HIS hair has turned white, his children have grown up and George Ishaq should, like other Egyptian men of his age, be gossiping in Cairo coffee-shops and dozing over the newspaper.
“I have been waiting a quarter of a century for this moment,” said Mr Ishaq, whose flat in Cairo has become a centre, if a chaotic one, for a broad spectrum of opposition figures, who troop in and out, organising protests and picking up leaflets.
“We have finally broken the culture of fear in this country. People thought Mubarak was a half-president, half-god, that he was a Pharaoh, that he was untouchable. Now we have the right to challenge him and say 24 years of Mubarak and his regime is enough,” he said, punching the air with satisfaction.
Half a dozen independent newspapers feel free to criticise Mr Mubarak, his Government and even his family, when once that could have meant prison. Where the ruling National Democratic Party had a monopoly on power for three decades, now dozens of parties and political movements are springing to life. Where it was assumed that Mr Mubarak, 77, would rule for ever, now the main debate in Egypt is who will succeed him.
Egypt’s version of the “Arab Spring”, as the democratic changes sweeping the region are known, is particularly significant because it has the strong encouragement of Washington. President Bush has stated repeatedly that he wants Cairo to set the example for democracy and is putting pressure on his key Arab ally to introduce the necessary reforms.
Mr Mubarak does not have much choice. America provides nearly $2 billion annually in aid to Egypt. Its embassy in Cairo, the largest American mission in the world, is openly supporting pro-democratic forces. When Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, arrives in Cairo this month, democracy will be at the top of her agenda. Not long ago Cairo would look forward to such a visit; now there is unease. “I am sure they are dreading Condoleezza Rice coming out,” a Western diplomat said.
The apprehension is well founded. This month Mr Bush telephoned Mr Mubarak to berate him over the attack by activists of his ruling party on an opposition demonstration where women protesters were sexually assaulted. The Americans are pressing Cairo to accept international observers to monitor the elections. They intervened to help to secure the release from jail of Ayman Nour, a liberal politician who shot to fame after announcing that he would challenge Mr Mubarak in Egypt’s first multi-candidate elections in September. [Emphasis Added.]