liberal voices were excluded, making reform from within impossible. Such practices are not limited to the highest ranks of the party: Recruitment for all positions is based on loyalty to

security authorities rather than merit, qualifications, political background or experience.

The media are subjected to the same control. Even private, independent papers are held hostage to the security services, which have the power to license and shut down any newspaper and which exercise similar control over the granting of licenses to journalists. The same goes for TV stations -- including al-Hurra, the U.S.-sponsored satellite channel, which is supposed to be providing uncensored news from an American point of view.

From the beginning, al-Hurra's operation in Egypt was subject to the covert control of the security services, a fact that is not always apparent to those who oversee the station from Washington. The services have close ties to some of the station's directors and handpick many correspondents. They even have final say over which guests appear on programs. As a result, anyone who has paid careful attention to the tone and opinions of the regular programming will notice that liberal, progressive, open-minded views are presented almost apologetically. While al-Hurra is supposed to be a vibrant, fresh forum for freedom, it has failed to provide a real space for balanced views, and so it has been incapable of competing with

the "Islamic" al-Jazeera and "pan-Arabist" al-Arabiya channels.

Unless the security services are reined in, real political change and efforts to implement "reform from within" will continue to be blocked in Egypt and across the Middle East. The enlightened political elite will remain powerless, individuals who can make genuine contributions will be systematically targeted, moderate groups and trends will continue to be excluded, and most citizens will remain absent from political life (as was unfortunately demonstrated in the recent elections, in which the overwhelming majority of Egyptians did not vote). In a word, the political arena will still echo only one voice.

The "silent war" waged by the security services will keep Egypt stuck at square one, caught between the closed, security-obsessed regime and the Islamic fundamentalists. Is that the future we desire?

The writer is editor of the Al-Ahram Foundation's quarterly journal al-Dimuqratia (Democracy).

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