Wednesday, November 07, 2007

funny thoughts on egyptian politics

found this in my notes from 12/05. funny, upset, but apt?

It is now a two sided political system here, kind of like the Democrats and Republicans, except that in this case we are talking about the crazy autocratic corrupt single party state security obsessed ruling party and the crazy god obsessed, we are doing this all for god, don’t recoginize Israel, ultimately people will ask for god’s law, including stoning, to be implemented Muslim Brotherhood. It’s the wacko show, and the religious wackos are outdoing their bloated, corrupt counterparts. The legal opposition, meanwhile, isn’t even in ring three, its out mopping the bathroom somewhere. That’s how bad its gotten.

from a Dec 2005 column

The stark choices in Egyptian politics were captured this month in the dramatic standoffs in front of dozens of polling places during Egypt’s parliamentary vote. Rows of riot police blocked access to the polls, as hundreds of angry men and veiled women of the banned Muslim Brotherhood pressed up against the barricades, demanding to be allowed to vote.

The violence that erupted in these showdowns left five people dead and hundreds wounded by the poll’s end December 7. It was the same number as were killed in the last parliamentary election in 2000, indicating that while some of the rules of the game have changed in Egyptian politics, the government’s desire to maintain dominance at any cost remains the same.

It was a sad lesson to learn for any who might have taken seriously the National Democratic Party’s pledges of political reform over the past year. The government permitted a direct presidential vote for the first time in September, and let that vote take place without significance interference from security forces.

NDP spokesmen have been proudly showcasing the party’s ambitious reform agenda for the next parliament, which includes lifting the nation’s 24-year old Emergency Law, which strictly represses political life in Egypt, and loosening many of the current restrictions on political parties that have helped maintain Egypt as a single-party state.

The future of Egypt lies with a “multiparty political system, a political system where you have alternatives to the majority party, whatever that party is,” said Mohammed Kamal, one of the NDP’s leading young ideologues, on the day before the voting began.

“The government, the president, is committed to conducting a free and fair election, with state institutions staying neutral,” he said in an interview.

Instead, a disturbing pattern unfolded throughout electoral districts in Egypt. The government gave the Muslim Brotherhood unprecidented freedom to campaign and hold rallies before the vote. But when Brotherhood candidates began to win in far greater numbers than had been predicted, the soft-shoe manipulation and vote-rigging that marred the election’s first round gave way to strong-arm tactics remininsent of elections past.

When posting riot police in front of polling stations didn’t deter opposition voters December 7, state security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets. In some cases, live ammunition was used, killing opposition party supporters, according to independent election observers. The Egyptian government denied Wednesday that its election security forces shot live rounds.

In theory, many secular Egyptians would agree with the government that all things being equal, it would be desirable to keep the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence in parliament in check. There is a great deal of fear about their ambiguous agenda should they gain power, and the impact their religious views will have on the rights of women and non-Muslim minorities.

But the cheating used to limit the Brotherhood’s gains laid out in unusually clear terms a basic question for those who are interested in democracy in Egypt: Is it better to stand with the side that wants to impose Islamic law, or with the side that will employ any means to stop them from voting?

Liberals and secular opposition politicians are increasingly choosing to stand with the Brotherhood’s right to participate, even when they oppose their religious platform. Egypt’s weak secular and liberal opposition groups courted the Brotherhood for their united opposition front before this election.

For the past year, Brotherhood members have participated alongside Marxists, liberals, and socialists in anti-Mubarak demonstrations in Cairo. Analysts increasingly say that the Brotherhood’s presence in parliament could help to revitalize political life in Egypt by encouraging reform within the NDP and other parties.

With all of the rhetoric about democracy now in Egypt, cheating in elections is an increasingly appalling option, even for those who think that checking the rise of an Islamist party is a noble cause. Indeed, it is hard not to be moved by the sight of hundreds unarmed voters risking violence and arrest to cast their ballots and have their voices heard.

Brotherhood supporters also stand accused of paying voters in some districts and engaging in violence in an election that was far from clean on all sides. But the Egyptian government’s refusal to accept the will of its voters did something for the Brotherhood it could not do for itself: it turned a group whose slogan is “Islam is the Solution" into the most powerful emblem of the nation’s desire for democratic change.

Mubarak Rally, Sept. 2005

With our blood
And our souls
We sacrifice for you
We sacrifice for you, Oh Mubarak!

