A Tale of Three Cities

A Tale of Three Cities

Mini Teaser: Despite the obvious obstacles, the signs of democracy are encouraging in Kabul, Beirut and Cairo.

by Author(s): John R. Thomson

Everyone knows that the religious alignments have changed radically in 73 years, with the Christians losing their former population majority to the Muslims, within which the Shi'a have passed the Sunni. However, the Christians, hanging on to half the seats, regularly block calls for a new census, arguing that if one is taken it must include expatriate, mostly Christian, Lebanese who in turn must be allowed to vote.

One unfortunate solution has been to pass a new electoral law in advance of each of the last two elections, which has led to extraordinary gerrymandering of voting districts. Three-time Prime Minister Omar Karame has retired from electoral politics in frustration and disgust because of the ludicrous redistricting and huge spending increases. Karame told me that he had decided not to run for re-election in the May-June contest,

"Because they divide cities and towns down the middle, and the spending has become so great I cannot possibly compete. It all started when Rafiq Hariri entered politics and spent $200,000â€"300,000 in his district to get elected. This was big money ten to twelve years ago, and it has kept getting bigger. I recently said on television that Muhammad Safr, who also made his money in Saudi Arabia, spent $13 million in his election campaign. The next day he went on the air and corrected me: He said he had spent $25 million"

The assassination of Rafiq Hariri, who served as prime minister five times, launched a healing of historically unbridgeable rifts between different religious groups. Led by the country's youth, massive demonstrations in Beirut reflecting all Lebanon's sects and classes mourned Hariri and condemned his murder, widely attributed to Syrian agents. After three months of large and unrelenting demonstrations, the United States, Britain, Russia and France moved to demand that Syria, in accordance with UN Resolution 1559, withdraw its military and intelligence forces after thirty years' occupation.

And Lebanon's youth have not stopped there. Tactically, they are demanding the resignation of President Emile Lahoud, a Christian puppet of Syria. In addition, in concert with Washington, many of the same youth are seeking fulfillment of the rest of Resolution 1559, which calls for disarming of the Hizballah militia and the Palestinian refugee camps, plus free movement of the Lebanese army in the country's south.

Finally, the vocal and irrepressible youth are calling for an end to the feudalistic confessional political system that gives a few leaders power, longevity and wealth but results in little for their constituents. One twenty-something demonstrator told me, "We are sick of follow-the-leader politics; we want to vote based on issues, not on religion."

After decades of fruitless attempts to change the system, the latest effort could lead to a major overhaul of Lebanon's political structure, ending the sclerotic rule of the confessional oligarchs.

So far, the May-June parliamentary elections appear to have done little more than shuffle ever-changing political alliances. Although odds for success are long, it can be hoped that 35-year-old Saad Hariri, who has assumed leadership of his father's political organization and now heads the largest bloc of deputies, understands the expectations of his young countrymen--as well as the extraordinary opportunity he has to put order and honesty into Lebanon's political life. If he does, the country with the longest more or less democratic experience in the region can reclaim its pace-setting reputation and Beirut its former position as the peaceful, dynamic, democratic jewel of the Levant.

Cairo: Change in the Air

My first visit to Egypt in September 1969 came late in Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser's nearly two decade reign, and I imagined Shepheard's Hotel would reek of the air projected by Somerset Maugham.

Wrong: The original had been incinerated by an organized mob months before Nasser deposed King Farouk in 1952 and had been replaced by a neo-Soviet structure. The closest thing to excitement at the new Shepheard's was the visiting Joseph Alsop, one-half of the unique brother team of columnists, seated somewhat forlornly in the hotel's far-from-famous dining room.

Led by Nasser, the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Syria had declared war on Israel 26 months earlier, resulting in the Arab military forces being decimated in six short days. Ever since, Nasser's government had been seized with a paranoid paralysis, awaiting the next whirlwind war they feared would occur at any moment.

