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After Gulf Victory, Egyptians Hope for More Democracy

April 18, 1991


CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Now that victory in the Gulf War has returned Egypt to its customary place at the military and political center of the Arab universe, the star of democracy may rise.

Some in Egypt question whether it can maintain its position as leader of a new Arab order without promoting greater democracy in the Arab world, a realm of dictators and kings.

President Hosni Mubarak’s government has been in the van of Arab democracy for a decade, both by improving laws enacted by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and loosening many restrictions Sadat left in place.

The road is strewn with obstacles: government inefficiency and corruption, undemocratic emergency laws, alleged torture and other human rights violations.

Egypt’s population is growing by 1 million every nine months and more than half its 56 million people are illiterate. Sectarian trouble arises periodically, but often is covered up by a restrictive security and information apparatus.

In the name of Arab brotherhood, Mubarak has ignored serious human rights violations elsewhere. In the 18 months before the Gulf War, his government did nothing about the apparent murders of hundreds of Egyptian workers in Iraq whose labor helped Saddam Hussein through his eight-year war with Iran.

With evidence from Saddam of what Arab brotherhood means when national interests conflict, Egyptian politicians and intellectuals are saying Egypt can progress and prosper only through a better democracy.

Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab winner of the Nobel Prize for literature and one of Egypt’s most astute political and social commentators, said ″strengthening moves toward democracy″ should be Egypt’s postwar priority.

With democracy, goals like economic development could be achieved through ″sincere intentions, tough determination and unflagging diligence,″ he wrote in his newspaper column.

Economics Professor Heba Ahmed Handoussa, who advises the industry minister, said she and her colleagues were pleased by a trend toward more freedom of expression during the war.

A student was killed in a clash with police at Cairo University, but thousands marched unmolested on campuses from Alexandria in the north to Assiut in the south to protest Egypt’s sending of 38,500 soldiers to the allied force.

Smaller groups of journalists, Muslim activists and others expressed dissent in quieter demonstrations.

Never in six wars since Egypt became a republic in 1954 was the decision to fight criticized in the press. This time, doubts were expressed in government- owned media as well as opposition newspapers.

After the war, Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party announced it would elect rather than appoint its leaders for the first time since Sadat founded the party in 1979, two years before he was assassinated.

A newspaper even published a survey in which National Democrats complained of vagueness and inadequacy in the party’s legislative program as laid out by Prime Minister Atef Sedki.

″We’re proud that there’s a little more democracy,″ said Ms. Handoussa, the economy professor. ″Throughout the war, there was more expression of different views than we had in the past.″

Recent government candor about voter turnout suggests a reason why true democracy will not be easy to achieve.

″Widening of political participation in Egypt is an essential prerequisite for the widening of Egyptian democracy,″ said Ekram Shalabi, a political scientist at Cairo University.

As if to prove his point, the government admitted the turnout for parliamentary elections in October was below 45 percent, rather than the 90 percent-plus claimed in previous elections.

″The attempt at democratization I think is proceeding very positively,″ Ms. Handoussa said, ″and economists always have to look at the political aspects.″

Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait on Aug. 2 caused major economic problems 1,000 miles away in Egypt. Mubarak estimated the country lost $20 billion.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians returned from jobs in the Persian Gulf, tourism died and Suez Canal traffic fell drastically, denying its three main sources of foreign currency to a government with a foreign debt of $49 billion.

Mubarak insists his decision to stand against Saddam was based on principle, but it produced handsome dividends.

The United States and Gulf Arab allies canceled more than $14 billion in military debts. Egypt is back in the good graces of the World Bank, and the West is providing more debt relief every month.

An Egyptian tourism delegation is visiting Europe and the United States ″to take advantage of the country’s political stand, appreciated worldwide,″ said an organizer, Ilhami el-Zayyat.

The greatest gain from the war was ″the reassertion of the Egyptian role of leadership in the Arab world,″ said Saadeddin Ibrahim, a professor of political sociology.

With that in mind, Egypt must take the lead in solving Arab problems left festering by the war, said Ibrahim Nafie, an editor and commentator who is a confidant of Mubarak.

″Egypt did not request the task of playing a leadership role,″ Nafie wrote. ″The geography and history of the region has demanded it of us, whether in war or peace.″

Some Egyptians feel Mubarak has failed on both counts.

One is Mamoun el-Hodeiby, spokesman for the moderate Muslim Brotherhood, who said: ″The heart of the Arab world is in the hands of the United States.

″Whom did we defeat, the Zionists? Did we get any of Palestine back (from Israel)? Did we liberate Kuwait, or did the United States and other coalition countries take it over? Egypt’s policy is neither Arab nor Islamic.″

Another anti-Mubarak politician, Ibrahim Shukri of the Socialist Labor Party, said the president’s policy is responsible for U.S. and other Western forces being on Arab soil.

″This could not have occurred without the cover that the Egyptian government provided,″ Shukri said. ″Many accuse our country of taking this position because it was in dire need of aid, which it was able to get.

″There are only negative effects on Egypt. We even lost our special role in the Arab family.″

Naguib Mahfouz and others don’t agree. The dean of Arab letters wrote that a more democratic Egypt, coupled with prospects for liberalization in some other Arab countries, can bring real development for the Arabs.

The time to act is now, he wrote, because ″we have become used to the fast rhythm of a war, which has spawned events not only every hour, but every minute.″

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