Catchy, isn’t it? It is to me now, this simple chant, repeating over and over in my mind, reminding me of the feel of the democracy emerging in Egypt. I’ve just come from Mubarak’s last political rally in the campaign, Egypt’s first contested presidential election will take place in three days. Mubarak delivered a speech at the rally, but the crowd barely heard him. They refused to stop chanting their dedication to the president, arms high, waving posters and banners, shouting over one another and over Mubarak himself. “We love you Mubarak,” they chanted. “Gamal,” they chanted, addressing the president’s son and protégé. “Tell your father that we love him.”

The rally was called for 8 p.m. in one of the largest open squares in Cairo, the formal square around Aberdeen Palace, the last palace of the king. As we approached from the downtown area, security forces manned a metal fence, blocking off the road a few blocks from the rally. We showed our journalist credentials and got in, making our way with a steady stream of people past rows of stores to the rally entrance.

There were a bewildering array of security forces. Police in white uniforms, decorated officers in formal attire, security men in black bulletproof vests and in riot helmets, camouflaged-swathed army and Republican Guard types, suited undercover security forces. Thousands of men, arrayed in rows, most looking no older than 19.

Our first idea was to try to join the main crowd and come through the admission line. We joined a line pushing through a gap in the riot police, which led to a metal detector. The young men pushing past us wouldn’t let go of each other to let us through. Around the back of the event, where we were sent when unable to navigate this scene, there was little securely, but a long list, like a bouncer would have. Finally they found my name and let me through…no friend and translator though. We walked into the main rally space, climbed over a fence with the help of a few chairs and security forces, and put myself on my way.

From my archives

God, can't believe how much I had that I didn't write about. What was I thinking? How unsettled must I have been? Anyway, here's a journal entry from late 2005:
Visit to al-Azhar

One of the most unique aspects of my time here is that I am officially affiliated with Al-Azhar University. The oldest university in the Muslim world, it was officially founded in the 10th century, or four centuries after the death of Mohammed. In the 1950s and 60s, under Nasser, it was expanded to include more than just its ancient mosque and the training of religious scholars. There are two large campuses in the ‘new’ part of Cairo, Nasser City, the men’s campus housing 85,000 students; the smaller women’s campus with 15,000.

Only Muslims are allowed to teach and study at the school, though some foreign visiting teachers of different religions are permitted. The campus looks a bit like a 60s blueprint of a modern university, left to decay, with a wide central street, a fountain in a central median, and buildings lining each side of the road, which slopes gently uphill. There’s something vaguely Chinese about it, centrally planned. Not sensitive to the purpose of the place, not quoting of its ancient roots across town.

To enter the campus all women must wear headscarfs. At first, Im dropped off by the taxi at the Men’s Campus, because this is where I met my faculty advisor the last time. The guards are surprised, “This is the men’s campus” they keep saying to me. I throw on a loosely tied brown head scarf and insist that I am a student here. They let me in.

In the shade of a tree I watch the men stream on to campus. They look young, thin, and intense, but most are not bearded. Later I would see some wearing the al-Azhar uniform--a red fez, or Turkish hat, with a white band around the face. They wear sweaters and brown and black pants or jackets. Most carry one book only, or not at all. The main reason it seemed like a university is that everyone seemed to have a purpose and actually be going somewhere-not all that common in Egypt. And no one actually hassled me under that tree--perhaps it was because we were on religious ground.

After a while, I called my advisor, wondering if perhaps she had sent people to fetch me at the wrong gate. It turned out I was on the wrong campus--I should have gone to the women’s college after all. A guard helped me choose an appropriate minivan, and I threw myself ungracefully into the front seat. Off I went to the women’s school.

When it was time to get out of the van, a woman took my hand and led me across the train tracks, down a set of stairs, and voila, there we were. Amany, for that was her name, spoke to my teacher on the phone and agreed to lead me to her office. Under her headscarf, her blue/green eyes were truly beautiful.

On the campus, there was fabric flowing everywhere. Like butterflies with the occasional moth thrown in. Headscarves of every color and arrangement, long coats covering the body. And lots of nikabs--full veils covering all but the eyes, and sometimes the eyes too--more than I’ve seen anywhere in Cairo. It was hard to judge but about 1 in every 10 women was fully veiled. None of their teachers seemed to wear the nikab, just the students, in a kind of religious revival. And though it is a women’s school, there are some men on the faculty and on the staff, so they keep the things on, even in class.

The classrooms were packed, over filled with billowing women. There are between 70 and 100 students per class here in classrooms meant to hold forty or fifty. Somehow women in all this fabric seem to take up so much more space.

