RIP, old guard

An addendum to my last post on the NDP shuffle.

The last week has marked the end of an important semi-secret group that has had an important impact on Egyptian political life over the last 40 years: the tanzim tali'i, or Vanguard Group, which was recruited in the 1960s by among Nasserist youth to be groomed to handle the country's political affairs and continue the legacy of the Free Officers. These people were meant to be the front for Egypt's deep state, the politicians who regulated public debate while the big decisions were made elsewhere.

From a forthcoming article I wrote on the NDP (which now has to be substantially revised), here is a passage that describes the initial attack on the "old guard" of the party by Gamal Mubarak and friends: 

Up to the 2000 People’s Assembly election, it was clearly an old guard triumvirate of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture Youssef Wali (at the time the NDP’s Secretary General), Minister of Information Safwat al-Sherif (Deputy Secretary-General) and Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Kamal al-Shazli (also Deputy Secretary-General) who had run the campaign, backed by a party secretariat comprising largely of loyalists, many of whom had held the same positions for a long period. All three men — alongside many other party and government officials — were a product of the early 1960s, when the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime sought to recruit a new generation of political operatives to consolidate the regime of the Free Officers’s 1952 coup. Aside from a military career, the best way to social and political advancement for ambitious young men at the time was to be selected as a member of the Tanzim Tali’i, a vanguard group that would become a major recruiting ground for both political managers of the al-Shazli mold and security officers. What had been created to provide future leadership for the Arab Socialist Union would eventually provide the NDP’s lasting leadership, which came to power with Hosni Mubarak and remaining largely unchanged until the early part of the last decade.

[. . .]

A first move was the removal of Youssef Wali (party secretary-general since 1985) by kicking him upstairs to the largely honorific position of deputy chairman. Although Wali remains on the 12-member Political Bureau (which has little executive power), he has control over the party and was to be removed from his position as Agriculture Minister in 2004, after 22 years at the post. Wali’s removal was accompanied, only weeks prior to the 2002 Congress, with an indirect attack on him: his undersecretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, Youssef Abdel Rahman, was arrested on corruption charges. Similarly, a few months earlier, Muhammad al-Wakeel, the director of news at Egyptian national television — personally appointed by Safwat al-Sherif — had been arrested for a procurement scandal, while a member of parliament known to be close to Kamal al-Shazli was arrested for loan fraud only a week before the Congress. 

If Wali was an early victim of Gamal’s rise in the NDP, the other two parts of the NDP’s “old guard” triumvirate survived longer, but were weakened. In the July 2004 cabinet shuffle that brought many Gamal associates to Egypt’s ministries, al-Shazli lost his portfolio as minister of parliamentary affairs (held since 1996) and al-Sherif the important portfolio of minister of information (held since 1982). Al-Shazli remained an important party electoral strategist in the 2005 elections — his knowledge of Egypt’s local politics was widely said to be unparalleled, helped by the fact that until he was, until his death in November 2010, one of the longest-serving parliamentarians in the world, having first been elected to the People’s Assembly in 1964. Even though he lost the key post of NDP Secretary for Organization (effectively, the party whip, held since the NDP’s creation in 1978) in February 2006, making way for key Gamal acolyte Ahmed Ezz, in the 2010 People’s Assembly elections al-Shazly was still considered a powerful kingmaker in many races, with some candidates complaining of his “comeback” up to his unexpected death on the campaign trail in his fiefdom of Bagour in late November 2010. 

As of late 2010, al-Sherif — whose early career, rooted in the intelligence services, distinguished him from his colleagues — remained the only “old guard” leader still in place, wielding considerable power both through his post in the NDP and as president of the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, a position that allows him to head the Political Parties Committee, the body that grants (or, more often, refuses) new parties their licenses and regulates partisan life, and the Higher Press Committee, which grants newspaper licenses.  The erosion of the power of the “old guard” was to be a long process, and indeed after 2006 — once key Gamal acolytes were in place — it became more accurate to talk of a power-sharing arrangement within a fragmented party rather than all-out rivalry between old and new guards. Indeed, al-Sherif maneuvered himself into an enthusiastic supporter of party reform, for instance telling party members in 2007 that “the party is still riddled with senior officials who resist change and contrive to occupy their positions for life.” 

 

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.