Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 June 2004
Issue No. 696
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Reform in the making

The nation awaits news of both the president's health and political reform, report Gamal Essam El-Din and Dina Ezzat

Click to view caption
WIND OF CHANGE: The buzz is that President Mubarak's return will mark the end of Ebeid's government. In this 1999 photo, Mubarak swears in Ebeid as prime minister

A sense of uncertainty dominated the week as President Hosni Mubarak sought medical treatment overseas. Mubarak's sudden trip to Germany on Sunday for possible back surgery and/or physical therapy generated the kinds of concerns last seen in 2003 when the president interrupted his speech before parliament. That he is to be away for an unspecified period of time has compounded the uncertainty.

"We do not know what is going to happen now. We know that the minister of health says the president is suffering from a slipped disc but we do not know what that entails in terms of his health and his stay overseas for medical treatment," said one Cairo taxi driver, who asked for his name to be withheld.

Despite official assurances that the president is in "good health and excellent spirit" many Egyptians approached by Al-Ahram Weekly believe that the president's sudden absence raises questions about the country's political system and has reignited debate over filling the 23-year long vacant post of vice president.

Both supporters and critics of Mubarak are wishing him good health and a safe return to Egypt as soon as possible.

"I was never a strong admirer of his policies but I believe that he offers a good safety valve for the nation. So I wish that he comes back soon and that he and the nation then decide the future together," commented a civil engineer, who requested anonymity.

Like many others, the engineer is keen that the president returns to launch the much trailed process of political reform. Public opinion seems firmly in favour of change which, many argue, should begin with the promised cabinet reshuffle.

"We want to get rid of the current government. We were pleased by promises that this government will go. We hope the president will make good on this promise as soon as possible," commented one civil servant.

Rumours of a radical cabinet shake-up have been surfacing in recent weeks and were confirmed last Friday by Al-Ahram chairman Ibrahim Nafie's scoop: the Atef Ebeid government was expected to resign by the end of June.

Many of the longest serving cabinet members are expected to be among the casualties of the reshuffle, including National Democratic Party (NDP) heavyweights such as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture Youssef Wali, Minister of Information Safwat El-Sherif and Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Kamal El-Shazli.

And speculation that several members of the cabinet's economic team will lose their jobs have met with positive public reaction, as was the expected resignation of Prime Minister Ebeid, blamed by many as responsible for policies that have caused economic hardship for millions of Egyptians.

"But now we have Ebeid as acting president. So what is this supposed to mean? Will or will we not have change?" asked one Egyptian citizen.

Before leaving for Germany President Mubarak made the decision to delegate his constitutional and executive powers to Ebeid, a decision which, according to Cairo University Constitutional Law Professor Yehiya El-Gamal, has no clear constitutional precedents.

While article 82 of the constitution is clear on the matter -- "if on account of any temporary obstacle the President of the Republic is unable to carry out his functions, he shall delegate his powers to the Vice- President" -- the constitution does not specify who should assume presidential powers when there is no vice-president.

The constitutional position of Ebeid having been delegated presidential powers is not, though, a reason for concern. The real concern, many say, is that the move may put on hold the promised re-shuffle and any subsequent reforms.

Yet signs of reform appear to being flashed seriously.

Yesterday Minister of Information and NDP Secretary Safwat El-Sherif acknowledged that he will be quitting the position he has held for 22 years.

"This might be my last day as minister of information," El-Sherif said during an Arab ministers of information meeting at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League.

El-Sherif is expected to be appointed today as Speaker of the generally ineffective Shura Council, replacing Mustafa Kamal Helmi. The move, say well-placed sources, was ordered from Germany by President Mubarak, who is keeping a close eye on developments. Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni was chosen by Mubarak as caretaker minister of information.

Political commentators expect the president's decision will meet with widespread approval from a public that has become increasingly concerned over El-Sherif's overwhelming, and as some argue, unchecked powers.

As Speaker of the Shura Council --even if he keeps his post as NDP secretary general -- El-Sherif will lose much of the influence he wielded until yesterday.

If coupled with a similar re-positioning of Wali, Ebeid and Shazli -- speculation is that they will be appointed to honorary rather than executive posts -- the moves, many agree, could signal the beginning of some real reforms.

Many commentators see the reforming influence of Gamal Mubarak, the 41 year- old son of President Mubarak and chairman of the NDP's influential Policy Secretariat, in the moves. NDP insiders suggest that Gamal is accruing greater prestige within the party and that he may be entrusted with engineering further reforms in the political structure in the near future.

Indeed several members of the Policy Secretariat have been appointed to the Shura Council in recent days, and there is a general consensus that other members, along with NDP reformers backed by Gamal, will feature in a new government.

Political analysts warn, though, that however concerned the public is over the president's health problems, haphazard and sporadic reform measures must be avoided.

"What we need to be thinking of is a holistic reform process," stressed Mohamed El-Sayed Said, deputy chairman of Al- Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Said concedes that it is perfectly legitimate for people to raise questions over the succession and potential candidates for the long-vacant post of vice president.

"But this is not the issue. The issue is that Egypt needs a new constitution that clearly opens the door to further democratisation, including the right to directly elect the president and vice-president," El-Said said. "President Mubarak himself has always been reluctant to impose a vice president on the nation. This is something I agree with. What we need is a new political system and not just a vice president or a new government".

To avoid falling in the trap of cosmetic changes, Said proposes that "as soon as he returns President Mubarak embark upon amending a constitution that has become obsolete and out of touch with the requirements of democratisation".

The new constitution, Said suggested, should involve a trimming of presidential powers. (see p2 & Editorial, p14)

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