Reform agendas in close encounter
A yearlong clash between the ruling NDP and opposition parties over political reform may come to a head when both sides hold major meetings next week. Gamal Essam El-Din
The debate over political reform agendas and Egypt's priorities might heat up a notch next week when both the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and opposition parties hold two separate meetings on democratisation on 21 September. The opposition meeting, being held under the umbrella of the newly- formed "Alliance of National Forces for Reform" will draw representatives of eight opposition parties aiming to mobilise the Egyptian public to press for wide-scale political and constitutional reforms, and an end to the NDP's 26- year monopoly of political life.
The NDP, meanwhile, is wrapping up its preparations for its second annual conference, set to take place from 21-23 September. Before the end of this week, President Hosni Mubarak, in his capacity as NDP chairman, is expected to have gone over the conference's agenda and determined its priorities.
Chaired by Gamal Mubarak, President Mubarak's 41-year-old son, the NDP's Policies Committee held a meeting on Sunday to ensure that the party's leading members were fully aware of the conference's goals. Mubarak said as many as 2,200 members are expected to participate in the conference, a three- day event being held under the slogan "New Thinking and the Priorities of Reform".
Elaborating on the conference's agenda, the younger Mubarak said it would feature a wide variety of political, economic and foreign relations issues. Political issues, he indicated, would top the agenda of the conference's second day, when two important political documents will be discussed.
The first is entitled "Egyptian Citizenship Rights and Democratisation". Although this document, Mubarak said, was drafted by last year's NDP conference, "it will be the subject of serious discussions at this year's conference". The document is akin to a "citizenship contract" detailing the basic rights and duties of individuals, and is meant to encourage citizens to exercise their political rights.
According to Mubarak, the document will show, in simple terms, as many as 19 rights in areas ranging from political to economic, and social to personal. "We will tell citizens that all of these rights are enshrined in the constitution, and that a number of legislative amendments will be passed to activate them," he said.
As for the second document, one part of it deals with other legislative amendments aimed at encouraging political openness, supporting decentralisation, and strengthening the role of non- governmental organisations (NGOs). The other part of the document concerns the regulation of the relationship between citizens and state authorities. The legislative amendments, Gamal Mubarak said, will include three laws: 1956's exercise of political rights law; 1977's political parties law; and 1972's People's Assembly law.
Answering a question about the negative reaction of opposition parties to these amendments, Mubarak said, "the NDP's role as a political party is to formulate national policies and conduct a dialogue on them with all the party's leading members." He said, "this does not mean that we are going to impose these policies on other political forces. We are doing our best to reach a consensus with other parties, and I am sure common ground can be created between the NDP and other rival forces."
Mubarak also expressed hopes that a meeting including leading members of both the NDP and opposition parties be held to boost the momentum of the party's reform initiatives. He also revealed that following the conference, the NDP's parliamentary committee would meet to discuss the list of legislative priorities which will be dealt with by the People's Assembly.
The left-wing Tagammu Party's Chairman Rifaat El-Said had doubts about the NDP's promise to invite opposition parties and civil society organisations to a national dialogue on the party's reform initiatives.
The opposition's new coalition, meanwhile, calls for amending the constitution to both curtail the president's powers and limit him to two terms, as well as scrap the 23-year-old state of emergency, and introduce a radical change of political laws.
Gamal Mubarak, however, emphasised that amending the constitution was by no means included in the "Egyptian Citizenship Rights and Democratisation" document. Mubarak described the document as being limited to "just introducing a series of legislative amendments to a number of political laws".
Mubarak indicated that his Policies Committee would play a cardinal role in mobilising party members in advance of next year's presidential referendum and parliamentary elections. "The Policies Committee will also have a role in crystallising the NDP's platform and election campaign," he said. He also indicated that the Policies Committee had not been created to exercise overall hegemony over the NDP. "I want to emphasise that the Policies Committee was not created to be the party's sole player, but primarily to create a kind of well-organised and institutional system of work within the NDP's ranks," Mubarak said.
He also indicated that the NDP nominating him for next year's parliamentary elections was out of the question, at least for the time being.
Mubarak also revealed that the conference's first night would feature an unprecedented event -- "a dialogue session between some of the party's high- ranking members and foreign guests from Arab and Western countries."
Informed sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the NDP extended invitations to a large number of political and academic figures and human rights activists. These, sources added, belong to American and European think-tanks (like the Washington-based Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute), Arab parliaments and political research centres.
Discussions are expected to focus on US President George Bush's Middle East Partnership Project aimed at advancing democratisation in the region. Prominent Egyptian scholars such as Al- Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies Director Abdel-Moneim Said and Osama El-Ghazali Harb, editor of International Politics journal, are also expected to participate.
Gamal Mubarak said the conference's economic agenda would also be discussed on the first day, which is scheduled to "begin with the NDP's secretary-general and his assistant delivering two speeches about the party's general performance in 2003/2004. Later, the Policies Committee chairman will deliver a review of NDP-proposed economic reforms."
These will cover tax and customs reform, fiscal reform and privatisation of public sector banks, as well as fighting poverty, and creating a more investment-friendly climate.
Mubarak, however, said that with Egypt's population expected to hit 94 million by 2014, the conference would focus on the delicate issue of "conserving agricultural land".
A paper prepared by the NDP on this matter, he said, will suggest that strenuous efforts be exerted to spread the population out over a larger area of land (rather than the 2.5 per cent of the country's land area on which most people now live). "This will arise either through creating new desert communities or by adopting other methods," he said.
In response to a question by the Weekly about whether last week's economic measures reflect an American agenda, Gamal Mubarak said the NDP's strategy is that Egypt's foreign relations be adjusted to serve the country's development needs. "In economic development, we said we have to focus on our main trade partners: the US and the European Union. Having strategic relations with these two blocks is very important for Egypt. In this respect, we have ten programmes for cooperation with the United States, all of them aimed to serve Egypt's domestic needs."
Most opposition parties, however, believe that maintaining strategic relations with the US has largely marginalised Egypt's central role in Middle East politics and the Arab world.