An invited foreign audience at a special session of the NDP conference gave Gamal Mubarak the opportunity to make the case for reform, reports Omayma Abdel-Latif
"When will it be possible to nominate myself for the Egyptian presidential elections?"
Emadeddin Adib, prominent TV pundit, posed the question to Gamal Mubarak during a question and answer session which he moderated at the end of the first day of the NDP's second annual conference. Mubarak was flanked by fellow panelists Finance Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali, head of the NDP's Youth Committee Mohamed Kamal, and Hossam Badrawi, the head of the People's Assembly's Education Committee.
The event was also attended by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, and other NDP leading figures. The purpose of the session was to grill Mubarak and his fellow panelists on their reform agenda.
Last year the NDP inaugurated a tradition of inviting foreign dignitaries to attend the annual event as observers. This year, their involvement was extended to include an open discussion. Those present included diplomats such as American ambassador, David Welch, as well as researchers from European and US think tanks and members of the ruling parties in both France and Germany.
According to one senior party member, NDP pundits wanted to engage a foreign audience in the internal debate over its reform agenda, because at no time has the international context mattered more to the future of democracy in Egypt than it does now. For the past year, the Middle East has been bombarded with reform initiatives originating in both the US and Europe. And last June, the G8 summit gave its blessing to President George Bush's plan for the Greater Middle East with its call for democratic reform across the region.
The session was modelled on the political debates which take place in Western democracies, as Adib repeatedly stressed -- "There are no taboos, ask any question you want." But when Adib asked Mubarak what he described as "the difficult questions" about when all those restrictions which still stand in the way of a true and meaningful democratic process would be lifted, the answers from the podium seemed guarded and evasive. The "difficult questions" -- those to do with abolishing emergency laws, making serious constitutional reforms and limiting the presidential mandate to two terms -- are still in need of an answer.
Mubarak began his response to Adib by acknowledging that "These are matters of concern which it takes time to discuss." But he dismissed concerns over the emergency laws, maintaining that they were only ever implemented in relation to terrorist cases.
"The world faces the threat of terrorism and we have been working hard to combat it," Mubarak told his audience, before adding firmly: "But we will not risk or undermine Egypt's national security by abolishing the emergency laws."
He was, nonetheless, quick to add that most of the military decrees attached to the law have been abolished. "As for the constitutional reforms, we don't dismiss them altogether," he explained, "but we will only introduce the kind of reforms which we really believe can boost Egypt's reform efforts."
When Adib repeated his question about the presidential mandate, Mubarak, with a hint of a smile, responded that, "I see no reason why you should not run for the presidency if you can get two-thirds of the People's Assembly's votes. The laws will protect you, and they will protect any one who wants to run."
While the questions from the floor carefully balanced criticism with expressions of faith in the ability of President Hosni Mubarak's regime to carry out reform, they also voiced concern over the social and political fallout of the NDP's initiatives in this respect. Pascal Drouhaud, head of international relations for the French ruling party, the UMP, asked: "How can reform and stability go hand in hand? Is the new thought a revolution or an evolution?"
"Both," replied Youssef Boutros Ghali. "It is an evolution, in the sense that the process was begun some 20 years ago, but it also carries the notion of a revolution, because it is meant to introduce changes to the system."
Mubarak acknowledged that there is a delicate balance to be achieved between reform and stability. He pointed out that the challenge facing the party and Egypt's political elite was how to introduce reforms without endangering the country's stability. Specifically, he identified two important challenges in that respect: how to develop the popular will for reform, so as "to make NDP members believe in this new intellectual agenda"; and how to sell this agenda to the masses.
"We need to convince the masses of our new thinking and that we are serious about what we are doing," he insisted.
A member of the Washington-based Institute for Middle East Peace and Development put a question about the ways in which the party engages with the opposition. What was the panel's understanding of the concept of a multi-party system, he wanted to know?
This time, it was Mohamed Kamal who responded. "This is not China, and we are not the Communist Party," he said firmly. "Egypt has a multi-party system and there are a sizeable number of legal parties. We believe that the NDP will be stronger if there is a strong and active opposition."
Mubarak agreed wholeheartedly. "We as a party believe that there is not enough competition or challenge coming from the other parties," he declared, before promising that the nature of the electoral process would be radically transformed in the future.
The panel's optimistic tone about the on-going reform process, however, left some doubters unconvinced. One Washington-based researcher posed a question about the party's ability to translate its rhetoric into action.
"If you leave this hall and go out into the streets, you will find that Egyptians are frustrated," she exclaimed. "So why has your optimism not reached down to the average Egyptian citizen?"
Mubarak responded by saying that the questioner was missing the point. "Reform is not just a PR stunt or a device to enhance the party's image," he declared.