The NDP conference

It's hard to drum up the enthusiasm to blog about the National Democratic Party's annual conference, which started today. It's not exactly like anything earth-shattering is likely to happen, and the interest in Egypt's ruling party's attempts to reform itself (which started a few years ago) has dwindled amidst the clear reversal of the dynamic of reform that was launched last year and the depressing failure of reformist movement to achieve much concretely -- not to mention the secular opposition's electoral failure, the recent judges' crisis (which they lost some time this summer, by the way), and the general crackdown on Muslim Brothers, bloggers and activists. Some would add to that the abandonment of Egypt's democrats by the Bush White House, which had previously egged them on, in favor of a "US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue" and the generally deteriorating regional situation (these are worth arguing about another time._

It's interesting that last year the NDP did not make a big fuss about its conference (despite it being an electoral year), leaving the limelight to the presidency to make its bid for re-election. Even the slogan of the 2005 conference, "Crossing to the future," was taken from the presidential campaign. What a difference that was to 2003 ("Citizenship rights") or 2004 ("Priorities of reform") -- party conferences that were much-touted as a sign that Egypt was changing and proposed interesting ideas about civic rights (in 2003, largely unimplemented) and major economic policy shifts (in 2004, complete overhaul of tax law, major changes in customs and duties, introduction of various economic laws). Of course these conferences were also largely about the rise of a "Gamal Gang" inside the NDP and the decline of old party bosses such as Kamal al-Shazli in favor technocrats, businessmen, and a new generation of supposedly much more sophisticated party bosses.

So what can this week's conference ("Second wind for change" -- who comes up with these slogans?) really be about? Gamal's role in the party and in Egypt's future seems assured now, his internal enemies seem to have lost, the party no longer needs to prove its democratic credentials to the world now that the democratization fad has passed. Well, I will argue that this conference is the most "domestic" one the NDP has held so far, even if it has again invited a selection of the top Egypt experts in the US and Europe to attend and observe the chrysalis of Jeffersonian democracy on the shores of the Nile. The agenda has to a large extent been set by the Egyptian media, the sole survivor (for how long?) of 2005's remarkable political opening. The main issues the NDP will be addressing are answers to the critiques put forward by the media, most notably:

  1. What is the party doing to implement President Mubarak's electoral promises on political reform?
  2. What is the party doing to implement President Mubarak's electoral promises on job creation and the improvement of average Egyptians' lives?
  3. What is the party going to do about the string of transportation disasters that have hit the country?
  4. What vision does the party have for Egypt's role in the region and the world?
What's been announced so far is that 2800 party members will attend and that there are 28 policy papers that will be discussed. Safwat al-Sherif, the SecGen of the party and the last major "old guard" figure still in a leadership position, has stated that there will not be personnel changes at the top like in past conferences. (But then again, he is the leading candidate to lose his job.) Masri al-Youm has announced that 58 NDP MPs have sent a memo of protest to President Mubarak to voice their concern that the party is being hijacked by businessmen and stating that the party is being run by three people around Gamal who are using the same strong-arm tactics as the old guard (my guess: steel magnate and MP Ahmed Ezz, Secretary for Information Ali Eddin Hilal, and Secretary for Youth Moufid Chehab, but I'm not really in the loop.)

Question one, on political reform, will probably be the big showcase of the conference. Amendments to articles 76 and 77 of the constitution are being discussed and could be presented to parliament by the end of the year. Everyone is already expecting the wording of the amendments to be disappointing, as were last year's amendments to article 76, but I have not seen any details yet. Whatever the changes, the important thing is that they will be tailored to suit Gamal Mubarak's eventual accession to the presidency and that they will not include the greatest constitutional reform that could happen to Egypt, the introduction of term limits. It seems there will be some other minor measures, such as moving to end the position of the "Socialist Prosecutor," a Nasser-era holdover, and some changes in the Supreme Judicial Council. There are a few other measures, but these can be discussed in due time if they are mentioned.

