1. Egypt’s Clause 76 Is Catch-22 for Opposition

This week, Egypt’s parliament approved Clause 76, an amendment to the constitution that will enable Hosni Mubarak to seek a fifth term as president in the November elections. If confirmed by a national referendum on May 25, the measure will also permit more than one candidate to run for president for the first time.

As DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Egyptian sources explain, this reform is far from plain sailing. Mubarak is a sick man and finds it difficult to work for more than a few hours a day. Even if he is returned for another five-year stint, it is doubtful that he can last the course until 2011. In any case, he appears to lack the energy to slow the gathering political momentum shown by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition parties.

Mubarak senior’s hopes of holding on and warding off a showdown with the Brotherhood until his son Gemal is firmly established in the presidential office are likewise slim.

The Brotherhood and most other opposition groupings including the Wafd have advised their supporters to vote against Clause 76 in the referendum. Day after day, marching protesters organized by the Brotherhood fill the high streets of Egypt’s main cities.

Among themselves, the Muslim radicals boast they have set in motion an Islamic intifada, a highly charged concept in view of the terror wielded for the “Palestinian intifada.” Nonetheless the term is gaining currency in Cairo’s political circles.

Egypt’s opposition groups find Clause 76 more of a barrier on the road to change than a concession to democracy. Parties may run for the coming election only if they have been registered for five years and hold at least 5% of the 444 seats in parliament or a corresponding proportion of local council seats. The Brotherhood is a banned party and therefore unregistered. Furthermore, no party can run unless endorsed by 65 deputies – hardly realistic when the ruling National Democratic Party holds 90% of the house.


Brotherhood joins Left in broad opposition front


The Brotherhood’s general secretary, Mahdi Akef, and its politburo chief, Isam al-Ariyan, therefore decided to challenge Mubarak on a number of fronts, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Cairo. Their plan of action includes continuing large demonstrations in city streets despite 1,400 arrests. Most were released except for 250. They will press demands for the release of 2,500 Brethren, some of whom have spent long years in prison. Also, crossing the political divide, the Islamist party will try and establish a broad front with Egypt’s left-wing groups. Even more worrying for Mubarak, they intend to cooperate closely with the trade unions representing the country’s powerful physicians, lawyers, engineers and journalists.

The front taking shaping under Brotherhood leadership has not decided whether to put up a presidential candidate against Mubarak in the November election. The argument goes two ways. While admitting that it would be impossible to unseat the president, the very challenge would test the limits of how far the US President George W. Bush and Mubarak himself were willing to go in their drive for democracy. Faced with a contest, the incumbent president might be driven to try and stop him by force. That would give the Brotherhood a powerful lever for rallying international opinion and make Mubarak give way and institute genuine democratic reform.

The Brotherhood and Mubarak are playing out their cat-and-mouse game warily, each careful not to cross any red lines. Mubarak told Egyptian security forces not to disperse demonstrations by force but to wait a few days before making any arrests. The knocks on the door took place quietly in the dead of night.

Muslim radical leaders, for their part, are making sure to hold down the size of demonstrations, their frequency and pick their venues with prudence.

But our sources in Cairo believe it is only a question of time before some unexpected occurrence sends the showdown spiraling out of control.

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