The students of my teacher all had their faces visible but one. They were not wearing makeup and looked coarse--nothing like the beautiful girls that seem to be everywhere at AUC. “I don’t like the nikab,” my teacher said. “I think it is misunderstood and often taken for the wrong reasons.”

She herself is like a kind grandmother, a wide, pretty face, in a headscarf tied in the old fashioned way, just around her hair, with her neck exposed and some wisps of hair hanging out. She has on an old sweater that comes down to her thighs and is reverse woven with many colors. Her feet are so swollen she barely fits into her shoes, she takes the stairs one by one. And yet when it comes time to leave she pushes her small car out of the space with me because someone parked so close too her that she can’t get in. “Its gotten so crowded here--so crowded!” she says, nodding her head from side to side. And if she gives you an order you are doing it.

What are they teaching them there? How does the women’s education at Al-Azhar in Islamic studies differ from what men are taught? What about women becoming muftis?

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Muslims in America

I didn't quite realize it before I went to Egypt, but now that I'm back, its clear: Islam is kind of treated like a new, unfamiliar cult in America, very very cautiously, with an initial assumption that it is bad and warlike and probably should be kept at arms-length. It's funny because Islam has been around for 1,400 years, has billions of adherents, and its longevity alone should qualify it as something that probably is somewhat life-sustaining rather than just life-ending. We are up to a "Muslims are people too?" level of debate. And yet, before there's even the thought that things could flow in the direction of learning and tolerance, we have a whole series of new best-sellers appearing which state the point again and again: Islam is a religion of violence and intolerance. Sam Harris's The End of Faith is one such work. These books claim to be debunking religion as a whole but their slant or inspiration, if you will, is clearly anti-Islam: the beginning of Sam Harris's book is a Muslim suicide bomber and Islam is its particular focus.

Is it possible to say that Islam is a religion of many things--war and peace, justice and injustice, without sounding like an apologist? It is an entire system of life and worldview--it must contain all of these opposites. Islam is a different way of looking at the same reality---just as any religion is. It places, non-scientifically, of course, the invisible at the center of events (Freud, anyone?). In religion, it is what you don't see and can't prove that is most important.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Some thoughts about morality

What does it mean to say about someone, you know, before you found Islam, you weren’t a very good person. But now, that you follow these rules, and believe in God, your behavior has improved. You treat other people better…more like people.

It means that starting out, you weren’t very much at all. Maybe you were raised in a society that on some level was deeply sick. Maybe you grew up not knowing the difference between treating people as ends and treating people as means. Maybe you didn’t even know there was a distinction.

Maybe you looked for advantage all the time and felt justified doing so because, well, either on some level you didn’t care about others, or because you just felt you hadn’t been given a fair shake. Your life was a series of obligations you had not chosen. Your future was circumscribed by a society that did not encourage success. Your success enviably would lift the veil of denial cushioning other people’s compromises and failures. And that would just be too painful for them to take.

What do you do with such a person, such a society? Here, there is an entire moral system just waiting for you, all you have to do is sign on! Follow these simple five steps: pray five times a day, give charity, fast for Ramadan, believe in the one true God and his prophet, go to Mecca once in your life. Do it with a pure heart, motivated by true belief, and the riddle is solved.

It is the ultimate 12-step system, except its even simpler. It’s the Five-step system. Do it with your whole heart and it can save both you and your society from oblivion.

The risk, of course, is the all or nothing system it creates. When there is only one truth, only one way, you are either following it or you are not. When you fall short, there is no break: no system of secular morality to fall back on. In the push to follow the one true way, encouragement to understand the purposes of moral behavior, which creates conviction, may not exist.

The stakes become very high, and the definition of what the proper path is exactly becomes all important. And not just for you personally. Someone doing things another way points out the fact that perhaps your way might just be wrong. And with not just this life, but the next life riding upon your judgment, that may just be too painful to take.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Exporting an Egyptian Cat: Update the advice of a pet store owner in Zamalek, I decided to go over to the Ministry of Agriculture today to get an official export health certificate for my cat, Sami. Turns out maybe you don't have to go back to the vet five days before you travel after all.

Before I begin this story, let me give you some advice: if you don't want to create havoc in the ministry office, just ignore the fact that they will give you incorrect receipts for the money you will pay. Apparently even asking about this is deeply insulting. Which leads me to my Cairo behaviour theorem of the day: the more people yell and complain about how honest they are being, the more likely it is that they are cheating you.

