Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 March 2006
Issue No. 786
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

"I fear for Egypt"

Osama El-Ghazali Harb tells Amira Howeidy why he resigned from Gamal Mubarak's NDP Policies Committee

A crime to be silent

No music in the park

For a week Egypt's political circles have spoken of little except Osama El-Ghazali Harb's bombshell resignation from Gamal Mubarak's influential Policies Committee of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Harb, who is the editor of Al-Ahram's quarterly Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya (International Politics), joined the newly- created committee at the invitation of its chairman, President Hosni Mubarak's younger son Gamal, three years ago.

In 2002 the committee was being hyped as the ruling party's "throbbing heart," its tool for turning "new thoughts" into reality and "crystallising a clear political vision on all national issues," in the words of the then information minister and NDP's secretary-general, Safwat El-Sherif.

It attracted intellectuals, public figures and academics such as Abdel-Moneim Said, head of Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Hala Mustafa, editor of Al-Ahram's Democracy Journal, Hossam Badrawi, a well-known physician and then an MP, steel magnate Ahmed Ezz and ceramics magnate Mohamed Abul-Enein. The committee's membership seemed to crystallise its message.

Three years on and some of these hand- picked figures have no problem expressing their disappointment with the committee and their loss of faith in reform being achieved from within the ruling party.

Mustafa has accused the committee of being heavily influenced by the security apparatus. More recently, following Gamal Mubarak's promotion to deputy secretary-general of the NDP, she told The New York Times that no one can "deny this is anything but a vehicle for succession". Both the president and his son deny Gamal Mubarak has ambitions to succeed his father.

Although Mustafa has denied rumours that she, as well, has resigned from the committee, she does not rule out the possibility if "things remain as they are," she told Al-Ahram Weekly on Tuesday.

She shrugged off the notion that a struggle between the NDP's "old" and "new guard" lies behind growing criticisms of the status quo from within the party. "There's no thinking [in the NDP]," she said, "there are only interests."

If Harb's resignation caused the NDP embarrassment, its leaders aren't saying so. Responding to Harb's move, El-Sherif argued diplomatically that both the ruling party and Harb have the same reform objectives, they differ only on the speed of implementation.

But the daily Rose El-Youssef -- granted the first and, until now, only interview with Gamal Mubarak in January -- launched a harshly-worded attack on Harb following his resignation. In an editorial the paper claimed that after failing to climb the ladder within the NDP or achieve gains outside of it, Harb quit the party.

Harb submitted his resignation to both El-Sherif and Gamal Mubarak on 5 March and says he has yet to receive a response from either. He resigned, he said, after concluding there is no real will within the NDP for democratic transformation, an opinion reinforced by the manner in which Article 76 of the constitution was amended last spring to theoretically allow for multi-candidate presidential elections while simultaneously making it impossible for anyone other than the ruling party's candidate to contest the vote. At the time Harb made headlines by openly attacking the controversial amendment.

He listed other reasons for leaving the party. "Following the parliamentary elections all of us were confronted with the fact that the NDP is less popular than it would like to think and that the Muslim Brotherhood is far more popular than we thought," he told the Weekly. "Between these two extremes we are left with a huge gap."

The current political climate is so worrying, says Harb, that something must be done about it. And what Harb intends to do is to form a political party. He will not call it "liberal" because the term "carries negative connotations here". Nor will he describe it as "secular" because "we are all Muslims and there is no room for labels such as these".

The key words to understanding the would-be party are, as Harb lists them, "democracy -- which is the spearhead and which is lacking in our political life; social justice -- the massive gap between the haves and have nots is dangerously wide and needs to be addressed, and national unity -- for there is growing sectarian tension that exhibits itself in various forms in our every day life".

Harb would not reveal the names of recruits to the new party, though he said they would be revealed in the next few weeks. Informed sources, though, hint that they include a number of former state officials, respected public figures and economists.

Harb would neither confirm nor deny rumours that Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Ahmed Zuweil, a personal friend, plans to join the party.

Harb expressed his "fear" for the future of Egypt in light of the prevailing political polarisation and the absence of a clear scenario for when the president is no longer in office. There is, in short, no plan for the day after.

"In the case of a vacancy the constitution says the parliamentary speaker will serve as acting president until presidential elections are held within 60 days," said Harb. "This is no longer enough in light of the restrictions in Article 76 which effectively leave only Gamal Mubarak to run for this office. How will this be received? Do we know it will be acceptable to the military? Do we know it will be accepted by the public?"

When Anwar El-Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Hosni Mubarak, then the vice president, took office after a unanimous "yes" vote in a public referendum. Since then he has refused to appoint a vice president, claiming he was unwilling to impose someone the Egyptian people might not want, he said. For the first time since the 1952 Revolution the post of vice president has been vacant.

"I fear for the future of this country and many others share this fear," Harb said.

Although his resignation is not the first, nor will it be the last, in the NDP, Harb's dramatic exit was viewed as a sign that even the state's friends, and not just the opposition, are frustrated with the regime. It was also perceived by some as a blow to Gamal Mubarak.

"It will definitely cast its shadow on his project," said Mustafa.

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