Twice in a week
The NDP has been called to account twice by its leader within one week. The only way out, writes Hassan Nafaa*, is more democracy
Before the first week of the new year had reached a close President Mubarak found himself forced to intervene twice in issues that threatened to paralyse Egypt's political life. The first intervention was to dispel growing rumours about the bequeathing of power. The second was to clear the controversy surrounding recent by-elections. The elections were scheduled following the resignation of a number of deputies from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) following a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court stripping them of their parliamentary status following revelations of draft-dodging. The presidential intervention, in line with the constitution and with public expectations, met with public satisfaction.
Although the president successfully removed a lump from the nation's body politic significant sections of Egypt's political and cultural elite continue to feel that systems of governance are structurally so flawed that radical surgery is now urgently needed. The fact that the president had to intervene twice is one week to get the NDP out of trouble speaks volumes about the current state of the Egyptian political system.
The rumours surrounding the bequeathing of political power in Egypt did not come out of thin air. They followed a series of actions designed -- quite intentionally, one might add -- to suggest that Gamal Mubarak is being groomed to succeed his father, and with the blessing of the latter. Those seeking to promote such an impression intended -- for reasons of their own -- to prepare the public for the notion of such an inheritance in the hope that, sufficiently promoted, the idea would turn into fact.
The president took his son, Gamal, on some of his foreign visits before the latter held any official position in the NDP. Initially this habit was viewed as a normal prerogative. The president is, after all, entitled to rely on a trusted son to help him follow up sensitive dossiers or even, if he so desires, organise and run the presidential office.
Things changed, however, when the son was appointed a member of the NDP General Secretariat. Whispers of dynastic ambition began to circulate. These whispers turned to a buzz when the NDP leadership was restructured, with Safwat El-Sharif becoming party secretary and Gamal Mubarak head of the Policies Committee. That was when the gap widened between official and public interpretations of where things were heading. Officially the changes were a prelude to comprehensive political reform, beginning with the NDP itself. Publicly, the changes were interpreted as a prelude to the transfer of power from father to son.
Some commentators insisted that such a transfer, if it happened, would end once and for all any hopes of democratisation. Here was the NDP supplanting the entire nation, assuming the right to draw up policy on the pretext that it represented the majority. Here was the Policies Committee supplanting the NDP, on the pretext that it had a mandate to formulate its policies and infuse it with new blood. And here was the secretary- general of the Policies Committee supplanting the committee he headed, on the pretext that he was the man in charge of long overdue reform. The whole process led to Gamal Mubarak holding the reins of a party that holds an overwhelming majority in a People's Assembly that holds the right to nominate a single candidate for the presidency. No wonder, then, that the matter of bequeathing the highest political office had become the talk of the country, to the point where the president had to step in and set things right. In an interview remarkable for its candour President Mubarak dispelled the persistent rumours that his son was being groomed to take over.
The nation has followed up the case of the draft- dodging deputies -- subject of the second presidential intervention -- with great interest for several reasons. One was the nation's desire to test the seriousness of the reformers within the NDP. The nation watched as the NDP wasted the opportunity to act fairly in a case that could not have been more cut-and-dry. On 7 December, 2000 the Supreme Constitutional Court issued an historic ruling saying that the completion of military service, or legal exemption therefrom, was an essential condition for membership of the People's Assembly. Those who did not meet this condition could not be members. Yet instead of implementing this ruling the NDP and its government, typically, procrastinated and searched for loopholes.
First the minister of justice asked the Constitutional Court to explain the ruling. Its answer was clear -- performance of, or exemption from, military service was not only a condition of membership, but a condition of candidacy. The candidacy of those who ran for parliament without meeting such a condition was null and void.
The NDP, given to endless manoeuvring, then asked its deputies to tender their resignations so that it might name other NDP members in the vacant districts.
Such behaviour was both illegal and dishonest. Resignation from office is an option for people with an office to hold. Those who tendered their resignation, however, had no right to do so since the courts had annulled their candidacy and, by extension, their parliamentary status. So what exactly were they resigning from? Yet the minister of interior still thought he could open up the ballot papers in the vacant districts without confining the candidates to those who had stood in 2000, as the law and probity, demanded. Appeals went to the Administrative Court against the Interior Ministry's decision. Again the courts ruled that the by-elections must be confined to earlier candidates, excluding those whose parliamentary status had been annulled. Yet the NDP and its government continued the charade, and pursued elections that were legally questionable, and boycotted by many.
In concentrating on the political implications of the affair I do not mean to negate its moral and legal significance. Egypt's political system is clearly in dire straits. The conduct of the NDP underlined its inability to impart credibility to its slogans of reform and dialogue. Had the NDP allowed the elections to proceed legally it would have secured enormous political gains domestically and internationally, even if it had lost each and every seat. But no. The NDP's amazing ability to shoot itself in the foot makes it handle the opposition in the same way Sharon handles security matters -- with total disregard for the consequences.
Appeals have once again been filed with the judiciary, this time contesting not just the legality of the by-elections but of the People's Assembly and all the legislation it may pass. Legal and political commentators are almost unanimous in the view that we have just witnessed a gigantic disaster. This is why President Mubarak felt that something had to be done. He instructed the prime minister to ask the Constitutional Court to give its ruling on the matter. Judging by precedents, the court's ruling is easy to predict. This will not be the first time the Constitutional Court annuls election or declares the People's Assembly illegitimate. The court's ruling, though, is unlikely to save Egypt from the morass into which the NDP has dragged it. Egypt is at crossroads. Accelerated democratisation is its only hope of escape from the debacle that is the nation's political life. It is time Egypt made up its mind once and for all.
* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.