If and when it is legalised, Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) will be the first-ever Egyptian political party with a Coptic woman as its secretary-general. Fatemah Farag
speaks to Mona Makram Ebeid
There has been no shortage of explanations for the vacuity of Egyptian political life: resignation; the quiet before the storm; the pragmatism of the powerless. Mona Makram Ebeid -- former parliamentarian, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, head of the Association for the Advancement of Education (AAE) and veteran political activist -- has her own multifaceted understanding of the persistent barrenness of political life in the country. The reasons include US policies in the region, a contrived multiparty system, the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, poverty, cronyism and official corruption.
While this may be a formidable list, Ebeid is convinced "the time is ripe for change."
Two months ago, as veteran MPs Ayman Nour and Farid Khamis were setting up a new political party they had decided to call Al-Ghad, (Tomorrow), they asked Ebeid to become the party's secretary-general -- if and when they succeeded in obtaining official approval for the party.
It is a challenge she has accepted. "If we are to restore hope, build a future for our young and growing populations, address the frustration, tension and humiliation that is seething among the peoples of the region," she said, "we must be pro-active, express the concerns of these people and encourage them to participate in public life." Ebeid has defined her place at the forefront of those willing to take action.
The choice of Ebeid as secretary-general of the new party is loaded with symbolism. In picking the granddaughter of Makram Ebeid Pasha, the most renowned Coptic politician in modern Egyptian history and Wafd Party secretary-general between 1936 and 1942, it would seem that Al-Ghad is eager to recapture the spirit of the old Wafd. "Yes it is keeping within the tradition of the old Wafd, but in the modern world the symbol chosen is a woman," quips Ebeid.
The current Wafd is deemed to have veered way off the track of it's pre-1952 heritage. Al-Ghad founder, Nour, is a former Wafdist who resigned due to disagreements with Wafd Party head Noaman Gomaa.
"Of course," said Ebeid, "Al-Ghad is a response to what the Wafd has become. No'man Gomaa killed the Wafd and the party can no longer find itself." She noted the Nasserist/Islamist tone of the party's daily paper. Twenty years ago, Ebeid and others attempted to "rejuvenate the [Wafd] party, but we were unable to do so. Not enough young people and an aged leadership were discouraging factors," she said.
"We need to update the liberal vision of the Wafd, established 70 years ago; to re-interpret it using modern discourse and idiom." In a position paper on Al-Ghad, Ebeid wrote that, "a powerful wave of nostalgia has emerged for the liberal 'moment' in Egyptian politics (from the 1920s through to the 1952 revolution), for its vibrant political life, the lively press of the time [and] for the liberal culture."
The basic outlines of Al-Ghad's platform are support for a free market economy with a social justice component, democracy, empowerment of women, freedom of expression, human rights and the rule of law.
According to Ebeid, it is a liberal programme aimed at "building a strong Egyptian society, based on economic prosperity, intellectual creativity and political liberties". Liberal ideology "is a way of life," she said. "It must be flexible, but adhere to certain fundamental principles such as equality, democracy, and human rights."
As such, Ebeid is able to argue for both laissez faire economies and social justice in the same breath. "I believe capitalism should be free but, in order to survive, it needs a social dimension. What we need is production, [and] businessmen like [Banque Misr founder] Talaat Harb. And we need to restore the spirit of volunteerism. Our principal university [now, Cairo University] was built through the donation of a princess's jewels. Not all the capitalists of the pre- 1952 era were walking around with a whip. I cannot think of any industrialist [of the time] who did not have his hand in hospitals, schools and other philanthropic work," she said.
Not every aspect of the party's liberal programme can be that easily explained, however. One problematic is the call for an open relationship with the West. "Today, moderates like those involved with Al-Ghad are in a fix," Ebeid said. "We can't defend what the US is doing, nor do we want to cut ourselves off from all that is positive in the West, such as technological advancement."
In the meantime, issues such as education -- and the necessity of English-language training -- are major concerns for Ebeid, who, in her capacity as head of AAE, will be opening a computer centre in Shubra this week.
Although a great many Egyptians -- and especially those under 40 -- may have little actual awareness of the old Wafd's legacy, Ebeid asserts that Al-Ghad's message has mass appeal. "Every time I go to our weekly rally in [the Cairo district of] Bab Al- Shaariya, I am struck by the increasing number of people who come to listen, and by the proportion of women and young people among the audience," Ebeid said. "Change is inevitable -- not because of Bush, but because people want to start participating in governance."
Ebeid played a prominent role in the drawing up of the political section of the much touted Alexandria Declaration on Arab reform, issued by the Arab Reform Conference held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina last March. Despite the fact that Al- Ghad's application has thus far been rejected twice by the governmental Political Parties Committee, Ebeid is convinced of the seriousness of "what was said about reform [at the conference]. There were no red lines put on our discussion and everyone spoke their minds. And Al-Ghad espouses the ideals of reform that were endorsed by the Declaration."
But since the political party scene in Egypt is so feeble, why are Al-Ghad's founders so anxious to establish yet another political party. One answer is that they believe they have a popular base. "This is the initiative of concerned citizens, and not an imposed structure," Ebeid said. "And people are not apathetic, they just need hope that change is possible. Ayman Nour has a target of one million members, and while we are not there yet, the response so far is very encouraging. I should know, as I campaigned in both 1983 and 1987 in the working-class district of Shubra, and people today are ready to participate."
At the end of the day, Al-Ghad's future hangs on the skewed scales of the Political Parties Committee. Until the decision on its legality is made, Ebeid is adamant about the party's genesis: Al-Ghad is "not a response to George W Bush's initiative on democracy in the Middle East", she said. "This is a homegrown answer to a decadent political order, and it rides on a powerful historical current."