The real bombshell is that, according to the press and NDP statements, the ruling party will move to end judicial supervisions of elections. Leave it to the NDP to take as the main lesson of its dismal performance (for official candidates) in last November's elections, of the prevalence of open vote buying and random violence, and of the interference of police and security in favor of its candidates that it should reduce the only positive thing about the election -- that the judges did an excellent job and reported fraud where it occurred. On the laughable pretext that electoral supervision takes judges away from their caseload and slows down the judicial system (which is extremely slow anyway), they are ready to remove the only semi-independent supervision of the election that carries moral and legal authority (electoral observers and party monitors don't really). That will be worth analyzing in full should it happen, but there can be no clearer sign of Egypt's growing authoritarianism at this point in time -- or that the judges really lost in a more fundamental way than most people are willing to admit.

I'll skip the economic and job-creation initiatives because it's the kind of thing that most people would like to see the NDP succeed in doing. Job creation is extremely important and I'm curious how they;ll ever reach the massive figures of new jobs that Mubarak promised in his campaign, even if the economic is generally doing better. It might be interesting to see whether Ahmed Nazif will push his pet program to replace or end subsidies, an important and controversial program. Otherwise here I think we can mainly expect to see Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieddin huff and puff away about how many companies he sold this year -- but probably not answer serious allegations that these were sold below price and that someone along the lines pocketed a commission.

Question three, regarding the recent transportation scandals, should be a major issue unless the party leadership tries to shut it out. Since the Minister of Transport recently got a hefty chunk of change from the sale of the third mobile license to Etisalat specifically for this purpose, one might expect/hope that a concrete program to modernize the sector and improve safety standards will be adopted. It would certainly be good PR for the party.

That leaves us with question four, in my opinion the most interesting. It is the first time in the history of the NDP that national security issues are brought up. These are usually the sovereign province of the presidency, and most MPs and party apparatchiks are utterly disinterested in foreign policy issues, on which they can never have any influence (although I see today that the parliamentary committee on religious issues, composed of NDP and Muslim Brotherhood MPs, has called for cutting diplomatic relations with the Vatican over PopeGate. Did they ever do that with Israel, I wonder.) In a recent pre-conference speech, Gamal Mubarak made for the first time a reference to "Egypt's national security" and the need to discuss Egypt's (dwindling) role in the region. Newspaper reports outlined seven main points:
  1. Egypt’s role in the Middle East peace process
  2. The restructuring of tools for a common Arab foreign policy, such as the Arab League
  3. Egypt’s relationship with the United States, notably with a view to influence US policy in the region
  4. Promoting Iraq national unity and the country’s Arab character
  5. Working towards a WMD-free zone in the Middle East
  6. Confronting the rise of Iran as a regional power by reviewing Cairo’s policy towards Tehran and encouraging it to act as a force for stability in the region
  7. Promoting Sudan’s national unity and territorial integrity
I think this whole dimension is entirely a reaction to the fiasco that was the Lebanon war for the Mubarak regime, and the growing frustration at Egypt's collusion in US and Israeli plans for the region. The above plan basically outlines more of the same, with the difference that Egypt, once a regional power, is satisfied with defending its "near-abroad" in Sudan from regime change. And if there was ever a regime deserving of regime change, it's Sudan's (and no risk of creating a civil war there, there already is one!) and minor regional aims (hedging its bets on Iran, institution-building at the regional level, preventing the disintegration of Iraq). The rest of it is cods-wallop and essentially amounts to having a foreign policy that is subservient to the US. There's an argument to be made that this is the best Egypt can hope for, and there is certainly a need for its proponents to make a compelling case for it. But they are going to have a tough time fighting the nationalist-populist line Kifaya, Karama and most other political currents are taking. And perhaps that is the whole point: keep'em talking about regional injustice, say that unfortunately there's nothing you can do about it, and at least they won't be talking about domestic issues.

One more thing: maybe, just maybe, the NDP will decide to pay its electricity bill.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.