Out with the old
The Soviet moguls of the ruling NDP are being squeezed out of office -- at last, pundits have been saying with audible sighs of relief. Three weeks ago Safwat El-Sherif, ostensibly the biggest mogul of them all, was abruptly removed ("resigned") from the remarkably powerful office of information minister -- a position he had held for 22 years -- and "elected" speaker of the Shura Council, the largely ineffectual consultative upper house.
And now we have a new prime minister who -- at 52 -- is the youngest Egyptian head of government for decades. Ahmed Nazif is widely held to be modern, dynamic, efficient and possessed of considerable personal integrity.
Agriculture Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Youssef Wali, another old-timer (also with 22 years in office under his belt), the bête noire of many previous cabinets, is also out.
A new ministry -- of investment development and the public business sector -- has been created for 39-year old Mahmoud Mohieddin, the rising economic star of the NDP's Policy Secretariat and a babe-in-the-woods by Egyptian cabinet standards. But Kamal El-Shazli, veteran of the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) and its Vanguard Organisation and NDP political wheeler-dealer par excellence, retains his long- held post of minister of state for Peoples Assembly affairs, though with a somewhat truncated portfolio. The affairs of the upper house, the Shura Council, have been handed over to Mufid Shehab, former minister of higher education.
A mixed result, then, as far as the much touted struggle between the NDP's modernist reformers -- mostly gathered in the party's Policy Secretariat, led by Gamal Mubarak-- and the ruling party's old-guard goes. El-Shazli, after all, is much larger than his cabinet post, even in reduced form. As the man mainly responsible for keeping together the highly intricate patronage/client network that is the ruling party he gives new meaning to the concept of party whip. Neither is El-Sherif out of the running yet. He remains secretary-general of the ruling party, though rumour has it not for long.
Others will assess the degree to which the new cabinet shifts the balance between reformers and old-guard, or what it might harbinger of more dramatic shifts to come. (According to a friend much more in the know this is the tip of the iceberg and the next few months will witness "very exciting developments").
That may or may not be. There is, though, an interesting aspect to the reformer/old-guard polarity worth noting. Irrespective of the extent or real substance of the reformists' reforming zeal one cannot help but wonder at the absence of politicians from their ranks.
All things being equal, it is easy to imagine the politically savvy ASU veterans -- ˆ la El- Sherif and El-Shazli -- eating the young reformers whole for lunch. The new prime minister is a case in point. Nazif may well be all the wonderful things people are saying about him but a politician he ain't. And reforming a state is a somewhat different proposition from reforming a corporation or even a government department. The reformist ranks may be full of bright young technocrats but there isn't a real politician among them.
How far this will affect the reformers' political fortunes in the days to come remains to be seen. It is not as serious a flaw as it may seem at first glance, however. All other things are not equal, and -- in any case -- the role of the cabinet in policy-making in Egypt is marginal, and has been so for decades.
I underline the absence of politicians in the latest reshuffle because it is symptomatic of a much larger phenomenon -- the death of politics, of all politics, in Egypt. There is a certain irony in the fact that the only politicians we have left are a moribund and now dying breed of Soviet-style party bureaucrats. What kind of reform can we speak of when a quarter of a century of "liberalisation" has failed to produce any liberal politicians worthy of note? When it has failed to produce political figures of any kind?
The most telling feature of this cabinet change is the way it came about: whispers, followed by press leaks, followed by surprise appointments/removals, followed by more leaks, followed by more appointments/removals, with the nation waiting for the next surprise, or lack of one. Recently the Indian people surprised the world by changing their government. We, on the other hand, are expected to be titillated and then elated when the surprises come from on high.
Having conceded many years ago that we have very little control over our collective fate we've been reduced to a nation of observers -- citizen/ analysts possessed of various degrees of adroitness and left to exercise our analytical skills on a hodge podge of fact and fiction, rumour and bizarre theories (often trussed up as facts) and lately, thanks to the communications revolution, whatever pickings come our way via the world wide web and satellite TV.
So, let me beg the readers' pardon for yawning amid all the excitement, but the only government change I find of interest is one brought about by the people and the only reform that it is worth getting excited about is democratic reform.
The ball remains, as it always has, in our court, in the court of the people.