The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Blogging the NDP convention

For the past two days and until tomorrow, Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party has been holding its annual convention, putting a strong emphasis on what it calls "New Thinking" and the need for reform. And there have indeed been some important reforms introduced over the past two days, for instance the complete overhaul of the tax system -- corporate tax for instance has been reduced by more than half. But the political reforms have been lagging and those introduced were mostly cosmetic.

The NDP seems to have been trying hard to convey the sense that it was serious about reforming the party and introducing new ideas to the political arena. Over 100 foreign observers were invited (although NDP spokesmen were loath to call them observers, with its overtones of election-watch), including luminaries from the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, who presumably wanted to see how Arab reform was coming along. Although the entire conference was much slicker than anything the NDP had come up with so far, it was a far cry from the political conventions that were just held in the US in terms of access. In fact, the first thing that came up at the first press conference was that the press was denied access to the conference hall itself and restricted to a press room where it could watch it on TV and wait for the scheduled press conferences with ministers and NDP policy-makers. The protest that erupted from all journalists -- who accused the organizers of wanting to maintain total control on the information flow -- was a sight to see, and a good sign that the once sycophantic Arab press has grown tremendously in confidence thanks to TV channels like Al Jazeera. My bet was that some decision-maker realized that if they didn't loosen the restrictions on the press, then lack of access would have been the story of the day. So, after a few hours, we in the press were granted full access to the conference hall.

The other thing that struck me was that in the gathering itself, the policy speeches were more than the grand gesturing that one has become accustomed to in these events. The talks given by various ministers and other party leaders were quite pedestrian, dealing with specific issues (such as banking reform or urban encroachment on agricultural land) and the question and answer sessions with delegates seemed to show a good sample of the concerns of party representatives in the region -- for instance what would be done about such and such textile factories which badly needed new investment and so on -- rather than softball questions like "how is it that the government is so generous with reform?" That may seem like an obvious thing, but here it was refreshing -- even if the questions were written down and preselected, which I believe is also routinely done at political speeches in the US and elsewhere. Moreover, the questions were read out by policy honcho and heir apparent Gamal Mubarak himself, and answered by the relevant ministers (although not always in great detail.) Not bad for a rubber stamp party.

One could give the NDP reformers the benefit of the doubt and assume they are serious with claims that they want to "energize the bases" and "take the reform to the people" through local NDP offices. I have little doubt that many of them are also fervent believers in the liberal economic reforms they are carrying out, and that in many cases are really needed -- although others seem like an opportunity for the private sector to make a killing at the expense of the taxpayer. Today Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said that the government would pursue further reductions in all manner of subsidies, a controversial issue that has long been ignored. Putting on the table was a courageous step, although I'm not sure how public the debate about them will be (although his vague pronouncements may have been a test balloon, like the cuts in diesel subsidies earlier in the month.) Privatization is also finally going forward.

However, there were several big elephants in the room, and no one wanted to talk about them. Questions on whether Hosni Mubarak would seek a fifth term as president were simply said to be "not on the agenda." The idea of canceling the emergency laws, which were designed to deal with terrorism but are used indiscriminately to repress and imprison the opposition, was said by party chairman Safwat Al Sherif to be "not a priority." Whether Gamal Mubarak was really being groomed as heir was not being discussed either. Foreign policy, notably the relationship between Egypt and the US and Egypt and Israel -- two of the hottest issues in the country -- were not discussed. Instead, the only political topics were a vague charter of citizens' rights and limited reforms to the Higher Political Parties Committee and electoral legislation (on which the details are still unknown.)

What this suggests is that the new Nazif government and the NDP "reformists" around Gamal Mubarak continue to have a limited agenda. Their job is to solve the economic mess that had been created by leaving the country in the hands of security men and political cronies. In this, they have a lot of room for maneuver, even if the final decision will of course rest with the president. But they seem to have at least the power to draft proposals and lobby for them aggressively, and often in partnership with foreign bodies like the IMF or even key allies like the US. This is a job that rests essentially with the prime minister and four policy-makers (industry and foreign trade, finance, investment and the governor of the central bank), all young bright things that are the face of reform. But note that key security ministries -- information, interior, defense, military production and others -- remain with security men, and that foreign affairs is still the personal fiefdom of the presidency.

In short, the policy was made clear in an interview president Mubarak gave on the eve of the conference, when he said:

"We cannot bring about the political reform we seek given the economic situation and we cannot realise social justice without a strong economy that increases gross domestic product, creates new jobs and increases individual wealth."

Economic reform before political reform. This is exactly what he said throughout the 1990s, which are now considered as a period during which democratization decreased, not increased. As George W. Bush likes to say, fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, er...

There will be more coverage of the NDP convention tomorrow, including a look at how opposition groups from Islamists to leftists are rallying together to denounce the NDP's fake reform, and more.