So here comes the latest Egyptian joke about 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak. The president, a keen squash player – how else could he keep his jet-black hair? – calls up the sheikh of Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim cleric in the land, to ask if there are squash courts in heaven. The sheikh asks for a couple of days to consult the Almighty. Two days later, he calls Mr Mubarak back. "There's good news and bad news," he says. Give me the good news, snaps Mr Mubarak. "Well," says the sheikh, "there are lots of squash courts in heaven." And the bad news, asks the president? "You have a match there in two weeks' time!"
The fact that the intelligence services ignore the usual suspects when this sort of joke is made does not signify a new freedom of speech or – dare one say it – a new democracy in Egypt. The truth is that the president, in poor health since a gall bladder operation in Germany, is a very old man who has no appointed successor and whose imminent demise is the only story in town, told with that familiar vein of cruel humour in which Egyptians are rivalled only by the Lebanese. The days when Mr Mubarak was called "La vache qui rit" (the cow who smiles) – the Egyptians know the joke in its French form – are gone.
A lot of them want him dead – not out of personal animosity, but because they want political change. They probably will not get it. Telling Egyptians that "only God knows" who the next president will be – Mr Mubarak actually said this – is ridiculous. Will it be his son, Gamal? The head of Egyptian intelligence, Omar Sulieman? He's probably had too many heart problems.
But either way, it would change nothing. Of Mohamed ElBaradei, more later. The opposition "Kifaya" – "Enough" – party is regularly attacked by the security services. Perhaps Mr Mubarak does not care.
Cairo has been labouring under an intense heat wave these past two weeks – when the local papers report it on page one, you know it's serious – and in the foetid slums of Beaulac al-Daqrour, sweating through 47 degrees, the millions of Egyptians who live under Mr Mubarak's exhausted rule have little time for politics.
Like the Iraqis under UN sanctions, whom the West always hoped would overthrow Saddam, most Egyptians are too weary to rise up against the regime, more anxious to protect their families from poverty than to abuse the man who leaves them in such misery. Even the open sewers of al-Daqruor have dried up, leaving a black stream at the bottom, in which barefoot children play.
Just as Victorian governments always feared revolution amid the slums of London, Manchester and Liverpool, so the Egyptian authorities have layered the slums with a carapace of competing intelligence services to ensure that no serious political opposition can be sustained amid the piety and filth of Cairo.
A splurge of posters carrying a photograph of Mr Mubarak's 47-year old businessman son, Gamal, below the bleak caption "Gamal ... Egypt" – a sad gesture to Egypt's 28 per cent illiteracy rate rather than a chic slogan by his National Democratic Party – has been disowned by his supporters, who now oddly include a member of the opposition leftist Tagammu party, Magdy el-Kurdi.
True to the methods of all good Arab socialist movements, poor Mr el-Kurdi is to be "interrogated" for violating the Tagammu's principles. "...We don't support individuals," the party's co-founder said. "Rather, we seek democracy."
And so say all of us. The problem with Mr Mubarak's presidency – and with Gamal, if this is to become the second caliphate in the Middle East (the capital of the first being Damascus) – is that after decades of promised improvements, most Egyptians still feel that their country has no physical or political movement. The country's state of emergency curbs their tongues. Poverty breaks down their energy. They have been injected with political boredom.
The rich live in gated communities outside the city; indeed, all the major hotels in Cairo have become gated communities for foreigners, tourists and businessmen and women, who breathe air-conditioning, sip cold beers beside the pool, sweep to their appointments in luxury buses or limousines. For the rich, there are tennis clubs, horse-riding, boutiques, concert performances. For the poor, there is controlled religion, Dickensian housing and television soap opera. No wonder Egyptian television is celebrating its 50th anniversary with the slogan: "We started big, and we remain big." Big – as in fat.
For, as a Cairo freelance writer, Nael Shama, noted last month, Egyptian television's Nile News, launched in English and French in 1994 as a rival to CNN, is a flop.
"Because Nile News has ... been owned and run by the Egyptian state, its freedom of expression has always been curtailed ... As in all dictatorships, news reports must start with highlighting the inane announcements of the president followed by the 'less important' world news, be it the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York, or the start of a new war in the Middle East ..."
Demonstrations and strikes – trade unions have grasped back a little power in recent months – are rarely reported. The Muslim Brotherhood, the theoretically banned but tolerated opposition party, is forbidden from all Nile News programmes.
That's the way Egypt is run. There is a kind of facade of toleration. It's like riding on a familiar old train, puffing round the Cairo loop-line to Giza. You already know the names of the stations by heart. Call Egypt a dictatorship and the government will tell you that democracy takes time – at least 29 years under Mr Mubarak and counting – and ask why the Brotherhood can campaign at elections if the country is so undemocratic. Forget for a moment that an awful lot of the Brotherhood are regularly banged up, and you will also be told of the freedom of the press. Forget for a moment that journalists are regularly banged up, and you will be told that even the president enjoys the jokes told against him.
"If this was a Saddam-style dictatorship," an old friend and Mubarak loyalist asked me, "do you think we'd have the internet so freely available to our youth?"
But there you have to signal red and stop the train. For, two months ago, a 28-year old human rights activist called Khaled Said was dragged out of an Alexandria internet cafe by two cops, Awad Sulieman and Mahmoud Salah Mahmoud – the names are important because Egyptian policemen are usually allowed anonymity – who, in a vicious assault, smashed his head against a wall and killed him. The reason for his murder, his mother suspects, is that Mr Said possessed a videotape of some cops sharing out drugs seized during a police raid.