Anyway, the place you have to go is located on Nadi al-Sid Street in Dokki. If you're coming from the 6th October bridge, turn onto Nadi al-Sid, go down about two blocks, and you will see a kind of Belle-Epoque colonial building on your left. That's not it. Where you want to go is that Stalin-esk structure across from it on the right. It kind of like looks two giant housing project buildings. OK, go on through the last gate. If you are foreign-looking, they'll know why you've come--you are not the first foreigner looking to ''export'' an Egyptian dog or cat.

The division is called the General Services Veterinary Section, what you want is a health certificate (shehada al-sehi). It's on the second floor. A nice beefy guy in a suit or a skinny guy in government issue polyester casuals (I stole that description from a friend) will escort you past the crumbling Mubarak statue in the lobby (the paint has come off half the face) and into the kind of elevator where you are like, wait...I'm not going in there. Does it work? And then you go in because everyone else is doing it. On the second floor, make a right, people will help you find the right place.

You will enter a standard Egyptian public office: five people, only one of whom is doing anything that looks work-related. Then there's the woman with the flowing hijab/abaya and gloves on reading the Quran; the less covered-up middle-aged woman next to her just staring off into space; the director of the office, a balding man in his 50s, whose job it is to collect money and sign things. Explain what you want: they will ask for some amount of money: in my case, 50 pounds. Pay. Then go over to the ''vet'' in attendance with your cat's vaccination record, and she will sign a document certifying your animal is healthy. Don't bother to bring the actual animal. Its not necessary.

Everything was going smoothly, and normally I wouldn't have rocked the boat, but...because I was going to write about this, I decided to actually ask: why, if the certificate says I paid 22.75 LE, and then another illegible scribble on another piece of paper looks like it says I paid 20 LE, was I charged 50 LE?? Just wondering, I said. At that point, everyone shook the sleepers out of their eyes and looked over at me, as if not sure I had just said what I had just said. The boss, who was by then playing solitaire on the only computer in the office (hey--at least they had a computer!) looked up too. He had taken the actual cash earlier, and made change from the money in his pocket. And then it got crazy.

I don't know; said the veterinarian, looking innocent and wide-eyed, turning to another woman. WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT??? screeched the other woman, a big lady in a black headscarf who had recently arrived. Then they began to throw a bunch of numbers at me: 100 for this stamp, 200 for this other stamp...voices rising. A young woman who had been doing some accounting was staring at the scene with a bemused smile on her face, like, ummm...this is interesting, i wonder how they will deal with this? No one offered to give me another receipt. But I didn't expect that anyway. I just kind of wanted to see what would happen if I asked.

"Sorry!" I said. "I'm just asking a simple question. My friends' are going to come and I wanted to know all the information."

''Next time you need something done, go to the office at the airport!!" yelled the big lady. "Tell your friends to go to the airport too!!"

"Don't worry about it," whispered the vet as I was gathering my things to go, surprised at how easy it had been to create chaos in the office. "You can come back here next time."

Listen: I know they don't pay them a lot at the ministry. I know everyone is just supposed to ''go with the flow'' and pay all the hidden baksheesh as required. But pretending that you are in the right by freaking out and coming up with a million and one reasons why there is nothing wrong just makes things worse. If people pretend not to see all the graft that is built into the system, or get extremely defensive when it is pointed out, how are things ever going to change? No one individual is to blame. But the sad fact is that lying every day to make a few dollars for your family ultimately has a corrosive impact on both the people who lie and their society.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

27 Days and a cat

With 27 days to go here in Cairo, I thought I would begin to share some of the information I've gathered all these months here. Some of it will be practical, others will be thoughts, rants and opinions. I appreciate your feedback on any of it.

OK, lets start with the practical.


If you've ever spent any time with Egyptian cats, you know they are a breed apart from American cats. Over the last few thousand years they have developed into highly intelligent scavengers with impressive fighting skills. But like any good Cairene, they've developed impressive social skills as well. They know there's no animal protection laws out there insuring they get fed. So they've figured out how to build almost human-like relationships with people to ensure that the food keeps coming.

Take my cat, Sami, for example. He is a strange cat, even by Egyptian standards: he loves water, and thinks that chasing shadows is even more interesting than going after the real thing. In his free time, he teaches himself tricks: he can now climb to the top of a 10-foot wooden trellis on the balcony. He climbs paw over paw as if it was a ladder, then balances on the inch-wide surface up top, turning foot by foot, until he can position himself for a leap onto a nearby table. On one of his first days here, he figured out how to jump on top of the refrigerator and open cabinets from above. He approaches household objects with an engineer-like curiousity. Recently he's decided, for example, that it would be more interesting watching water go down the bathroom drain if he removed the metal cover. So every night he sticks his claws into the cover and slides it off the drain. When the shower starts up in the morning, he runs over to watch the water pool before it disappears.

