Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 April 2003
Issue No. 632
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New posture for NDP

Responding to popular outrage, the ruling National Democratic Party is now encouraging support for Iraq and condemnation of America's campaign there. Gamal Essam El-Din reports

As the war on Iraq enters its second week, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) finds itself torn between support for Egypt's long-term strategic relationship with the United States, and an increasingly anti-war mood on the street. The party's seemingly pro-American stance as the war began quickly became the target of harsh criticism. Public rage went as far as an attempt at vandalising the party's downtown headquarters, where protestors -- bearing large posters of late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Palestinian resistance leader Marwan El-Barghouthi -- gathered on the second day of the war.

The party's leadership has since given up on the idea of containing the public's rage. Instead, according to NDP Secretary-General Safwat El- Sherif, the party must be at the forefront of these protests in order to ensure that they do not break out into the realm of sabotage. "Within this context, I gave written instructions to all of the party's provincial secretaries, asking them to either organise anti-war protests or join rallies organised by other parties condemning the war on Iraq," El-Sherif said. Analysts also attribute the rapid change of tactics adopted by the NDP vis- à-vis the public's mood to the allied forces' failure to garner a swift and easy victory in Iraq.

Party leaders have, however, placed conditions on the kind of anti-war activities that it will take part in. Any NDP-organised anti- war protest must be held in a football stadium and led by governors and senior security officers. Three examples of this type of protest have already taken place in the governorates of Sharqiya, Daqahliya and Fayoum, where protesters were allowed to chant anti-US slogans, but not burn American or British flags.

The party is also making it clear that "banning demonstrations will do more harm than good to the interests of this country," according to El- Sherif. The Interior Ministry has already responded to this comment with an increasing margin of freedom being granted to those seeking permissions for anti-war protests. On 28 March, the interior minister allowed the banned Muslim Brotherhood to organise -- along with other political forces -- a peaceful anti-war march in front of Al-Azhar Mosque. Observers said the march was successful, in that it managed to both satisfy the opposition parties that took part in it, as well as the NDP's desire to eliminate the chances of protests turning anti- government or violent in nature.

Imams at mosques were also informed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments that they were free to shower America and England with as much criticism as they wanted during the weekly sermon before Friday's communal prayers. Thus, while the first Friday after the war featured requests to God to "protect Muslims from enemies coming from the West and East", last Friday imams urged God to "protect Muslims in Iraq and Palestine from both American and British infidels and cursed Zionists". At the historic Amr Ibn Al-'Aas Mosque, NDP religious committee chair Ismail El-Diftar told the Friday audience that "it is a duty for all Muslims worldwide to support the Iraqi and Palestinian people in the face of American and Israeli aggression."

At the Shura Council -- a consultative upper house with no legislative powers -- the NDP was also unusually outspoken in its condemnation of America's aggression against Iraq. According to NDP Assistant Secretary-General and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Kamal El-Shazli, the party had a great deal of admiration and appreciation for "the Iraqi people and army's struggle to defend their land in a war launched without international legitimacy". The council's chairman, Mostafa Kamal Helmi, urged the US and the UK to halt their military aggression and use diplomatic efforts and security council resolutions instead, as solutions for the Iraqi crisis.

At the same time, the party's leaders were anxious to indicate that the condemnation of America must not come at the expense of Egypt's strategic relationship with the world's only superpower. According to El-Sherif, the party's provincial secretaries and newly formed councils (recently established to contain public anti-war fury) were not to describe America's war against terrorism (in general), and Iraq (in particular), as a war against Islam. "This war has been condemned by Christian nations in Europe like France and Germany and thus can not justifiably be called a war against Islam," El-Sherif said. The party's secretary-general also told secretaries to make the same sort of linkages between Iraq and Palestine that President Hosni Mubarak has always made, by urging American President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to declare their commitment to advancing peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Opposition political figures were cynical of the NDP's new posture, arguing that only when Iraqi resistance proved much tougher than originally thought did the NDP move to restrain public fury by distancing the ruling party from its original "blame Iraq" stance. According to Wafdists, despite the new bent, the NDP was still tiptoeing between opposing the war and staying on the US's good side. Said El-Naggar, a prominent liberal economist, cited the two Egyptian delegations, which included prominent NDP figures, which visited Washington last January and March to secure American financial assistance for Egypt's depressed economy. Other Wafdists -- like party mouthpiece Al-Wafd's Chief Editor Abbas El-Tarabili -- argued that the only truly nationalistic stance the NDP should take would be a complete rejection of US aid, and an enthusiastic participation in a national campaign to boycott American, British and Spanish goods.

President Mubarak, meanwhile, refuted claims that in return for economic aid, Egypt had offered facilities to assist the US's campaign, such as allowing US warships to cross the Suez Canal. "The economic aid we receive from America aims at achieving an economic reform programme launched in 1990," Mubarak said, explaining that the Suez Canal is governed by international agreements that only permit its closure when Egypt is in a state of war -- with only ships from belligerent nations denied access to the waterway.

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