Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 June 2005
Issue No. 746
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'Change or be changed'

Those who do not rise to the challenge of reform will simply be left behind, says Alieddin Hilal, leading member of the NDP and one of the party's main proponents of reform, in a comprehensive interview with Hani Shukrallah

"Mark my words: Egypt is pregnant. Great change lies ahead, and the problem is that we as a society have yet to assimilate the depth and profundity of what is taking place today in our country"

The National Democratic Party has said repeatedly it has a comprehensive vision for political reform, yet many people feel this vision remains vague and lacks any time frame for implementation. How would you comment?

The vision of a political party is ultimately an expression of an internal dialogue within that party that has led to a consensus. It is not a matter of issuing a comprehensive policy document: this is the easiest thing in the world but a policy document unsupported by party consensus is worthless.

I would point out in this respect that the NDP has been engaged in an intensive and evolving internal dialogue over Egypt's future since 2000. This evolution is demonstrated, for instance, in the fact that the document issued in 2002, at the party's eighth congress, made no direct reference to political reform, focusing instead on social and economic reform. Yet by 2003 the first annual conference of the NDP began talking of political reform and issued a policy paper on "The Rights of Citizenship and Democracy".

The first two pages of that paper speak of "the challenge of political participation", including the recognition that Egyptian citizens have yet to sufficiently feel the benefits and results of economic reform. Then there is the talk of a comprehensive concept of reform. This was the first time the party publicly said that it is no longer acceptable to speak of economic reform first, asserting that there was an immediate need to deal with political, economic and social reform as an integrated package.

The 2003 document also outlined the most salient aspects of its concept of political reform. Topping the list was the need to revive and reinvigorate the concept of citizenship. This is an essential prerequisite of reform as understood by the NDP, and it is a result of the conclusion that ideas of citizenship have, both directly and indirectly, been suffering a certain corrosion. There are many reasons for this, including the rise of political currents which prioritise religious identity over the principle of citizenship.

The ideological and political perspective of the NDP is based on an understanding that it is the citizen who must be central to any process of reform. The centrality of citizenship implies that political reform involves more than constitutional and legislative reform. It emphasises the sovereignty of the citizen, and hence the need to assert the citizen's awareness of his/her political rights.

The second salient element of political reform as envisioned by the NDP in its 2003 paper concerned modernising the relationship between the citizen and the state. For the first time the NDP considered reconstituting the relationship between the Egyptian citizen and the police, for instance, as a constitutive element of political reform.

To modernise the relationship between citizens and state bodies may not sound very exciting, a matter worthy of front page coverage, but it is a vital element of reform; to enable ordinary citizens to pursue their day-to-day dealings with state bodies without having recourse to favouritism or bribery is no mean achievement. A healthy and positive relationship between the citizen and the state is the real expression of national belonging, and it is of paramount concern to most citizens.

The third element of political reform as envisioned by the 2003 paper concerned legislative reform. Since then the NDP has set itself the task of reforming a raft of legislation organising the political life of the country. This includes the electoral law, the Peoples Assembly law, the law on the exercise of political rights and the political parties law among others. The legislative dimension of political reform also includes ideas on how to empower civil society and decentralise the administration.

Having put forth its vision for political reform, the party then embarked on putting it into effect. The results were apparent in the second annual conference of the NDP in September 2004, which issued two documents. The first, "The Rights of the Egyptian Citizen", is tantamount to a human rights declaration. In 20 pages this document set forth 19 basic rights enshrined in the constitution, including the right to life, the right to prohibition of torture, the rights to health, education, work as well as the right to form political parties and associations; in short, it covered the gamut of civil and political rights.

In the preamble the party explained the reasons for its reaffirmation of rights already established by the constitution. The first of these was to raise the awareness of citizens so that they might uphold and defend their rights. Secondly, it aimed to set a yardstick against which the policies and practices of NDP governments might be judged and evaluated.

The second document issued by the 2004 conference was "The Rights of Citizenship and Democracy". It sought to develop the ideas put forward in the paper of the same title of the year before. This document did not assess the situation but focussed instead on what has been achieved. In doing so we were effectively saying, 'last year we pledged to deal with political reform in the following manner, and this is the balance sheet'. For instance, we spoke in 2003 of improving the relationship between citizens and the police. A year later we noted in detail what has been achieved in this regard, as for example the efforts made by the Interior Ministry in facilitating citizens' acquisition of work permits abroad, or its efforts to update and rectify voter registers.

The paper also dealt in considerable detail with the legislative component of political reform. We identified four laws for amendment, setting out the main features of such amendments, including a provision for establishing a supreme electoral committee, the amendment of the People's Assembly law and political parties law.

There were, in addition, concrete and detailed suggestions regarding administrative decentralisation and the empowerment of civil society. As such, the document further crystallised and concretised ideas contained in the 2003 paper.

Let me also draw your attention to the last paragraph of this document, which was the subject of intense debate at the 2004 congress. This paragraph underlines the NDP's resolve to pursue the path of political reform on the understanding that the constitutional and legislative framework then in place does not pose an obstacle to reform measures. Yet it asserts at the same time that this framework may be subject to revision if and when circumstances make this necessary. This was a signal that the NDP, as early as 2004, had committed itself to the possibility of amending the constitution.

