CAIRO -- It was an unsettling moment. Ayman Nour, the politician who challenged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's bid for a fifth term, shed tears of joy in the presence of a visiting reporter. He had just received a phone call informing him that a judge had dismissed an effort by renegade members of his party to oust him as leader.
If the effort had succeeded, it would have paralyzed the Tomorrow Party within weeks after Nour finished a distant second in the Sept. 7 presidential vote and less than two months before parliamentary elections.
Ayman Nour, leader of the Tomorrow Party, finished a distant second in the presidential election but wants to run candidates in every legislative district.
"Thank God," he said at the news. "One obstacle down. There will be others.
"There's a lot of stress involved," he continued, explaining the tears.
For the past week or so, Nour has been facing a challenge by senior members of his party, notably Ragab Hilal Hameida and Mustafa Moussa. That these people--the former of which is a sleazy Islamist-populist politician who just wrecked the Ahrar (Liberals) party and the latter already tried to gain control over the party when Nour was in jail this February--were given top positions in Al Ghad in the first place is surprising enough. I really have to wonder what he was thinking, and what these people were providing that he needed.
AFP has a similar story with more details on what Nour is facing:
"There are regime elements in our party. We are badly infiltrated and this is going to hit us some time, probably after the election," Nur's spokeswoman Gamila Ismail had told AFP during the presidential campaign last month.
Nur now alleges the moles have been activated, as several leading members of the party challenge his leadership in a bitter internal row reminiscent of those that led to the freeze of several Egyptian opposition parties in the past.
One of the things that has the chattering classes chattering away here is that while Nour's opponents appealed to the Higher Political Parties Committee to freeze the party--a time-tested tactic--the Committee's head, veteran regime crony Safwat Al Sherif, refused to intervene. This has fueled an old standing rumor: that Al Sherif is using Nour and Al Ghad as a pawn against Gamal Mubarak and pals, who threaten the old guard that is epitomized by Al Sherif. According to this, Al Sherif used his power to grant Nour the permission to form Al Ghad last October because Al Ghad and Nour, like Gamal and his cronies in the ruling party's Policies Committee, present a youthful and liberal face of Egyptian politics. (Whether you believe that either party is serious about liberalism is another matter, but it is what they are trying to sell. And Gamal and Nour are the same age, give or take a year.) Now, Al Sherif is refusing to help Gamal get rid of Nour by uncharacteristically deciding it's not his place to meddle in other parties' affairs.
As the articles above point out, the backdrop of all this is the parliamentary elections, now scheduled to start on 8 November (with two more rounds at ten days interval). But there is also a shorter-term event that may be influencing all this: by the end of the month, President Mubarak will have officially started his fifth term and the cabinet will resign. New ministers are bound to be appointed, and many are predicting a new influx of Gamalists at the head of ministries. Veterans like Al Sherif or Kamal Al Shazli could be removed.
The Nasserist weekly Al Arabi--conspiracy central as far as Gamal Mubarak is concerned--suggested this week that Gamal's cronies who participated in the recent presidential election effort would now being rewarded. Steel magnate and MP Ahmed Ezz, for instance, is said to have received as a gift the recent sudden rise in steel prices. He is a prime candidate for a ministry, as is Muhammad Kamal, a political science professor widely credited for being the key architect of the recent American-style NDP election campaign. Hossam Badrawi, a doctor, MP and businessman also close to Gamal Mubarak, could gain the health or education portfolio.
Al Arabi editor-in-chief Abdel Halim Qandil wrote that “time had come for the replacement of the old guard, particularly Kamal Al Shazli and Safwat Al Sherif, and the rise of the young partisans of Gamal Mubarak” and warned that “the danger of inheritance of power continues to loom over Egypt. The president could accelerate the execution of the crime of having Gamal succeed him simply by suddenly stepping down.”
Al Ahali, another leftist party publication (of the Tagammu Party) put it thus: “it seems that being a member of the NDP’s Policies Committee is now a precondition for being named minister.”
If the conspiracy theory about Al Sherif and Nour is true, then the refusal to help Gamal could be a negotiating tactic to show that Al Sherif is still useful. But is the theory plausible? After all, why couldn't Al Sherif simply be replaced with someone more pliable if Gamal is as powerful as everybody said? Also, Al Ghad people still worry about Al Sherif; he may have delayed looking to Al Ghad's affairs out of propriety for now but could use any other pretext to freeze the party. There is, to me, little tangible about this conspiracy theory. There is even the possibility that Gamal and the "old guard" are perfectly happy with each other, even if there are stresses here and there. Getting rid of party bosses like Al Sherif and Al Shazli just two months before an election could also be a huge mistake, as the Gamal crowd has little experience in running a 444-candidate election. Much of what's really going on is opaque, and believing what the talking heads say in the press is foolish as no one really has solid info on what goes on inside the regime--it's all speculative Kremlinology.
That being said, I would risk a public prediction regarding the cabinet change, one based on previous ones: a lot less will change than most people expect. On top of Al Sherif and Al Shazli (both unlikely to be removed, or at least completely, in my opinion), Al Masri Al Youm, a usually credible independent daily, gave a long (wish?) list of who could go that included the ministers of Youth & Sports, Social Affairs, Planning, Military Production, Culture, Manpower and Housing. Youth & Sports and Housing should definitely go--the first is inept and has failed to resolve embarrassing disputes in football clubs (a big deal, actually) and the second is notoriously corrupt and has been involved in a lurid tale of assassination attempts. As for the others, it's anyone's guess. Otherwise, I would assume a small shake-up or rotation among the economic team (Rashid as PM?) and the entrance of one or two Gamalist ministers, but probably neither Ezz or Badrawi, who would be too controversial--especially Ezz. Overall, it will be a small, incremental change. That is the only kind that Hosni Mubarak can handle. But I may yet be proven wrong, we should see within a week.
In the meantime, Nour's trial restarts tomorrow morning. What goes on there can affect--and can be affected--by the power games in the ruling elite, one way or another.