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Egyptian reformer's experience a cautionary tale

CAIRO, Egypt—A prominent Egyptian writer who fought for democratic reform from within the government gave up the effort in March, and the backlash that followed has turned into a cautionary tale for reformists. It also shows why President Bush's campaign for democracy in the Middle East faces tough obstacles.

Osama el Ghazali Harb, a noted political analyst and the editor of a foreign-affairs journal, served on the influential policies committee, which Egypt's ruling party created in 2002 to breathe new life into President Hosni Mubarak's stagnant regime. When Harb abruptly exited March 5, however, he said democratic reform in Egypt was a sham and hinted that the committee, led by Mubarak's son Gamal, was just a means of eventually replacing father with son.

The Egyptian press called Harb's resignation "a bombshell" and "an embarrassment" to the government's attempts at reform. Then state-backed papers began a campaign to discredit him, picking apart his earlier expressed opinions and suggesting that he resigned because of disappointed personal ambition.

The episode suggests that moderate reformers such as Harb have little chance to make an impact, and their failure opens the field for more radical Islamists such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

"I don't think the others (reformers) will resign now. They are hesitant; they are afraid," Harb, 59, said in an interview. "In any democratic tradition, it should be easy to resign, to say no." His voice dropped to a hiss: "But not here. This is Egypt."

Harb said Gamal Mubarak phoned him in 2002 with an invitation to join the committee, which the ruling party touted as "the throbbing heart" of change in Egypt. The group recruited the nation's top intellectuals and business magnates with an ambitious platform of abolishing hard labor in prison, eliminating state security courts and creating a human rights council.

Harb was an ideal member: an acclaimed analyst and a political moderate with no history of rabble-rousing. He'd played it safe, writing about foreign affairs for a state-backed newspaper and later becoming the editor of a prestigious Arabic-language quarterly, International Politics, which gives space to criticism of all Arab regimes except the one in Cairo.

His journal avoided Egyptian politics, the rise of Islamists in Egypt or the future of Gamal Mubarak.

"No, no and no," he said, laughing. "It is easier to go after George W. Bush or insult Putin than to criticize Mubarak."

Harb said he quit the committee after months of frustration with party officials refusing to implement the ideas that committee members suggested. The breaking point came with a constitutional amendment last year that opposition figures believed was aimed at barring independent candidates from running against the ruling party in presidential elections.

Days after his resignation, scathing columns began to appear in state-backed newspapers, painting Harb as a quitter who was frustrated because he didn't advance fast enough in the ruling National Democratic Party. One paper known as the mouthpiece of Gamal Mubarak's circle reprinted a 3-year-old Harb essay on his hopes for a new Iraq after Saddam Hussein's ouster. Attached was a menacing editor's note: "We will publish other articles in which he states political positions that contradict what he says now."

"By printing this now they are trying to distort my image and remind people that the man who dares to leave the party was the one who was welcoming and congratulating the American invasion of Iraq," Harb said. "Officially, they say there is no problem with my resignation. Actually, there is a very ugly and unethical campaign against me."

Mohamed Kamal, who reports to Gamal Mubarak as one of the nine governors of the policies committee, said the committee was neither mere window-dressing nor a shadow government.

"You cannot meet the demands of intellectuals who sometimes have unrealistic dreams about democracy and how to bring it about in Egypt," Kamal said. "There are hundreds of others who are happy with their role."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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