In answer to your question of whether the NDP is in possession of a vision for political reform, I would say yes, definitely. But I must point out as well that the NDP is a large party, and is also a governing party, which means that it has to act in a cumulative, evolving manner; it needs to elaborate ideas, formulate them as programmes and then work towards implementing them.

As for the time frame for putting reform programmes into effect -- this is not the same thing as having a vision for reform. It depends on a whole set of conditions being in place -- for instance, the modernisation of prevalent cultural structures, which is an integral part of political reform. The values of progress, national resurgence, as well as of science, collective action, dialogue, tolerance and solidarity, all of which are crucial in democratisation, must be spread.

Certainly, there have been reservations expressed about the speed with which this NDP reform vision has been implemented, some of which is justified and some which is not. The party did talk in 2004 of amending specific laws, and did in fact embark on introducing these amendments the following year. Work is progressing on amending three out of four laws the NDP promised would be amended, and the new legislation is to be put before parliament soon. The one piece of promised legislation which was postponed was the law concerning professional syndicates, and the reason for this is that no consensus could be reached between the syndicates themselves, our partners in this process, over the shape of the new law.

Furthermore, when President Mubarak called for the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution, he pointed out that the amendment would be followed by other steps.

I believe that in the five years following the presidential and legislative elections we will see the door opening wide to further steps along the path of political reform. This is a natural progression that should take place on the basis of a national consensus and, of course, within a particular time frame.

But we should not insist on a specific timetable, because to do so carries undemocratic implications. It is imperative that political reform be based on national consensus.

But what of the events on referendum day, 25 April? How do these tally with such a commitment?

Certainly, two regrettable incidents occurred on that day, but we must put this in perspective. These incidents took place in one governorate, Cairo, out of the country's 26 governorates, and at two sites, before the Press Syndicate and the Saad Zaghloul Mausoleum. We should not forget, however, that there were 45,000 polling stations operating, out of which only about 30 saw any problems. So the referendum, in the end, can be characterised as having been calm, with problems occurring in less than 1 per cent of polling stations.

What this means is that we are not speaking of a phenomenon, but of particular incidents. We might also note that many similar demonstrations have been held at the same site, the Press Syndicate, before and since 25 April, without incident.

Having said this, let me state in unequivocal terms that what happened on 25 April at the Press Syndicate and the Saad Zaghloul Mausoleum must be condemned politically. They were criminal acts and abhorrent in moral terms.

The NDP, especially in the context of its new thinking, cannot and will not condone methods that involve violence and thuggery.

You speak of spreading a culture of democracy. But is there not a contradiction between the modernist, liberal discourse adopted by the NDP in the economic sphere, and its political discourse, which remains close to the totalitarian idiom of the Arab Socialist Union? This was particularly notable in the NDP's management of the debate on the referendum, characterised by a high degree of intolerance, including accusations of treason hurled at its opponents.

There are differing perceptions of this matter and they vary from one person to another. But if we are to speak of facts -- even if we disagree on their interpretation -- then we have to acknowledge that many leading members of the NDP have engaged in televised, open and public dialogue with major opposition figures, including those who called for the boycott. These TV programmes gave a wide platform to all views, including those of the opposition.

And let me here make what I believe is a very important point. All Egyptian political parties are patriotic parties working within the framework of the constitution. All of us, the majority party and the opposition, are in one boat, sailing towards the future, seeking political and economic progress and stability. All of us share in the desire to see this journey through to the end.

Mark my words: Egypt is pregnant. Great change lies ahead, and the problem is that we as a society have yet to assimilate the depth and profundity of what is taking place today in our country. Times of great change such as those we are living through are also times of confusion. On occasion the rules of the game become blurred and there is a great deal of discrepancy in the degree to which various people are able and willing to accept that change is afoot.

It is perhaps this kind of situation that made the great Chinese reformer Deng Ziao Ping say something to the effect that to open your windows wide you must expect some flies to enter.

In all events, we need to be armed with a great deal of tolerance and perseverance. We need to understand that democratic development in any society involves a major process of reeducation.

Allow me to make a small detour here, and this is to touch on the NDP's media profile. In an age of spin-doctors the NDP appears on occasion to lack media savvy. Party and government officials often seem to be speaking off the cuff, and make contradictory statements.

Let me acknowledge that the NDP does face a challenge in so far as its media discourse is concerned. However, within the party there is increasing recognition of the importance of upgrading its media performance. Already, a number of names have been suggested by the party leadership to act as spokespersons for the party.

Moreover, there is no longer any sensitivity with regards to party representatives appearing on any of the satellite TV channels, irrespective of the position these channels may have towards Egypt or the NDP.

There is a positive development, even if we might disagree over just how positive it has been. It remains to be said, and admitted, that the NDP has a problem with regards to the print media. This is a matter for reflection.

