Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 December 2004
Issue No. 719
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Opposition on the offensive

The political reform gap between opposition parties and the ruling NDP will probably widen when the two sides meet for a national dialogue. Gamal Essam El-Din reports

The campaign for greater political reform and democratisation will shift into high gear when the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) meets an alliance of opposition parties for a national dialogue next month. The year-long debate that preceded this dialogue heated up this week at an opposition party alliance public rally on Tuesday, where opposition forces said they would meet the NDP only if the dialogue was held in public and covered by state-owned TV and the press.

The opposition also slammed the Interior Ministry for twice rejecting their request to hold a public rally in a downtown Cairo square in November. Although the alliance has decided against going to court to seek permission to hold the rally, leftist Tagammu Party Chairman Rifaat El-Said told the meeting that, "we will leave the door open for NDP officials to have second thoughts and give [us] the green light."

The NDP, said El-Said, was using the emergency law to prevent the opposition from practising their constitutional rights. "Banning the rally provides new proof that the emergency law is being used by NDP officials to impose a siege on the opposition. It refutes their allegation that the emergency law is only meant to combat terrorism and drug trafficking," he said.

The national dialogue idea first emerged from the upper echelons of the NDP more than a year ago; it only gained momentum, however, over the past few weeks. Addressing parliamentary journalists on 23 November, NDP Secretary-General Safwat El- Sherif indicated that the dialogue would finally take off next month. "The dialogue's blueprint has been finally set," El-Sherif said, "and its agenda will primarily focus on two political reform issues: the amendment of three political laws (1977's political parties law, 1956's exercise of political rights law, and 1972's People's Assembly law); and the need to forge a code of ethics between the NDP and opposition parties on election campaigns."

At the end of the NDP's first annual conference in September 2003, President Hosni Mubarak invited opposition parties to a national dialogue which would pave the way for the establishment of a code of ethics regulating the performance and activities of political forces, and enhance the principles of competition and campaigning at the same time. Shortly thereafter, the NDP's El-Sherif and his assistant Kamal El-Shazli began preparing for the first stage of the dialogue. This included holding individual meetings with the chairmen of eight opposition parties.

By early 2004, NDP officials claimed that the meetings had succeeded in reaching a common ground with opposition parties over political reforms. No further steps, however, were then taken towards holding the proposed national debate in public.

Frustrated by what they called the NDP's procrastination, prevarication, and unilateralist approach to political reform, opposition leaders met in September to issue a statement, which said that they had decided to work together to push the wheel of political reform forward. A committee was set up to prepare a manifesto as well as a political reform programme. The eight opposition parties decided to call their new front "an alliance for reform".

Nearly simultaneously, an umbrella group of some 26 human rights and civil society organisations formed the Popular Campaign for Reform. The umbrella includes a disparate mix of official and unofficial groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Nasserists and the "free liberals".

By 21 September, the opposition had come up with a detailed political reform programme. According to Amr Hashem Rabie, a political researcher with Al-Ahram's Political and Strategic Studies Centre, it was the first of its kind in modern Egypt. "Because it is a very ambitious programme, it severely polarised positions, and widened the gap between the NDP and the opposition," Rabie said.

He argued that the opposition must have been "catalysed by international, and especially American, pressure for democratising the Middle East, and decided to unite, break old political taboos and go to unprecedented extremes in calling for political reform."

Rabie said the opposition's programme is so comprehensive and radical that it calls for amending the constitution, curtailing the president's powers, and bringing an end to the 23-year-old state of emergency. Among the opposition's other demands: the establishment of a higher judiciary committee to supervise elections; the abrogation of the current political parties law to open the door wide for all citizens to freely establish parties; legislating the right to organise public demonstrations and protests; and ensuring the independency of professional syndicates, labour unions and NGOs. The opposition also asked that the People's Assembly's supervisory powers be reinforced to make it more effective and capable of withdrawing confidence from the government and amending the budget. It also stressed that the media, and especially national newspapers, be freed of any government control.

In their meeting last Tuesday, representatives of the opposition alliance vowed that, "they would never compromise on the proposed national dialogue." The political positions they would adopt during the dialogue with the NDP, they said, would stem from the agenda they embraced at the 21 September meeting. "The opposition will never accept that this dialogue becomes a cosmetic matter, nor will they accept the rubber-stamping of amendments of laws proposed by the NDP," said El-Said, who is also a member of the consultative Shura Council.

"The NDP will be the biggest loser," he said, "if its leaders stick to the meagre reforms they suggested." According to El- Said, "the opposition will never tolerate that Egypt again witness the rigging of parliamentary elections, or that elections turn out to be a farce."

A message had been sent to El-Sherif, he said, asking for his response to their demands before the opposition alliance meet next Tuesday at the Wafd Party headquarters.

Rabie said it was good that the opposition appeared to be toughening up on their demands for political reform," but the problem is that at the last moment, their parties accept what the NDP proposes."

Indeed, El-Said had said that in spite of the wide gap with the NDP, the opposition "will leave the door open".

In his meeting with parliamentary journalists, El-Sherif said the national dialogue was on track. "I received phone calls from seven party leaders telling me they will attend the dialogue," he said. The NDP secretary- general said amendments of political laws will not be one of the subjects discussed by the national dialogue, which will be "about public political issues. The opposition will have a say on new legislative amendments only after they are finally endorsed by the government."

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