Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 December 2004
Issue No. 722
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

NDP rallies to defend the QIZ

The People's Assembly was the scene of major debates over the sudden warmth in Egyptian-Israeli relations, next month's national dialogue, and a recent anti-NDP rally. Gamal Essam El-Din reports

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) mobilised its leading figures last week in an effort to combat criticism being levelled at recent government moves promoting bilateral Egyptian-Israeli relations. Addressing a press conference on 15 December, Gamal Mubarak, the 41- year-old son of President Hosni Mubarak and chairman of the NDP's Policies Committee, said strengthening relations with countries like Israel and Turkey is an Egyptian strategic goal in a changing Middle East. "Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel," Mubarak said, indicating that "the relationship with Israel is more a tool aimed at serving Palestinian and Arab causes than an end in itself." He also said discussing the Egyptian-Israeli relationship would be a priority issue for the NDP.

Leading opposition figures from across the political spectrum attributed the government's decision to warm up its relations with Israel to US President George Bush's re- election and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death. The opposition focussed much of its criticism of that shift on the QIZ (Qualified Industrial Zones) agreement that Egypt, Israel and the US signed on 14 December. The main charge is that the agreement marks a strategic shift in favour of strengthening relations with Israel and the US at the expense of Arab relations, and at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Bush are mercilessly killing Palestinians and Iraqis.

The QIZ debate heated up on Sunday morning when nearly 30 MPs, mostly with Islamist and leftist leanings, joined ranks to protest against the deal. They charged the government with not giving an ear to repeated calls that the QIZ deal be put up to open discussion at the People's Assembly. In fact, Nasserist MPs Haider Boghdadi and Hamdeen Sabahi said keeping parliament in the dark about the deal was a breach of the constitution.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal El-Shazli responded by saying that the constitution does not stipulate that the government submits trade deals like the QIZ to the assembly. Citing Article 151 of the constitution, El-Shazli argued that agreements and treaties concluded and signed by the president were the only ones that had to go through the assembly. "The QIZ agreement is an executive protocol that was signed by the industry and foreign trade minister rather than the president. It will only be deposited in the assembly as a document," he said.

The opposition's view was summed up by Muslim Brotherhood MPs Mohamed Mursi and Sayed Hozayen, who called the deal a threat to national security at the expense of Egypt's leading role in the Arab world. Tagammu Party Secretary- General Hussein Abdel-Razeq said the QIZ was catalysed by an NDP belief that improving bilateral relations with Israel would help divert Bush from pushing too hard for greater political reforms in Egypt. Abdel-Halim Qandil, the executive editor of the weekly Nasserist newspaper Al-Arabi, said the QIZ "shows that NDP leaders now believe that being nice to Israel has become a necessity in order to win the US's heart, and avoid its pressure for political reform, especially in as crucial a year as 2005, with its presidential and parliamentary elections."

To allay the opposition's fears, El- Shazli said Industry and Foreign Trade Minister Rasheed Mohamed Rasheed would be available at the assembly on Monday to respond to their QIZ-related questions. Rasheed, however, took the opposition by surprise by appearing at the assembly on Sunday night instead, when he said that there were no secret provisions in the QIZ deal, and that the agreement would not negatively affect Egypt's support for Arab and Palestinian causes. On the other hand, Rasheed said, the QIZ would be beneficial at all levels of the economy. Above all, he said, it would provide a lifeline for Egypt's textile industry, whose assets are valued at LE15 billion, and whose exports to the US market would begin facing fierce competition once the worldwide import quota system expires in January.

President Hosni Mubarak also weighed in on the QIZ during a surprise appearance he made at a meeting of the NDP's Parliamentary Committee on Saturday night. Mubarak said that by investing in peace, the QIZ deal serves Egypt's "supreme national interests". The president said "Egypt would no longer agree to remain a spectator to everything that was going on in the region while others reap all the benefits at the end."

The president also discussed the political and economic bills that the party was planning to submit to the People's Assembly during its current session. Mubarak said it was very important that the assembly debate these bills extensively before they are enacted into laws. "I take it as a healthy sign that bills face criticism from the opposition, because this is part of the multi-party system we encourage."

Gamal Mubarak also weighed in on political pluralism this week, saying the ruling party wanted opposition from across the political spectrum to have a guaranteed right to express their views, even if they took the form of anti-NDP public protests. Commenting on a 12 December public protest where slogans were chanted against the prospect of President Hosni Mubarak running for a fifth term in office, the younger Mubarak said, "we must not take this issue in a sensitive way. This is one of the freedoms we want to reinforce in society, though it must be practised within the limits of law."

Gamal Mubarak also discussed the national dialogue, expected to take place in late January, during which new bills aimed at reinforcing political and economic freedoms will be debated. "The NDP does not want to impose these legislative amendments on the opposition, but we want to reach a common ground with them on what political and economic reforms must take priority in the next period," he said.

Some opposition parties, however, have complained that the NDP was cuddling up to some low-key opposition parties as a tactic to impose its agenda on the dialogue. Last week saw NDP Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif holding meetings with chairmen of three minor parties, a discussion that ended with an announcement that these parties supported the NDP's agenda for reforms, and that amending the constitution, which is a basic opposition demand, was not necessarily a priority.

Tagammu Chairman Rifaat El-Said accused the NDP of green-lighting the Political Parties Committee's recent approval of two new parties "just so that these and other mediocre parties form an alliance with the NDP against a bloc including the opposition's most vociferous parties." This alliance, said El-Said, would then be tasked with ruining the bloc's radical plans aimed at broadening the scope of Egypt's political and constitutional freedoms.

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