More generally, we must take note of the fact that the process of political reform and development in Egypt is characterised by features quite different from, say, what took place in Russia, where there was a drastic break with the former political system, the collapse of one regime and the construction of another. The change was dramatic and swift.

In Egypt, on the other hand, the political leadership, under both President Sadat and under President Mubarak, takes the initiative and responds to domestic, regional and international transformations by putting forward ideas for change. The state is maintained and there is an overlapping of ideas, of the old and the new.

Admittedly, we cannot claim that the new thinking has fully penetrated all strata and sections of the NDP.

The NDP is the product of a particular legacy. As the direct descendent of the Arab Socialist Union it has been the party of the state for over 50 years. As someone who is identified with the reformist trend within the NDP, how do you envisage its transformation into an effective political tendency within Egyptian society, distinct and separate from the state?

This is an important question. Indeed, such a transformation is a precondition for Egypt's political development. It is easier said than done, however. For you face the legacy of 50 years' intertwining of the political body with the executive.

Had it been merely a legislative legacy it would be easy to deal with. But this legacy has been ingrained in the awareness of citizens and of many leading members of the NDP. How then can we work to effect such a separation? The opposition press often calls for separating the presidency and the executive on the one hand and the party on the other. But such a step could easily be reduced to a stage play. Let us assume that President Mubarak declares tomorrow that he is no longer leader of the NDP. Would this change anything? I don't believe that it would change a thing. This is not about symbolic measures which change nothing.

In legal terms all political parties have the same status. The legal status of the NDP is no different to that of the Wafd or Tagammu or any other party. All are, from a legal point of view, private institutions, irrespective of whether or not they have members in government. As such, party membership, including that of the NDP, does not provide those who hold it with executive power in any shape or form. This is something that some NDP members may be unable to comprehend fully but it is the real status as established by the law.

Having said this, it is true that we need to do more to raise awareness within the NDP that the party, as a political body, is distinct from both the executive and the legislative branches of government.

Cumulative measures need to be taken in order to deepen and underline this understanding. For example, we must work to ensure the implementation of what has been agreed upon in allowing equal opportunities for all candidates, whether in presidential or legislative elections, to express their views through the media. We need to ensure also that they enjoy equal access to public facilities for the purpose of campaigning. We need to ensure adherence to the code of ethics agreed between the NDP and the opposition parties that government ministers and other officials should clearly demarcate their activities as government officials and their activities as party members. Government facilities should not, under any circumstance, be used for campaigning purposes by ruling party officials.

It has become apparent that there are different currents within the NDP. There has been speculation over internal struggles in the party. Yet all this remains opaque, subject to rumour and conjecture. Wouldn't you agree that this lack of transparency is yet another feature of a Soviet-style legacy?

The NDP, as I said before, is a large party, heir to several intellectual and political legacies. Furthermore, the party includes different sections and people of diverse political and ideological backgrounds, all of which makes for a complex series of discourses. Some NDP leaders joined the party as recently as 2000, while others have 30 to 35 years of political experience.

What this means is that the party brings together people of widely different political backgrounds and this is inevitably reflected in differences of view. And this is a healthy phenomenon.

The problem is how to maintain the party as such a broad-based organisation and not allow this to hamper its effectiveness or its ability to eventually reach a consensus.

What I can say with certainty is that the wheels of change in Egypt are turning a lot faster now, especially after the president's initiative to amend Article 76.

Elections are taking place throughout the region; we are living in times when the horizon is open, when sources of information are multiplying almost daily. Egypt does not intend to stay apart from all of this. The desire for change is compelling, and this is something all political leaders, within the NDP and outside it, must confront. They must rise to the challenge. Those who do not change will be changed, or simply left behind.

The NDP leadership has reiterated its rejection of religious-based parties. But what if the Muslim Brotherhood which, whether we like it or not, is the major political opposition in the country, were to abandon theocratic slogans such as "the Qur'an is our constitution". Can you see any circumstances in which it will be allowed legal access to the political arena?

The stability of any political system is based on its ability to represent the diverse political forces within society. As such a political system needs to act to bring about the inclusion of all political currents, as long as they respect the constitution.

On the other hand, religion is a point of reference for all of Egypt's political parties. They all uphold the constitution which stipulates that Egypt is an Islamic state and that Islam is the main source of legislation. The prevalent point of view, to which I personally subscribe, is that it is inappropriate to allow for the establishment of a political party the political discourse of which is religious rather than civic. How can I engage in political debate with a person who is holding the Qur'an aloft? Faced by the Qur'an I can only bow my head in homage.

The main opposition parties have withdrawn from the national dialogue. What gestures, if any, does the NDP intend to make to entice them back?

As I have pointed out before I believe that we are, all of us, in the same boat, and just as there are issues of contention between the political parties there are also issues that bring them together. All are working for the public good. All are patriotic. To bandy accusations of treason or lack of patriotism serves nobody, and the only way to resolve differences is through democratic dialogue.

I am certain that the national dialogue will continue, and while we may come up against disagreements on occasion, we will always find ways to compromise, so that together we can steer our country towards a peaceful transition.

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