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Mubarak's birthday blues
As their president turns 80, not all Egyptians are in a festive mood.
Last Modified: 06 May 2008 09:08 GMT
Riots erupted in the textile city of Mahalla in the Nile Delta on April 6 [EPA]


To coincide with the 80th birthday of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, Al Jazeera visited the country and in a special programme, A Nation in Waiting, found there is increasing discontent over his rule.

As Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, celebrates his 80th birthday the state-owned Akhbar al-Youm newspaper did not hide how it feels about the country’s leader.

"Why we love you chief" ran the paper's headline on Saturday over a picture of Mubarak under a blue sky.

Such gushing praise from the state-controlled media has been a constant feature of Mubarak's 27 years in power but there have been signs recently that not everyone is in as festive a mood as the president.

A campaign on the social networking website Facebook calling for a general strike and day of protest on May 4, the president's birthday, attracted about 75,000 members and gained the support of the country's main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nation In Waiting


Strike call mars Mubarak's birthday

Watch
A Nation In Waiting

More on the programme

Such open criticism of the president and government has been unheard of for the majority of Mubarak's rule where his National Democratic Party (NDP) has governed.

 

 

 

However, the cyber-campaign is just the latest incident of civil unrest in recent months.

On April 6 a similar day of action saw three people die in riots in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla.

Escalating food prices, record levels of unemployment and a year of unprecedented labour unrest in 2007 meant Egyptian security forces were kept busy trying to contain the civil disquiet.

 

 

Mubarak himself tried to counter the escalating cost of living on May 1 when he announced a 30 per cent pay increase for all civil servants.

However, his critics say there is a growing discontent among many of Egypt's 74 million people and a belief that the economic growth often hailed by the government benefits only the elite.

An age-old pact between Egyptians and the government that has seen the public largely stay out of politics in return for economic prosperity has been broken.

'No guarantees'

Among those most disgruntled with the current situation are the country’s youth and many of the dozens arrested following the disturbances in Mahalla were young.

"Young people are really starting to lose hope," Dr Mohammed el Mahdi, a psychiatric consultant in Cairo, says.

"Their loyalty towards their country has been shaken because they have no guarantees of what will happen after they struggle with their studies and graduate.

 

 

"They don't know how they'll live, if they'll find a job, how much they'll earn, if they'll be able to afford to get married or buy a flat."

Many of the country's youth now believe they must move abroad to have a better chance of earning a living, with some even working in Israel, Egypt's one-time enemy.

For those that do remain they are increasingly finding their voice through the internet and a new generation of media outlets and bloggers determined to comment independently on Mubarak and his government's policies.

In 2006 in Mahalla 35,000 labourers stormed the Ghazl El Mahalla factory, halting production at one of the largest textile producers in Egypt.

The protesters insisted that they would not return to work until they received pay rises. In a rare success for the common man in Egypt, their employers – the government - eventually gave in to their demands.

Blogger role

Labour disputes quickly spread across the country with support swelling among the Egyptian public

"The barrier of fear was destroyed," says Kamal Abbass of the centre for trade unions and workers.

"I think the credit mainly goes to the independent media, whether television or the printed press. These played a vital role in getting the Egyptians to overcome their fears."

The growing popularity of electronic media was making life more difficult for the government censors.

Photos and video footage of the protests began appearing on the internet, spreading quickly with the help of young Egyptian bloggers.

Mubarak has ruled Egypt for
more over 27 years [GALLO/GETTY]

"Blogs offered the opportunity to give voice to the voiceless," says Wael Abbas, a pioneering blogger whose website The Egyptian Conscience attracted an international following.

"At the beginning they were only reaching people who had access to the internet. But it all expanded after that and bloggers were able to influence public opinion and to force traditional media to report on the news they published."

The government denies allegations it cracks down on opposition and points to elections in 2005 that it is opening up the political system.

However the lack of any real challenger to Mubarak as president and the imprisonment of Ayman Nour, the runner-up and of hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood who won 88 seats in the parliamentary vote suggest there is reluctance to fully relinquish control of any part of Egypt's political apparatus.

"There are 1.7 million people working for the interior ministry: 850 thousand officers, and soldiers, 450 thousand state security officials, 400 thousand secret police," Abdelhalim Qandeel, an independent journalist, says.

"So there is an officer for every 37 citizens. This is a president who is relying on an internal army in addition to the army itself! This isn’t a gentle power, it’s an aggressive one."

Succession talk

Whether or not the elections in 2005 truly heralded the emergence of a multi-party democracy in Egypt or were merely a cosmetic exercise to appease external pressures from Mubarak's allies in the west, the president has shown no inclination of stepping down.

There is increasing speculation he plans to hand power over to his son Jamal who is now a key player in the NDP.

His allies have defended Jamal's prominent position within the party.

"The addition that Jamal Mubarak made to the National Democratic Party has been good; truly excellent," Ibrahim Kamel, a businessman and member of the NDP, says.

"The only problem is that this young man is called Jamal Mubarak so everyone uses their imagination and links this to ideas of inheritance."

Despite turning 80 state media continues to portray Hosni Mubarak as youthful and vibrant and a "hero of social justice."

After a modest upbringing in the Nile Delta he rose through the ranks of the becoming a renowned pilot and later head of the Egyptian air force and then president following the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in 1981.
 

Civil unrest has increased in
recent months [EPA]

There have been many changes and developments in his lifetime and his 27-year presidency in which he has portrayed himself as a force of stability and security.

Yet his own rule is now struggling to deal with and accommodate those same changes that have seen a new technology-savvy generation emerge who want a greater share of Egypt’s economic prosperity.

"The Egyptian revolts when he faces economic problems," Mostafa el-Fekki, an NDP MP says. "Politics don’t matter to him much."

"If you talk to a citizen about elections, freedoms or democracy, he won’t be that interested. But if you start talking to him about increasing prices, rent or poverty, that’s when he’ll concentrate and start getting angry."

Rumours over Mubarak's health have also become a major debate causing concern about the country’s long-term stability.

"What’s really sad is that Egypt is so weak that the illness of its president can shake its economy," Ibrahim Eissa, the editor of the independent al Dustoor newspaper, says.

But despite the current unrest some experts doubt there will be too much political change in Egypt anytime soon.

"Many Egyptian writers, journalists, intellectuals think that a revolution is around the corner," Galal Amin, an economics professor at the American University in Cairo, says.

"I don't adhere to this view. I think the Egyptian people are very slow to revolt."

"They are not a revolutionary nation at all. This is a very complicated psychology which is difficult to explain or understand really. Why the Egyptian people never make a revolution."

Watch Part 1 of A Nation In Waiting
Watch Part 2;
Part 3; Part 4

Source:
Al Jazeera
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