When Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour of the al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party was arrested early in February on trumped up charges, it was business as usual for Egypt’s government with regards to opposition leaders. But given the relative success of elections in Iraq and the unexpected political upheaval in Lebanon (and a snub by Condoleeza), such incidents no longer exist in the vacuum they once did. Well into his fourth six-year term as President (elected by yes/no referendum from a parliament stripped of most serious opponents), Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak this week made an autocratically uncharacteristic surprise announcement, ordering the constitution to be changed to allow multiparty presidential elections. Not so fast, say critics – not only does the decree come possibly too late to allow opposition candidates to put up much of a campaign (especially since anti-Mubarak sentiment would be divided and, ironically, his popularity may now grow), but the bureaucratic details and requirement for parliamentary approval still mean many banned groups (including the Muslim Brotherhood, who wishes to field a candidate) need not apply. As for Nour (now seen as the most viable candidate), he remains in prison and ended a hunger strike that began just days before the announcement. Mubarak, who has never appointed a vice president since he assumed power in 1981, had earlier ruled out a succession by his eldest son Gemal (“the regime in Egypt is republican, there is no hereditary transfer of power”). But he had also declared only months ago that altering the status quo in Egypt was a waste of time. For now, Egyptians are reacting to the announcement with hope (and some wariness) as a strengthened reform movement dubbed kefaya (“enough”) reasserts itself. “It is a very important step towards securing political and constitutional reform,” said Amina Naqash of the opposition party Tagammu. “But it is a partial step which means nothing if it is not followed by others.”
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.