Even before the autopsy, however, the Egyptian interior ministry said that Mr Said had criminal convictions, evaded national service and had swallowed a packet of marijuana when he saw the police arrive. The initial autopsy claimed that Mr Said died by asphyxiating on this plastic wrap of drugs, a conclusion disputed by international forensic pathologists, who said that photographs of the autopsy were "disturbingly amateurish", and questioned the lesions on Mr Said's corpse.
The pathologists said they were consistent with a beating during arrest rather than the rather extraordinary police claim that their prisoner had "fallen from a stretcher while being taken to an ambulance". Why would he fall from a stretcher?
In any event, when the case came to court last month, it turned out that the cops were charged only with "misuse of force", which carried a sentence of one year's imprisonment.
In court, lawyers for the Said family demanded the charges should be changed to murder. Yet, in a society where police brutality is regarded as routine – a policeman sentenced for sodomising a prisoner with a broom returned to the force after a brief period of imprisonment – no one has high hopes that justice will be done.
Many remember the case of a man in Upper Egypt who was charged by police with murdering his absent wife. After the usual fisticuffs and battering of the prisoner, he confessed to the crime – another police "success" which lost some of its glow when the wife returned to her village, explaining that she had stayed with neighbours after a row with her husband. It must, as they say, have been quite an interrogation.
It's as if the police don't have enough on their hands already. In Old Cairo, for example, they man iron barricades around the Coptic streets. Whereas the occasional patrol would move through the area a few years ago, there are now muhabarat intelligence service members guarding the barriers. Even tourists must dismount from their buses and be checked by the cops to visit the Christian churches. Just how bad Muslim-Coptic relations have become was evident last month when a priest claimed that his wife had been kidnapped.
Word went round that she had been seized by Muslims. The cops found her staying with Coptic friends because – like the wife in Upper Egypt – she had had a row with her husband. The police took her. President Mubarak has renewed the emergency laws under which Egypt has been governed for decades, because of "serious threats against national security" and "the struggle against terrorism and drug trafficking". Although 500 prisoners under "administrative detention" – including 191 Muslim Brothers – were freed under an amended law three months ago, around 9,500 men remain in prison for largely political offences, men who should also have been given their freedom, according to the president of the Egyptian parliament, Ahmad Fathi Surour.
Complaints against the government – for widespread corruption, of course, for suppression of human rights, for police brutality – rise almost monthly. There is widespread criticism of Egypt's new agreement with oil companies over the sharing out of profits on oil exploration in the desert, on the grounds that it gives greater advantages to foreign investors than to Egypt. The man who signed the most important exploration agreement in the history of Egypt was Tony Hayward of BP.
Meanwhile, even in education, the Mubarak regime plays off Muslim and Western fears. No sooner had the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Hany Halal, last month banned female students from wearing the "niqab" covering in Egyptian universities – thus bringing Egypt into line with Syria (and France) – than the Minister of Education, Ahmed Zaki Badr, announced that private international schools in Egypt – the British School and the Canadian School, for example – must include Arabic language and the religion and history of Egypt in their courses; their pupils must salute the Egyptian flag at the start of each school day. Give state school Muslims a taste of secularism here, make the secular schools remember religion. It's typical "Mubarakism" – it confuses the masses while you arrange the next elections.
It's next year's presidential elections, of course – rather than the imminent parliamentary poll – that Mr Mubarak is watching. Forget, I fear, poor Mr ElBaradei, beloved by the elite youth and middle classes of Egypt for his vague intention to oppose Mr Mubarak. He will only stand, he says, if the elections are truly democratic – which is like asking the Nile to flow upstream. The government's election riggers have honed their practice to PhD standards since Nasser's dictatorship, and they are not likely to change. ElBaradei is what you might call a "nice" man, but Egyptian elections, which usually anoint the pharaoh with a result in the 90 per cent range, are unlikely to embrace the former UN arms inspector.
And what of Egypt as a great Arab power? Its status as the Great Peacemaker is fading. Turkey is – or was – the Great Negotiator in the Middle East. And the peace treaty with Israel – which Anwar El Sadat believed would give international prestige to Egypt – has neutered his country's independence. In Gaza, Egypt finds itself acting as a colonial vassal, sealing off 1.5 million Palestinians to maintain Israel's outrageous siege.
The American-Israeli alliance, along with the UN and the EU, has forced Egypt into the complicity of semi-occupation. Egypt briefly opened its frontier to Gaza after the Turkish flotilla killings – but why did it not do this before? Because, needless to say, it fears Hamas even more than Israel. Because if Israel regards Hamas as an Iranian proxy, Egypt regards it as an infection. It will willingly help Israel to bottle up the Islamist germs if this protects Egypt from a return to an Islamist insurgency.
Egyptians know their history. They know what Gamal Abdel Nasser represented – heroism and failure – and what Sadat represented: heroism, peace and humiliation. And Mr Mubarak? Let's see when the squash courts open.
Candidates for succession
1: Gamal Mubarak
Both Gamal and his father have denied that he wants to take over as president of Egypt, but his steady ascent through the country's political life has indicated otherwise. He has long been seen within the country as the heir apparent. And a poster campaign that touted him as Egypt's new leader had to be disowned by his party. If he did take over from his father, he would be following the lead of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who took over after his own father's death.
2: Omar Suleiman
The senior intelligence official for Hosni Mubarak has not publicly expressed interest in the leadership position. But he is a major figure in the leadership structure of Egypt. He is involved in the constant negotations with Hamas over the future of Gaza. However, health problems, specifically his heart, do count against him achieving the country's top job.
3: Mohamed ElBaradei
The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei has not yet confirmed whether he will stand for the presidency, but many in Egypt are hoping that he will and see him as the man to bring democratic reform to the country. Dr ElBaradei – who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 while in charge of the UN's nuclear agency – is leading a campaign for constitutional change that has so far gathered around 770,000 signatures, and he has stated that he will only think about running for president if the election is fair.
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