Lending an ear
The ruling party and the opposition agree on rejecting "imported reform" but are yet to agree on the domestic variety. Gamal Essam El-Din
On the plane heading to an African summit in Nigeria on 29 January, President Hosni Mubarak told reporters that calls to change the constitution were futile. Mubarak said he would "never submit to those who want to tinker with this nation's interests", nor would he ever "do something that could end up being a black hole in Egypt's history".
The presidential statement could not have taken the 15 opposition leaders who joined the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in a national dialogue conference on Monday much by surprise. Already, they had agreed with the NDP leadership that the question of amending the constitution would not be on the dialogue's agenda. Yet the emphatic tones of the president's statement, and perhaps even more significantly, the arrest of prominent MP and Al-Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour, seemed to signal that the dialogue was being made subject to strict constraints, even before it began.
The NDP's leadership, for their part, did their best to try and allay the opposition's fears by asserting, as NDP Secretary-General Safwat El- Sherif put it, that changing the constitution was not off the table altogether. But that it is a highly "contentious" issue that would have to be tackled over a longer period of time.
Addressing the conference, El-Sherif said political reform was a top priority for the NDP, which agreed that, "the existing constitution requires some kind of amendment". Political reform, however, could still take place within the framework of the constitution as it is, he said, and for that reason, all political forces must abide by the current constitution, especially in a year of presidential and parliamentary polls.
El-Sherif also argued that Egypt's regional weight had always made it the target of rapacious superpowers. Most likely alluding to the United States, he said these superpowers were currently trying to re-ignite a traditional colonial dynamic in the region. "These superpowers," El-Sherif said, "are doing their best to force people in this region to accept a package of reforms aimed more at advancing their interests than meeting the region's indigenous needs."
By delivering this ostensibly patriotic message, El-Sherif was warming up to the idea that the dialogue's basic objective was to rally opposition leaders behind a unified stand against "reforms imported from abroad".
Monday's national dialogue meeting, then, was coloured with this newfound sentiment. As each of the 15 participants was given the floor for 20 minutes to present differing visions on political reform, nearly all of the participants agreed that amending the constitution should be postponed until after the presidential poll. Low-key parties like Al-Geel (Generation), Al-Ahrar (Liberals), Al-Umma (Nation), Al-Khodr (Green), Al- Ittihadi (Unionist), and Al-Takaful (Mutual Support) all took this line. Larger parties like the Wafd and Tagammu also said they agreed on postponing constitutional reform, as long as a committee was formed at the end of the dialogue to prepare the drafting of a new constitution.
Prior to Mubarak's comments, opposition parties had hope -- albeit minor -- that the NDP would eventually move on constitutional reform. Their agreeing to postpone demands for broad and radical constitutional amendments until after next fall's presidential poll was a gesture meant to catalyse a similar one on Mubarak's part, perhaps even a commitment that amending the constitution next year would be a basic priority on the president's election platform. When Mubarak said his platform "is known, and is applied every day. I'm not new to the field, and my achievements constitute my platform," those opposition hopes seemed to have been dashed.
Arab Nasserist Party leader Diaaeddin Dawoud found the NDP's rejection of "imported reforms" fatuous. "If the NDP," he said, "believes that the reforms engineered by America -- which is propping the regime up with $2 billion in economic and military assistance every year -- are unacceptable, and wants to use this dialogue to counter them, then it should lend its ear to the opposition's reform calls instead."
Dawoud said rejecting "the opposition's reforms would only open the door to American intervention, rather than the other way around."
Mona Makram Ebeid, secretary-general of the liberal Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, said that if no agreement on the priorities for the coming period's reform agenda were reached, the dialogue would prove to have been a failure. "This programme should be the result of a common ground between the NDP and opposition on matters of broad political and constitutional reform," she said.
El-Sherif deemed the "NDP's reaction to opposition requests" as generally positive since, he said, the ruling party knew no red lines, and believed everything was liable to change, including the constitution itself. He said the NDP's agenda for the next period would focus on amending four political laws regulating the performance of political parties, the exercise of political rights, the People's Assembly, and professional syndicates. The ruling party, he said, was aiming to establish a code of ethics governing upcoming parliamentary election campaigning.
The meeting ended with the formation of a committee composed of the leaders of the Wafd and Tagammu parties, Noaman Gomaa and Rifaat El-Said, and NDP assistant secretary- general Kamal El-Shazli. "This committee will take charge of setting priorities and designing a timetable for subsequent meetings," El-Sherif said.
Tagammu Party chairman Rifaat El-Said told Al-Ahram Weekly that his party would keep on trying to push the NDP to committing to a timetable for drafting a new constitution. Achieving that would be great, he said, but the party would not "commit suicide" just to do so. In any case, he said, it was not in the NDP's interest to continue to stonewall the opposition's agenda of reforms forever.