A question of priorities
Opposition parties wholeheartedly rejected the relatively progressive amendments proposed by the NDP to some key political laws. Gamal Essam El-Din
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One of the NDP billboards propagating that average citizens are the party's main concern
"A setback to democracy," was Al- Wafd 's headline on Sunday, summarising the opposition's reaction to the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) three-day conference, which ended on 23 September. According to the liberal-oriented party's head, Noman Gomaa, the NDP conference was a setback to democracy not only because it ignored the opposition's key demands for amending the constitution and abolishing the state of emergency, "but also because the conference took place with the ruling party aiming to control and terrorise other parties."
Gomaa said the conference was mainly orchestrated to highlight Gamal Mubarak's role. The 41-year-old son of President Hosni Mubarak and chairman of the NDP's Policies Committee "was flanked by dozens of new princes", Gomaa wrote, "more ready to dialogue on women's rights than on the country's political structure... [since] changing the latter would mean the end of their power and influence."
Leftist Tagammu Party Secretary- General Hussein Abdel-Razeq said, "the NDP conference said no to amending the constitution, no to abolishing the state of emergency and no to conducting free and competitive presidential elections." At the same time, he said, the party's Rights of Citizenship and Democratisation document failed to respond to the opposition's demands on key political reforms. "This document even imposed new restrictions on political parties like obliging parties to inform the Political Parties Committee of their sources of funding on a periodical basis," Abdel-Razeq said.
Gamal Mubarak led the conference's discussions of the Rights of Citizenship and Democratisation document. He said its major objective was to respond to sceptics who argue that the present constitution has to be amended because it is no longer valid. "This document is aimed at explaining why the present constitution guarantees citizens access to a lot of rights. It shows that citizens can enjoy as many as 19 rights in areas ranging from political to economic, social to personal."
The political rights Mubarak spoke of were based on proposed amendments to four key political laws: the parties law; the law on the exercise of political rights; the People's Assembly law; and the professional syndicates law.
Arab Nasserist Party Chairman Diaaeddin Dawoud dismissed the NDP's political legislative amendments as a whole lot of "nothing". Dawoud told Al-Ahram Weekly that the opposition believes that all the "infamous political laws" that were passed during late President Anwar El-Sadat's presidency must be repealed as a necessity for "creating a healthy political life". Dawoud said, "all these laws, in addition to the constitution itself, were tailored in the 1970s to give Sadat sweeping powers over political life. The NDP's amendments of these laws are merely cosmetic."
As such, Dawoud said, his "party was not ready to join a dialogue between the NDP and opposition parties on such cosmetic amendments".
The 31-page Rights of Citizenship and Democratisation document is divided into three chapters covering the NDP's viewpoint on political reform, its initiatives for stimulating public participation in political life, and the proposed legislative amendments of these key political laws. In the first chapter, the NDP emphasises that it strongly believes in respecting human rights, wider participation in political life, freedom of speech, and allowing civil society organisations a wider role. The party also emphasises its respect for the rule of law, as well as its desire to modernise Egypt's cultural infrastructure by boosting the principles of tolerance, enlightenment and scientific thinking.
The document's second chapter provides an overview of two years of party attempts to adopt a series of bold reform initiatives. "These included setting up a national commission on human rights, scrapping state security courts, abolishing hard labour penalties and some military orders, setting up family courts and amending the nationality law." The next phase, according to the document, will feature an all-out NDP effort meant to help women occupy judicial posts and enable all citizens to obtain the new "National Number" identity card. "By August 2004, 24 million citizens had obtained this new card. The remaining 16.4 million citizens should obtain this new card by the end of 2005." Standardising ID cards would help ensure the integrity of elections, the document says. In a similar vein, it also discusses the necessity of improving public services, upgrading the performance of the judicial system, and improving the relationship between citizens and security forces."
Explaining the third chapter to the conference audience, Gamal Mubarak said amending the political parties law would help political activists seeking to form parties. "The make- up of the Political Parties Committee will be changed to include three judicial figures and three independent observers," Mubarak said. Although the Shura Council chairman as well as the ministers of interior and parliamentary affairs would still be members of the committee, it would now be obliged to respond to those applying to form a party within 90 days. "If it failed to do so, the party would be considered legitimate," Mubarak said. The amendment, however, also stipulates that parties are obliged to inform the committee of their sources of funding on a periodical basis.
Mubarak claimed that the amendments being proposed for the law regulating the exercise of political rights fulfilled a key opposition demand since "it approves, for the first time, the setting up of a higher electoral commission to be entrusted with supervising parliamentary elections from A to Z. This committee will be in charge of upgrading voter registration lists, regulating electoral campaigning and redrawing the boundaries of constituencies."
This very same amendment, however, was criticised by the opposition for its placement of two cabinet ministers (justice and interior) at the head of this commission. "We want a fully independent committee, just like in India, not this one, which is dominated by cabinet ministers," said Abdel- Razeq.
On the conference's last day, a group of opposition figures representing liberals, Nasserists, Marxists and Islamists held a parallel conference, which basically accused the ruling party of skirting around key political changes and insisting on monopolising political life.