A step forward?
Last week's second annual NDP conference revealed the clear predominance of Gamal Mubarak and his reform team. Omayma Abdel-Latif
tries to figure out how democratic their reform agenda might be
To Gamal Mubarak, the chairman of the NDP's Policies Committee and mastermind of the NDP's reform initiative, the question about "the succession issue" came as no surprise. "I have been asked this question many times during the past two years," Mubarak told reporters during a press conference held at the end of the NDP's second annual conference. "But let me say once more -- to put fears to rest -- that we don't accept such a concept and we will not allow it to be part of our agenda."
Last week's high-profile conference provided Mubarak and his reform team with a grand opportunity to affirm their emergence as a powerful new force on the Egyptian political stage. It also raised fresh questions about their exact position on the political power ladder.
As the conference ended, Egypt's chattering classes were busy assessing how much ground the younger Mubarak had managed to gain, and how much of his agenda has been adopted both by the party's rank and file, and the government itself. While most observers now take it for granted that Mubarak has managed to carve out a significant niche for himself on the Egyptian political scene, some are questioning the extent to which that has taken place at the expense of the party's old guard.
Mohamed Kamal, a close aide of Mubarak and a key figure on the reform team who also heads the NDP's Youth Committee, called the obsession over Mubarak's powers "a distortion of the on-going process within the party. He [Gamal Mubarak] is leading a reform movement. Without him none of this could have happened. He is a key player, but it is not just about him. It is about a process," Kamal told Al-Ahram Weekly earlier this week.
Although he acknowledged that it is legitimate to pose questions about Mubarak's influence, he thinks it is only half the story since the focus should be on policies rather than persons. "People should evaluate his performance and that of the party. The reform process should not be personalised."
But opposition forces, which think the NDP should not have a monopoly over reform goals and priorities, see this as a contradiction in terms. "If Mubarak is the one who engineered the change, then you cannot disassociate the process from the person who was behind it -- otherwise this is no more than empty rhetoric," said Amin Iskander of the Al-Karama Party.
Most of the opposition papers chose to heartily ignore the conference proceedings; the minute the meetings ended, however, a barrage of anti-NDP material emerged. Frustrated opposition figures poured scorn on the NDP's formula for change, arguing that the party failed on all accounts to meet the minimum demands outlined by Egypt's opposition and civil society forces. They argued that a reform agenda that is not inclusive of changing the constitution, lifting the emergency laws and limiting the presidential mandate and powers, falls far short of what the country needs at this stage. The main message, said one opposition figure, was that the NDP "was not prepared to relax its power monopoly", and that it only introduced "cosmetic changes" to ease external pressure and project a liberal image.
Independent analysts who spoke to the Weekly shared the opposition's views. "There has been a momentum for change building up in the country for at least the past year, but the NDP did not capitalise on it, and therefore the results ended up being disappointing," Cairo University politics professor Amr Hamzawi told the Weekly. Hamzawi said last year's conference struck a balance between economic and political reform; this year's event saw the economy take precedence over politics, an approach to reform that Hamzawi called outdated. "We witnessed a legitimisation of the discourse which excludes political liberalisation on the pretext that Egyptians are mainly concerned with the economic situation rather than their political rights, and this does not hold a grain of truth."
This was despite the fact that throughout the event, Mubarak and his aides repeatedly said there was no ceiling when it came to reform, and that ''the party does not exclude any issue from the reform agenda, but that there were more pressing priorities."
Defining those priorities is the precise point of contention between the opposition and the NDP. Opposition and civil society forces insist that political liberalisation should go hand in hand with economic liberalisation. Mubarak's close aides, on the other hand, accuse the opposition of obsessing over political issues.
While Kamal acknowledged the importance of issues like constitutional reform and the emergency law, he insisted that the opposition was blowing the matter out of proportion. "This is a very reductionist way of assessing reform," he said. Just because the reform proposal currently on the table does not include those issues, Kamal said, does not mean it is empty rhetoric, because the reform process is just beginning. "This is only one step forward," Kamal said.
But both Hamzawi and Mustafa Kamel El- Sayed, head of Cairo University's Centre for the Study of Developing Countries, said the onus was on the NDP to present the nation with a comprehensive reform package. El- Sayed said the best way to alleviate the political stagnation that has been afflicting the country for two decades was to implement a process of concessions from above by which greater civil and political rights are gradually introduced, at a rate that is not too threatening to the regime. "The changes [that have been] introduced," El-Sayed said, "don't meet the minimum demands, therefore they don't alter the basic rules of the political game in Egypt."
The opposition, meanwhile, has also clearly failed to produce a powerful alternative political force, or for that matter to even engage seriously with the party's reform proposals.
Hamzawi said the opposition's structural deficiencies -- they are socially marginalised and have very little connection with the general public -- meant that they could not be compared to the NDP when it came to playing power politics. One of the main reasons for this, Hamzawi said, was the NDP's long-standing domination of the political and public spheres and its use of the state's mechanisms to strengthen its grip on power. "The NDP is the stronger party in this equation, and it therefore has a moral responsibility to initiate the debate on reform, and define the dynamics of change within the political system."
Kamal said the NDP -- as a matter of principle -- was keen on establishing contact with the opposition and initiating dialogue on issues of concern. Mubarak acknowledged that there were bound to be differences between the ruling party and opposition forces; at the same time, he said, "there could be some common ground to share."
Most observers, however, said the lack of common ground would become even more obvious as the country moves towards two important political events: the end of President Hosni Mubarak's fourth term in office in October 2005, and parliamentary elections that same year.
Some even expressed fears that these kinds of political tensions could soon result in serious problems. "This kind of popular discontent, the high rates of unemployment and soaring poverty levels coupled with the lack of a serious effort to democratise the political system is the best recipe for unrest and the renewal of collective protests," El- Sayed said.