Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 May 2003
Issue No. 637
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Young minds, open debate

From civil liberties to unpopular economic policies, Gamal Mubarak was happy to discuss several thorny issues at AUC this week. Nevine Khalil attended

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Gamal Mubarak fields a wide range of questions on Egypt's future at a forum hosted by AUC
The questions were fast and daring; the audience wanted to know his views on the Emergency Law, the US's plans for regime change in the region, self-censorship in the media, the devaluation of the pound and the repression directed against the expression of political views that run counter to the government line. And last, but not least, the recurring question of whether he will be Egypt's next president. "I have been asked that question 100 times," smiled Gamal Mubarak, the chairman of the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) Policy Secretariat and the son of President Hosni Mubarak. Sporting casual attire -- a white shirt, black trousers and loafers -- the younger Mubarak was speaking off the cuff at a forum held by the American University in Cairo (AUC) entitled "Egypt Tomorrow". During three hours of discussion, Mubarak was kept on his toes by the students in his audience of about 600 AUCians, alumni and leading public figures, including Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher.

On the draconian Emergency Law which has been applied for more than two decades and is largely blamed for the lack of political freedom and expression in Egypt, Mubarak said that it was not "extraordinary" or outside the laws of the land. First issued in 1958, the Emergency Law has been in force without pause since President Anwar El- Sadat was assassinated in 1981. In February, parliament extended the law's repressive rule for another three years.

Nonetheless, Mubarak noted that his party wants the Emergency Law to be implemented "only in cases of terrorism", and that a few years ago there was discussion of annulling it. But such a measure is no longer on the table, he added, "because of current conditions in Egypt and the world over". He also pointed out that since the 11 September attacks, the US and some countries in Europe have in fact adopted autocratic legislation to combat terrorism. Mubarak's Policy Secretariat, which spearheads party policies and government strategies, has already drafted legislation that abolishes state security courts, hard labour sentences and creates a National Council on Human Rights.

But the drive to expand civil rights in Egypt is not a response to the new regional map proposed by the US, according to Mubarak. "I think it's time we stop viewing reform as something which is always imposed from outside," he said. "It is part of our vision for our country." He noted that Egyptian politics and the outlook of the country's leaderships have gone through several shifts in recent history. The current shift towards increased civil liberties, then, needs to be viewed as the result of an internal political process -- not an external one.

However, he admitted that so far "we cannot claim to have achieved all our objectives or that we are nearing the conclusion of the reform process. Much still needs to be done." He agreed that the changes in the international arena do influence Egypt. "Yes, what takes place in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan affects us, but there's nothing wrong with that. We just have to analyse it well and plan ahead for it," he said. "The challenges ahead of us are immense and we are able to shoulder them together as a society."

Speaking on other regional matters, Mubarak noted that while Egypt continues to honour its peace agreement with Israel, normalising relations between the two states was another matter altogether. "You cannot force normal relations down people's throats," he said. "This is a process between societies and cannot be imposed top down."

Back on the domestic scene, the NDP official expressed doubt that Egypt's constitution would be amended any time soon. This was in response to a query about the referendum by which the president is chosen. "To change this system we need to revise the constitution, and many, including the NDP and other forces, do not feel that now is the right time to do this," he said. "Amending the constitution is an immense task. Nonetheless, this shouldn't stop us from developing policies all the same."

On self-censorship, Mubarak told his mostly young audience that is was a "cultural issue" which is slow in changing, despite the fact that hundreds of media outlets have mushroomed in Egypt in recent years. "The space, freedom and accessibility to opinions is huge and I am finding that the younger generations are very curious and forward in asking bold questions," he said.

Since his public initiation into domestic politics by joining the NDP's General Secretariat in April 2000, as well as in his capacity as chairman of the Future Generation Foundation (FGF) and Future Housing Foundation (FHF), Mubarak has travelled the length of the country speaking to youth and sounding out their views. "The thousands I have seen are very liberal in expressing their views," he said. "Yes, there is self-censorship, but the margin of freedom has increased many times over; this of course doesn't mean that there isn't more that can be done to develop our media."

Mubarak was quizzed about the negative response citizens suffer when they take to the streets to demonstrate, as witnessed in the arrest and injuring of anti-war protesters. He conceded that there were "problems" at recent protests, but advised his audience to "look at this in the right context." Mubarak pointed out that "in three weeks, millions went out in anti-war marches, including many groups and political forces, and permits [by the security apparatus] were granted for demonstrations to take place. You will find that proportionally the number of clashes in Egypt was much lower than in other countries." He urged members of his audience to continue expressing their opinions, going to the polls and participating in public life.

Mubarak, who graduated from AUC with a degree in Business Administration in 1983 and went back for an MBA in 1986, was well versed in discussing the state of Egypt's economy. On the decision to float the Egyptian pound, which the public generally views as catastrophic, he insisted that it was a "very wise decision which came several years too late". Mubarak explained that shoring up the value of the pound over the past five years strained the budget, and if the decision had been taken earlier when the pound was stronger "it wouldn't have been such a crunch."

Discussing other economic woes, the 39- year-old businessman said it was unrealistic to ask the government to subsidise so many services. "The government is burdened with subsidising too many sectors, and this cannot continue," he said. He acknowledged that some policies are "very unpopular" with the public, but added that decision-makers are required to take tough decisions when faced with limited resources, an increasing population and an unstable international order. "You listen to the people, but you can't always apply what the people want," he said.

Responding to the general perception that Egypt is making too many economic concessions to remain a player on the international stage, Mubarak agreed that there are some hefty rites of passage to the global village. "If we want to join we must meet specific conditions, and if we don't that's OK too. We have to decide for ourselves," he said. But Mubarak argued against Egypt opting out of the globalisation process and adopting isolationist, protectionist policies. "We cannot separate our vision of domestic reform and that of interacting with the outside world," he said. "The losses we would accrue are incalculable; we would lose many markets and much status."

And on the matter of becoming president, the young politician once again denied the matter is on the agenda. "There are rumours that I am being groomed for the post, but they are baseless and have nothing to do with reality," he said. But Mubarak said he was not discouraged by such rumours. "Scaling down my activities is not an option; I want to encourage the youth to be active and I will not alter the role I believe in."

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