Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Ancien régime comeback sparks fear

Mubarak-era officials are back and lobbying for the new political order, Amira Howeidy reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

The familiar bespectacled face framed beneath strands of hair laboriously arranged in an unsuccessful attempt to disguise a hairless pate slipped back on the nation’s television screens not with a bang or a whimper but as if the last three years simply hadn’t happened.

Fathi Sorour, Mubarak-era parliamentary speaker and onetime strongman of the now defunct National Democratic Party (NDP), appeared on 1 January pontificating about the constitution and on revolution- 30 June- during a conference that was aired on TV. The last time he was seen in public was in April 2011, when he was arrested and charged with inciting the killing of protesters in Tahrir Square during the January Revolution that toppled his boss.

Like dozens of Mubarak-era officials incarcerated on the basis of legally porous — and occasionally trumped up — charges to placate the revolutionary mood of 2011, Sorour was released from prison in October 2012 only to keep a low profile. Mubarak himself was released from prison pending trial less than two months after the military deposed Mohamed Morsi on 3 July.

According to wiki-thawra, an independent website providing statistical data on the revolution, 21,317 people have been arrested since Morsi’s ouster, 2,590 of them from the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s premier, Hisham Kandil, was arrested in December. They face charges that include violating the curfew, instigating sectarian violence, terrorism, painting graffiti and spreading false reports.

There’s no official count to validate these figures and the Muslim Brotherhood cites much higher numbers. Nor is there any data, independent or otherwise, on the prosecution of Mubarak-era officials. Of the few dozen who did face charges the majority — including Mubarak’s premier Ahmed Nazif, his chief of presidential staff Zakaria Azmi, NDP secretary-general Safwat Al-Sherif — have been released. Others, like Mubarak’s two sons and their steel tycoon crony Ahmed Ezz, remain defendants in ongoing cases. (Ezz's wife, Shahinaz El-Naggar an ex-MP for the NDP and businesswoman is set to host a TV show on the private-owned Al-Hayat channel.)

Not that any of the trials seriously broached the core issues that lay behind the revolution. Systematic human rights violations, the squandering of public funds, entrenched economic and political corruption, were all skated over. Even Mubarak’s own courtroom appearances — once touted as the “trial of the century” — soon devolved into a tedious and irrelevant media show.

As it became clear the principle of accountability was not going to be upheld activists grew ever more concerned, under Morsi and more so since his ouster, that Mubarak’s police state was making a comeback. Yet no one predicted the return of the very figures that had defined the Mubarak oligarchy. So tarnished were their reputations, went the argument, that their reappearance would discredit the post-Morsi political order.

Yet what is happening now “is consistent with the narrative that preceded the 30 June protests against Morsi, that the 25 January uprising was nothing more than a Brotherhood conspiracy,” says Rabab El-Mahdi, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

“When you say the uprising was a mistake it means a reversal to pre-25 January times,” she said.

A week after Sorour’s appearance Hussein Salem, the fugitive businessman friend and associate of Mubarak, spoke with the privately owned CBC channel, his first interview since the revolution. The 81-year-old tycoon — sentenced to 37 years in jail after being found guilty in absentia on charges that included illegally acquiring public property, money laundering and squandering public funds — said he would return to Egypt in the event of reaching some amicable deal with the government. During the same TV show a spokesman for the government called to say that Egypt is “now open to all honourable businessmen and their well-intentioned initiatives”.

In the course of the revolution the NDP’s Cairo headquarters was set ablaze as Mubarak-state symbols, including police stations, came under attack. In April 2011, at the height of the post-revolutionary furore, an administrative court dissolved the party for its role in propagating corruption and election fraud.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which took over after Mubarak stepped down and remained in power until June 2012 took no action against the NDP’s vast membership base. SCAF consistently resisted changes that might alter the fundamental make-up of Mubarak’s state. Attempts to isolate NDP figures from political participation during the short-lived parliament of 2012 never materialised.

The NDP did try to reinvent itself. Spin-off political parties were formed though they went largely unnoticed in the first year of post-revolution Egypt. The NDP, after all, had always been more of a network of business and political interests tied to the ruling elite than an ideological entity.

“The NDP is finished, it will not return,” proclaimed former NDP leader Mohamed Kamal during a TV show three weeks ago. There are “individuals” who were implicated in crimes and who are being prosecuted and there are others who had nothing to do with corruption and who want to be part of the political process under various entities, he said. “Let the people decide.”

As the ruling party the NDP enjoyed extended roots in rural — especially Upper — Egypt where entire clans began to ally themselves with the state following the declaration of the republic in 1952, a process that was accelerated by the formation of Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s Socialist Union in 1962. The Socialist Union, dissolved by Anwar Al-Sadat in 1978, subsequently mutated into the NDP. Yet assessing the extent of real support is all but impossible given the practice of systematically rigging legislative elections.

Amr Al-Chobaki, a senior researcher with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, insists it is unrealistic to exclude any faction from Egypt’s political future.

“There’s a difference between those who were part of the NDP because it was in their interests to be associated with the state, and the party’s leadership figures who were closely associated with Mubarak, who are back but really have no political future,” he says.

In November, former NDP supporters set up Masr Baladi (Egypt is my country), a political front backing Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s roadmap. The group includes former interior minister Ahmed Gamaleddin and Mubarak era mufti Ali Gomaa. More recently, and immediately ahead of this week’s referendum on the constitution, larger numbers of NDP figures began to make their voices heard.

“The questions now are will Egyptians accept their return, and will the current regime utilise or dismiss them,” says Democratic Socialist Party head Mohamed Abul-Ghar.

The NDP’s cadres may well be the only organised group remaining after the clampdown on the Brotherhood, designated a terrorist organisation by the government in December. They might be an effective mobilising force in favour of the new political order, says Abul-Ghar, “but most of them are hated and it’s not in the interest of the regime to be associated with the very same forces that Egyptians revolted against in January 2011”.

Yet secular opposition like Abulghar’s party isn’t viewed as a viable political alternative despite their support for the new political order and are commonly labeled fifth columnists.

“But what can we do?” he asked.

Other commentators argue that the tide changed with the alliance of revolutionary forces, remnants of the Mubarak regime, the police and military against Morsi and the Brotherhood during the 30 June protests last summer.

Abul-Ghar believes the return of the NDP is one of several undesirable “side effects” of 30 June. Others trace the comeback to the presidential elections of June 2012 which in the second round divided voters between Morsi, the Brotherhood’s candidate, and Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last premier. Fearing a return of the Mubarak state the pro-revolution voting bloc went to Morsi who won by a thin margin of 88,2751 votes. Support for Shafik- a man viewed as an embodiment of Mubarak's regime- was an early sign of the former ruling party's post-revolution recovery.

The NDP’s re-emergence may be overshadowed by the louder “war against terror” and by efforts to emphasise the legitimacy of the 3 July political order but that doesn’t make their comeback any less significant.

“The NDP doesn’t have an ideology but it does have policies — the police state, a feigned modernity and hostility to political Islam and neo-liberal socio economic policies — that are feeding the regime’s thought process,” said El-Mahdi. 

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