CAIRO,(Reuters) – Egypt’s government is cracking down on pro-reform activists, calculating that Washington’s drive to democratise the Middle East has flagged after Islamist successes in Egyptian and Palestinian elections, analysts say.
The prospect of civil war in Iraq has also distracted the United States and dampened its enthusiasm for rapid change in countries ruled by its friends, they add.
The Egyptian government, which allowed unusual political dissent during presidential and parliamentary elections in 2005, now senses it has a freer hand to stifle criticism, they argue.
“Despite Hamas’s democratic win in the occupied territories, the American response is negative. They got cold feet. I think the Egyptian administration and other Arab leaders are feeling that too,” political science professor Walid Kazziha said.
“There is a feeling that the United States, which was very determined, very strong on this question of democratisation, is beginning to mellow, and Iraqi exhaustion is setting in.”
In recent weeks the authorities have postponed local elections, lifted immunity from three judges critical of election abuses and jailed a journalist for libel.
Ayman Nour, a prominent opposition leader, remains in prison on forgery charges despite publicly aired U.S. misgivings, and faces further charges for allegedly assaulting a member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
“These are to us are very ominous signs that the regime is far from fulfilling its pledges and is regressing on the reform front,” sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim said.
The main beneficiary of public dissatisfaction with the NDP has been the Muslim Brotherhood, an officially banned but usually tolerated Islamist group.
The Muslim Brotherhood confirmed its place as Egypt’s largest opposition group when it won 88 seats in parliamentary elections last year. It has close ideological links with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group which swept recent polls.
In a visit to Cairo last week to press Arab states to isolate Hamas, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said some recent Egyptian political events had been disappointing.
Some political commentators have said the crackdown is to pave the way for President Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal to succeed his father. Gamal has little popular support and no natural powerbase within the military or the Egyptian bureaucracy.
Mubarak, ruler since 1981, has not named a vice president, the position from which he and his predecessor took office. The postponement of local elections makes it harder for the opposition to challenge the ruling party’s choice as president.
“Now the presidential and parliamentary elections are behind them, they (the NDP) think they are free to redesign the political scene and to pave the ground for whatever design they have in the grooming of Gamal Mubarak,” Ibrahim said.
Gamal, 42, recently said he did not want to be president. But his rise in the NDP and the absence of other obvious candidates for the country’s top job have fuelled speculation.
The Muslim Brotherhood has predicted he would seek the presidency within two years.
“Gamal is finally getting engaged at the end of the week, and the way the state press celebrated the news it looks like they are crowning him, like a royal wedding,” Ibrahim added.
During her visit, Rice called on Egypt’s opposition parties to unite to make their voice heard.
She also said it was not the time to start formal talks on a free trade agreement between Egypt and the United States.
Diplomats say Washington is using the trade talks to press Egypt into political reform and to punish the government for the incarceration of Nour.
But given the U.S. congressional procedures for trade agreements, it may already be too late for a deal with Egypt during the term of the current U.S. administration. Egyptian officials have said they can live without one.
Apart from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s opposition has been enfeebled by internal squabbles, jailing of its leaders, lack of funding and public disillusionment with secular values.
“My feeling was that American pressure … was opening a window for the repoliticisation of some Arab societies which have been totally closed. And my feeling now is that that window of opportunity is closing now again,” Kazziha said.