He saunters like a street fighter--admitedly a retired one, with a bit of a furry white paunch. His forearms are thick like tree branches and his hind legs remind me of a frog's. He is not afraid, just deeply curious. After going to the vet for the first time, he looked in amazment at his cat carrier once he returned home, as though it was some kind of magical transporter that lifted him out of his dull apartment, and brought him into the exciting streets of Cairo, into a noisy cab, halfway across the city. Now he jumps in there expectantly sometimes, like a dog grabbing at his leash.

Affection comes naturally to him too. When I'm studying, he likes putting his head on my arm and draping an arm non-chalantly across my shoulder. He curls up by my stomach when I have a stomach ache. He is almost always near me if I am home. He likes laps: my lap, visitor's laps. He likes the arm holes of winter jackets. He likes climbing into a basket and leaping out to surprise me. And even when he looks like he's sleeping, he usually gets up and goes with me when I leave the room.

It makes you wonder: where does the American cat stock come from anyway? I loved my American cat, Kitty, but her speciality was sitting on the couch and getting petted. Besides the occassional pen, she never chased much of anything. Who were her ancestors? The few cats that made it to America on merchant ships? Modern times have been even worse for American cats. We have been killing tens of thousands of urban cats every year, afraid they will be some kind of disease risk. But let me ask you, wouldn't you rather have cats than rats?


OK, I haven't completely figured this out yet. But here, I gather, are the rules. I think Egyptian cats need their rabies shot before they arrive in America, and according to my vet, this must be administered 28 days before travel. I was unable to find any information on the CDC website in America confirming this, so I can only assume this is correct.

Cats flying through Europe also need a microchip implanted in their necks with an identity number. Sounds freaky I know but it was really easy. The thing is so tiny it fits in a regular hypodermic needle. Once in there, it can be read with a bar code reader for the next 75 years (now that is freaky).

In Cairo, you can get all of this done at the Egyptian Society of Animal Friends in New Maadi, 30 Korshed Street, across from the Modern Academy. Dr. Rania Kashif. The clinic's number is 010-620-5694. For the rabies shot, another standard feline shot (Fel-o-Vax, I believe against leukemia), and the microchip it cost 340 L.E. Plus you get a cute little ''cat passport'' which lists your cat's ID number and serves as his vaccination record.

Another vet in Zamalek has been recommended by friends, but I've never been there. His name is Dr. Rafiq and his number is 736-2402.

Five days before you travel your cat needs to be examined by a vet to make sure he is in good health. You then carry his health certificate with you to the airport. If you plan ahead, you can bring your cat on as carry-on luggage and stow him under your seat. This costs as much as an extra bag: ie. on Lufthansa, $155. Not cheap, I know.

I justify all this time and expense to myself by thinking there is no way I can leave behind such an interesting and extraordinary animal. For Americans who have never met a cat quite like him, he will be a kind of cultural ambassador. Plus I really want to see him run in grass, and, oh yeah, kick those American cats' asses.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Cairo Malaise


For months I thought: If I can just get one thing done today, a trip to the store, a workout at the gym, I will have accomplished something.

My friend John went further: “It takes one day to buy the groceries…and the next day to put them away,” he said.

It's not that it is so hard to get things done in Cairo. Its just that there is something about the pace, the heat, and the general feeling that nothing is really going anywhere that contributes to the malaise.

There is also something so pleasant about sitting in a sunny living room in Cairo, drinking coffee in the morning for an hour after you force yourself out of bed. And feeling the heat build as 10 a.m. moves toward 11.

And there is something so daunting about the streets, with the endless honking, the black and white metal shells without air conditioning that pass for taxis, the incessant blare of Arabic pop music or Quranic verse through tinny speakers, the fur lined---yes, in this climate!—-the fur lined dashboards and dangling prayer beads.

If there is nothing one has to do, why do it? Rent is cheap, food is cheap, taxis are cheap: we are all surviving without much effort.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Clubbing protesters "evidence of democracy"

The Egyptian government, and its (and our) use of the word democracy keeps getting more and more absurd. In this article, I particularly enjoyed the Mubarak's use of the third person in describing his "liberal" attitude toward the Muslim Brothers:

Speaking about himself, he said: "Mubarak, and no one else, has allowed their entrance into the parliament as the biggest opposition block, although he could have prohibited them if he wanted."