Cairo seemed other-worldly, not in the classic casbah sense, but in the fetidly fascistic air that filled the city. Entrances to government buildings were barricaded with steel-reinforced piles of sandbags and guard posts on each side. Taxi drivers sized up passengers, weighing their worth to report to the mukhabarat military intelligence service, whose agents were omnipresent in hotel lobbies, restaurants and the streets.

The descendants of the military coup that ended Farouk's bloated reign hold power 36 years later. Anwar Sadat succeeded Nasser after his death in 1970, as Hosni Mubarak followed Sadat's 1981 assassination. A longtime personal friend, not a revolutionary but one of the many who wish to see Mubarak's regime end peacefully, told me, "Things still go bump in the night." He was referring to mysterious road accidents, unannounced late-night arrests and unsolved murders, all of which remain a disturbing feature of Egyptian life. At all levels of Egyptian society there is a great thirst for free, open elections and transparent government. After nearly a quarter-century of Hosni Mubarak's rule, virtually all analysts agree that a large majority awaits his passing from the scene, peacefully if possible. "He has done many good things, especially in the area of infrastructure development and maintenance of security", Dr. Mohammad El-Sayed Said, deputy director of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies of the government-owned Al- Ahram newspaper, told me. "The trouble is, the president sees politics as a debit, not helpful to society. In that sense he is very much a military man: discipline, stability, the fundamentals. He genuinely sees no need to question his methods or motives, no demand for debate and discussion, no requirement for elections." Then, even more clearly: "It is time for him to go." Numerous close advisors to Mubarak and his son Gamal believe it is time for the president to step down, though few believe he will prior to presidential elections in September.

There are two favorite scenarios among Cairo political buffs. One calls for Mubarak to name a vice president prior to election but not install him until he has been returned to office; the other, for him to resign in 2006 after election to a fifth term, and leave it to an obedient National Assembly to select his son Gamal, who more than a year ago renounced his interest in assuming the presidency following a ten-year preparatory quest. Both alternatives could in fact occur. The Egyptian constitution states that a vice president who assumes the presidency does so temporarily, for sixty days, while the National Assembly selects a permanent replacement. Having said he was not interested in succeeding his father, Gamal Mubarak has continued to be very active in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). It was the younger Mubarak's initiative that last year successfully urged the president to appoint a group of technocrats to invigorate Egypt's sluggish economy. Led by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, a seasoned businessman and sometime government minister, the team has significantly strengthened most economic indicators. The younger Mubarak's mother, Suzanne, strongly supports his taking over directly from his father. While cooler heads urge that a loyal, appointed vice president be allowed to finish the presidential term, Suzanne reportedly strongly opposes taking the risk that, once in office, the formerly loyal placeholder might decide he liked the job too much to step aside.

Dr. Taher Helmy, prominent attorney and president of the Egyptian American Chamber of Commerce, serves on the NDP's Economic Committee as chair of the Investment Subcommittee. In this capacity, he has been instrumental in achieving sharp reductions in both corporate and personal tax rates as well as a complete overhaul of Egypt's customs regulations "to six clear sections from a telephone book." A close friend and advisor to Gamal Mubarak, Helmy believes "it would be better for the president to appoint a vice president. Gamal is certainly well qualified for the job, but if he is to become president, there should be an interregnum. Preparing an orderly transition to democracy", Helmy concludes, "would be the greatest legacy President Mubarak could possibly have."

As for direct opposition to Hosni Mubarak's presumed re-election, there is no one in the field who can seriously challenge the incumbent. For good reason: the recently amended Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution calls for an open contest for the office of president, but specifically allows only candidates of registered political parties to run. Approved overwhelmingly by the rubber-stamp National Assembly and in a May referendum, Mostafa Bakry, editor of opposition newspaper El-Osboa, believes, "The change is at least a start, even though there are no serious contenders from the parties. The leading opposition candidate, Ayman Nour, will be lucky to get 20 percent of the vote, despite his appeal to many younger voters." Dr. Mohammad El-Sayed Said says ruefully: "The president has sucked the life out of the political parties; there are no candidates of wide appeal or interest to come forward. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, despite renouncing violence and endorsing the democratic process, has no one they can put forth seriously."

Essay Types: Essay