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

Political reform tops agenda

MPs this week took the opportunity to lambast Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif's 30 January policy statement,reports Gamal Essam El-Din

The 2005-2010 People's Assembly this week embarked on its annual marathon of parliamentary debates over the government's policy statement. Some 360 majority and opposition deputies -- more than two thirds of the chamber's total - are expected to take the floor during the course of the debates that will include a discussion of the 266-page report prepared by a special committee in response to the policy statement delivered by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif on 30 January.

The report directed only mild criticism at Nazif's statement, saying it "fell far short of providing the clear-cut timetables necessary to translate President Hosni Mubarak's presidential election programme into reality".

"Besides," the report continued, "the statement mentioned nothing about legislation concerning the political reform that President Hosni said he had instructed the government to submit to the People's Assembly in the current session."

The report argued that ensuring elections are free and transparent should be the cornerstone of the government's political programme in the coming period, to which end it was high time a new law regulating elections be introduced to guarantee they be marked by integrity and result in a more balanced representation of political parties in parliament. "To meet this objective," the report said, "the proposed law must impose a ceiling on the amounts spent on election campaigns and voter-registration lists must be revised against the civil registry or the new national identification number assigned to citizens."

In his election campaign President Mubarak promised that the current individual candidacy system would be scrapped in favour of a new slate system aimed at strengthening political parties and reducing the intimidation of voters during elections.

The Assembly's report also stressed that the coming legislative agenda should include bills addressing the independence of the judiciary and the way in which publication offences are treated. In his election programme Mubarak promised that political reforms would include new laws allowing judges greater independence from the executive and abolishing custodial sentences for publication offences. Mubarak also pledged that the 25-year-old emergency laws would be replaced by anti-terror legislation.

If the parliamentary report was muted, Nazif's statement drew fiery responses not only from Muslim Brotherhood and leftist MPs, but also from the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) deputies. Since many of them had won their seats as independents, only to be re- admitted into the party's ranks to swell its numbers in parliament, they felt free to criticise the government. Some went so far as to attack the NDP's influential Policies Secretariat, led by Gamal Mubarak.

Mohamed Amer, NDP member for Al-Minya governorate, said the Policies Secretariat, created as a locomotive for comprehensive reform, had done nothing to reinvigorate the country politically or socially. Even in economic terms, Amer said, reforms had favoured only the handful of business tycoons who already monopolised access to borrowing from local banks.

Sobhi Saleh, an NDP member from Alexandria, argued that the policy statement did little beyond pay lip service to democracy. "There is a lot of talk in this statement about democratic ideals such as the importance of guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary. The problem is that the government always does the opposite to what it preaches." NDP governments, said Saleh, have never been sincere about political reform.

Muslim Brotherhood MPs lashed out at the statement, describing it as a manifesto of "hollow slogans". Hussein Ibrahim, a Brotherhood MP from Alexandria, said "the statement does not bode well for political life especially when it comes to advancing freedoms of expression, movement and the freedom to join parties". Ibrahim also pointed out that the government had shown little but contempt for the role of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) "despite the fact that its first annual report on the government's human rights record was very mild". International reports, Ibrahim went on, "detail horror stories about torture in police stations, cases in which prisoners have disappeared from jails and innocent citizens have been forced to admit to crimes they did not commit". Hussein also asserted that the government had accepted to torture many Islamists in Egyptian prison cells on behalf of the Americans.

In response to Hussein's attacks Moufid Shehab, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, emphasised that the government had given adequate attention to the NCHR's first annual report.

"The report was discussed by the government and two cabinet ministers - the Justice and Interior Ministers - were instructed to deal with the issues arising from it," said Shehab, who also revealed that the next cabinet meeting would discuss the NCHR's report on parliamentary elections.

In addition to political reforms MPs focussed their attention on economic problems, including tackling social inequality and unemployment. In his statement Nazif had said that generating more income for the poor topped his government's agenda and boasted that the government had reduced unemployment from 10 to 9.5 per cent in 2005.

NDP members were again the first to cast doubts on Nazif's figures. Mustafa El-Said, a former economy minister and leading NDP economist, said Nazif's figures did not tally with those of the World Bank which estimates that 40 to 48 per cent of the population now lives below the poverty line.

"The statement gave no details about how it will improve the living standards of this section of the population," said El-Said.

The World Bank also estimates that unemployment in Egypt is running at around 20 per cent, a figure that, he said, makes it difficult for Nazif's government to fulfill President Mubarak's election promise to create 4.5 million jobs in the next six years. Nor was El-Said optimistic about the chances of achieving other economic targets, pointing out that "the deficit in the trade balance grew last year to more than $7 billion, with imports increasing by 30 per cent annually".

Balancing the budget and reducing public indebtedness were urgent requirements, El-Said argued, saying that while the budget deficit had skyrocketed from 0.6 per cent of GDP in 1996/1997 to nine per cent in 2005/2006, public debts now stood at more than 60 per cent of GDP. These indicators, he concluded, must surely underline the fact that there is something very wrong in Egypt's economic policy.

"What is wrong about this government," he complained, "is that while it declares that it is moving the country forward towards the market economy it still behaves like a government at the helm of a command economy."

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