Very caveman.

I will also post the Prime Minister's comments on the Brothers, also from Sharm. Today is a big protest day here: the one year anniversary of the referendum that allowed for (practically meaningless) direct presidential elections.

By all accounts, the Brothers are acting as a responsible, active, but powerless opposition block in parliament here. But the regime is not comfortable with the amount of attention and power they are garnering, and no compromise solution is in sight.,,2-11-1447_1937656,00.html

Rallies 'evidence of democracy'
23/05/2006 09:12 - (SA)

Cairo - President Hosni Mubarak lashed out at coverage of Cairo street protests in which more than 600 Egyptians were beaten and arrested, calling the rallies "evidence of democracy" and coverage of them "libel and blasphemy".

Mubarak said: "Continuation (of the protests) is evidence of democracy", adding that he was surprised by some media coverage.

For the past three weeks, international media had shown footage of young activists being beaten in downtown Cairo in broad daylight by plainclothes police.

More than 600 people were arrested, mostly members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, but also secular pro-democracy activists.

US criticises Mubarak

Protesters were rallying in support of two reformist judges disciplined for blowing the whistle on electoral fraud. The United States openly criticised Mubarak's handling of the protests.

Mubarak accused his opponents, including some journalists, of having "mean intentions and wanting to achieve personal benefits" in their coverage of the protests.

He said: "Most of what they are writing could be punished according to the law, because it is libel and blasphemy", adding that he supported freedom of the press and thus had not cracked down on such coverage.

Mubarak said: "If they think that what they are doing is an expression of their freedom, they should remember who gave them this chance, and who is insisting on its continuity."

Brotherhood 'tolerated in Egypt'

Mubarak said that his policy towards the banned Muslim Brotherhood was unfairly characterised as harsh.

Speaking about himself, he said: "Mubarak, and no one else, has allowed their entrance into the parliament as the biggest opposition block, although he could have prohibited them if he wanted."

Outlawed since 1954, the Brotherhood was tolerated in Egypt within limits. Its candidates, fielded as independents, won 88 seats in the 454-member parliament in elections late last year.

Mubarak also said the success of the World Economic Forum, which ended on Monday in Sharm El-Sheik, was proof that the international community had faith in Egypt's economy.

He said: "We are on the right path."
Egyptian PM says not in hurry for political reform

By Jonathan Wright
Saturday, May 20, 2006; 5:19 AM

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) - The Egyptian government is not in a hurry to change the country's political system, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said on Saturday.

"It doesn't take a month or two or six. It will take years... We have the time. We are not in a hurry," he told reporters before the opening of a World Economic Forum meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

The Egyptian government changed the constitution last year to introduce the country's first multi-candidate presidential elections.

President Hosni Mubarak won a fifth six-year term in contested elections in September and the opposition says the government has since reverted to a repressive approach.

In recent weeks plainclothes security men have beaten and clubbed peaceful demonstrators protesting in solidarity with judges seeking judicial independence from the executive.

Nazif denied the government had taken any steps away from political liberalization but said it had to take into account Islamist successes in parliamentary elections.

The opposition Muslim Brotherhood won a fifth of the seats in the Egyptian parliament in November and December, confirming its position as the country's largest opposition group.

"Once the process starts, things happen. You see Islamists for example gaining in parliament here, in Palestine, in Iraq, so we start recalculating what's going on," he said.

"You need to recalculate, you need to revisit some of your assumptions, to make sure you are really on the right track but in the end I don't think there is any way to go back on this."

He played down the recent demonstrations in Cairo and other towns as the work of "special interest groups."

The Kefaya (Enough) Movement, for example, which opposed Mubarak's reelection and any attempt to arrange a succession for Mubarak's son Gamal, had 2,000 members, he said.

The prime minister said one of his economic priorities was to reorganize the system of subsidies, which cost the government 40 billion Egyptian pounds ($7 billion) a year for energy alone and are the biggest factor in a budget deficit running at about 9 percent of gross domestic product.

He said the strategy would be to target the poor with cash subsidies tied to the families sending their children to school and taking part in literacy and family planning programs. But he gave no timetable for changing the system.

Nazif said he was confident the Egyptian stock market could ride out the effect of sharp declines in Gulf markets.

"Their price/earning ratios are three times as much as ours so our market is still very attractive one and I think it will continue to be so," he said.

"The market has reacted very gracefully so far and I think with the kind of growth that we are seeing here in Egypt I'm not worried. The market is developing in a solid way," he added.