Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 November - 3 December 2003
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Ready for controversy

Economic woes, strained American ties, and political dialogue are likely to top the current People's Assembly session's agenda. Gamal Essam El-Din reports

When the People's Assembly begins its new session in earnest on Saturday after the eid break, controversy will be in the forefront. Several deputies -- from both the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the opposition -- have already tabled a series of questions to cabinet ministers, on issues ranging from the dollarisation of the Egyptian economy to Egyptian-American relations and the proposed national dialogue on political reform.

The precarious economic situation represents the lion's share of the questions, informational requests and interpellations (questions that must be answered by cabinet ministers) tabled thus far, presumably because deputies, especially those from the NDP, are being grilled by their constituents about the harsh economic conditions the country is currently going through.

MPs said Ebeid's cabinet lacks the spirit of teamwork needed to resolve serious economic woes. Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, spokesman of the Wafd Party, said a disagreement between Ebeid and the governor of Egypt's Central Bank has resulted in the bank operating without a board.

Meanwhile, as many as 350 deputies (more than two thirds of all MPs), have submitted questions regarding the government's strategy vis-à-vis the accelerating dollarisation of the economy. The questions come in the midst of statements by senior NDP officials and cabinet ministers blaming the economic crisis on other factors.

Prime Minister Atef Ebeid believes that the surge in prices has more to do with skyrocketing rises in global commodities markets than his controversial 28 January decision to float the Egyptian pound. Gamal Mubarak, President Hosni Mubarak's 40-year- old son and chairman of the NDP's influential Policy Secretariat, agreed with Ebeid, also emphasising on 19 November that the government will remain committed to subsidising basic foods and services.

Next Sunday, however, Ebeid and Foreign Trade Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali will be facing questions on a report prepared by five parliamentary committees (agriculture, industry, budget, transport and economic affairs) on exports and foreign investment. The report blames the export sector's modest performance and the declining rates of overseas investment for the economy's vulnerability. According to the report, an Egyptian citizen's share of exports amounts to only $2.5 per month, compared to Singapore's $2000. The report says the roots of the low foreign investment rate have more to do with the government's economic policies than the region's instability.

The Assembly is also expected to discuss another report, emphasising rampant corruption in local councils and the need to upgrade the local administrative system's performance.

The strategic relationship between Egypt and the United States is also expected to figure prominently in MPs' questions. Many believe that a recent decision to hold a new round of a strategic dialogue between Egypt and America actually reflects the two countries' troubled ties more than anything else.

MPs also think that the invasion of Iraq has prodded US President George Bush's administration into actively meddling in Arab countries' internal affairs. At least three opposition MPs have submitted questions to Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher about US Ambassador to Egypt David Welch's alleged meddling in domestic issues. Hamdeen Sabbahi, a journalist and leftist MP, also directed a question to Ebeid regarding the US administration's decision to allocate $124 million to fund the publication of US-oriented Arab papers and TV channels. Sabbahi also questioned moves to allocate $2 million of USAID's annual economic assistance package to Egypt for funding prominent sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim's Ibn Khaldoun Centre.

The National Dialogue proposed by President Hosni Mubarak at the NDP's first annual conference in September is also of major concern to MPs of all political stripes. Independent MPs in particular fear they will be excluded from participation. Independent MP spokesman Mohamed Qiwita said that although the NDP was stressing that members of political parties and civil society organisations take part in this dialogue, independents also represented a major voice that needed to be heard. Kiwita directed his question on this matter to Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal El-Shazli.

Interior Minister Habib El-Adli, meanwhile, has announced that by- elections in 23 districts will take place on 25 December. The by- elections are meant to fill the seats left vacant by the 16 draft-dodging NDP MPs who submitted their resignations in the lead up to this session, one NDP MP (former chairman of parliament's economic affairs committee Abdallah Tayel whose membership was revoked after he was convicted of corruption charges), and three NDP MPs who passed away last summer. The remaining three by-elections are meant to fill Shura Council seats. One Shura member -- business tycoon Farag El-Rawas -- resigned for dodging military service, and two other members passed away.

Nominations will be accepted beginning 2 December.

Rifaat El-Said, secretary- general of the leftist Tagammu Party, called the resignation of the draft-dodging MPs unconstitutional and undemocratic. In general, the NDP has faced harsh criticism for pressuring its 16 draft- dodging MPs to resign rather than allowing them to be officially stripped of their seats by the assembly.

Via these resignations, however, the party managed to guarantee the nomination of new candidates for the re-elections, rather than have them be confined to those who ran in the original races in 2000 (which would have happened had they not resigned).

Responding to the criticism, NDP Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif said that the party would use an "electoral college" system to pick its 25 December re-election candidates. The American-style system has been criticised for being a mere cover for the party's continuing insistence on carefully orchestrating who would and would not run for office.

Accusations have flown regarding the party's leading members, especially NDP Assistant Secretary- General for Organisational Affairs Kamal El-Shazli, giving instructions that certain members be allowed to run for the candidacy and others not, while in other instances it was found that business tycoons paid bribes to earn the number of votes required by the system for them to become the party's candidates.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, ruled out any possibility that they will field candidates in the 25 December by-elections, which would turn the by-elections into either NDP-NDP independents battle, or leave NDP candidates unopposed.

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