All Politics is Local
Opposition groups criticized the governing NDP’s decision to postpone municipal elections originally slated for this spring, but Mohamed Kamal, a leading party reformer and the architect of President Hosni Mubarak’s election campaign, says sweeping changes at the NDP last month will hasten the pace of reform
When President Hosni Mubarak issued a presidential decree last month calling on the People’s Assembly to postpone municipal elections slated for this spring, the government justified the delay by claiming that it needed more time to amend the laws regulating local councils before citizens go to the polls.
In his electoral platform last fall, Mubarak promised to endorse legislation that would democratize and empower the nation’s 1,677 municipal councils, which together include some 50,000 members. At present, the councils are responsible for local zoning and some municipal services at the hayy (district) level. Mubarak and leading members of the cabinet of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif have proposed broadening the councils’ authority by devolving power first to the nation’s 26 governorates, then from the governorates to the councils.
Mohamed Habib, deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, joined other opposition figures in criticizing the delay as “a blow to democracy.”
The governing National Democratic Party holds an absolute majority in sitting local councils, whose mandates were set to expire on April 15, 2006. Under the old system, councils would have to have held elections within the 60 days leading up to that date. After last year’s constitutional reforms, control of the municipal councils is far more than a local issue: The new mechanism governing presidential elections stipulates that would-be independent candidates for the nation’s highest office must obtain at least 250 nominations from elected office holders, including a minimum of 140 from members of local councils, 65 from MPs in the People’s Assembly and 25 from deputies in the Shura Council.
In theory, another round of PA elections could come before the next presidential race in 2011; while presidential terms last six years, parliament sits for just five. Prospective presidential candidates from recognized political parties must hold at least 23 seats in the People’s Assembly and nine in the Shura Council to be eligible to field a candidate. None of the secular opposition parties hold sufficient seats, but candidates backed by the banned-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood nailed down 88 seats in the new assembly.
Shura Council elections are presently scheduled for next year.
“They [the NDP] are keen to maintain the municipal councils as they are so that no independent would be able to meet the unattainable requirements and run for president, and the NDP candidate would be the only player in presidential elections,” Habib says.
It’s a charge leading NDP reformers vehemently deny.
“The era of one-candidate presidential elections is over,” says Mohamed Kamal, the architect of Mubarak’s highly successful presidential campaign. “No one can accept that in the coming presidential election, whenever it takes place. I cannot accept it myself and many people in the party and outside cannot accept a return to the one-candidate system. We have moved beyond that, and the writing of the [presidential election] amendment did not mean to come to this end.” Kamal, a top member of the governing party’s high-powered policies secretariat, was named the NDP’s secretary responsible for education and awareness in a recent shake-up (more on that in a moment).
Habib, however, contends that the delay was motivated by the NDP’s concerns over the rise of the Islamist movement.
“Firstly, the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was not expected at all, showed that people were sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and that the latter represent the most important political and social faction in Egypt; secondly, the sweeping victory chalked up by Hamas in Palestine in fair and free elections showed that Arab and Muslim people will choose Islamists,” says Habib, who claims the Brotherhood would have dominated the local council elections.
That said, Habib claims his group has no plans to field an independent candidate for the presidency in the next round of elections. “There is a difference between guaranteeing this right to all independent citizens and using this right ourselves,” he says. “Every Egyptian has this right and we as the Muslim Brotherhood should be the first ones to defend that right. Whether we use it or not is another story.”
Some 106 MPs, including MPs associated with Al-Ikhwan, voted against the decision to postpone the local elections. Habib joined them in saying Parliament needed no more than “a few months” to amend the laws governing local councils.
“Three months are enough,” he says. “Let it even be four, five or six months. This would have been enough time to prepare a complete bill. It absolutely does not need two years. The government is capable of coming up with a law in the blink of an eye.”
The delay elicited criticism abroad as US National Security Council Spokesman Sean McCormack announced the Bush administration opposed the decision.”We will be talking to them about this,” McCormack said at a press briefing. “As a matter of principle, we don’t support postponing of elections that have been scheduled.”
A few days before she set off to the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was “disappointed” by the decision. “The message that I will take to Egypt is that Egypt needs to stay on the democratic course. It needs to keep pushing ahead on the democratic course,” Rice told a group of Arab journalists at a round-table interview a few days before her departure.
Rice’s visit to Egypt was subsequently dominated by talk of funding for Hamas, although she did hold meetings with a limited number of civil society activists including associates of imprisoned Al-Ghad party leader Ayman Nour, American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt President Taher Helmy, academics and intellectuals. Those she met were hand-picked by the US State Department. All spoke English and none was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The NDP Shuffle
The decision to postpone the elections came just two weeks after a much-anticipated NDP shuffle.
Asked about the shuffle a few weeks earlier, Gamal Mubarak, head of the policies secretariat, told the daily Rose Al-Youssef, “any party should derive lessons from any elections it takes part in. And I do not think the NDP would miss this chance given the reform process that has been taking place [within the party] for the last years. This means that it [the party] will read through what happened well and use the lessons learned to generate a new motivating force towards partisan reform in the coming stage.”
The party subsequently endorsed a comprehensive overhaul of its general secretariat, giving more power to a younger generation associated with the reform movement spearheaded by the younger Mubarak.
The shake-up was marked by the retreat of Kamal El-Shazli, the NDP’s deputy secretary general and a leading member of the Old Guard broadly seen as resistant to sweeping democratic reforms. A month earlier, El-Shazli lost his portfolio as minister of state for People’s Assembly affairs in the second Nazif cabinet. He has since been appointed head of the National Specialized Councils.
Speaker of the Shura Council Safwat El-Sherif retains his role as the NDP’s secretary general, a position he has held since 2002; he now has three assistant secretaries general, including the 43-year-old Mubarak. The other two are Presidential Chief of Staff Zakaria Azmi and Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mufid Shehab. Azmi was appointed as the party’s assistant secretary general for organizational, membership, administrative and financial affairs, while Shehab is responsible for parliamentary affairs, making him the primary link between the party and the two houses of Parliament.
The shuffle brought 12 new faces into the party’s general secretariat, most of them dyed-in-the-wool members of the reform camp, including Rachid Mohamed Rachid, the powerful minister of trade and industry, and Minister of Information Anas El-Fiqqi. Also appointed was steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, who is now in charge of the Organizational Secretariat, a portfolio previously held by El-Shazli. Former Minister of Youth and Sport Ali El-Din Helal has taken charge of the general secretariat’s media subcommittee, making him its top spokesman. He replaces Mamdouh El-Beltagui, who departed cabinet in the last shuffle.
The shake-up also saw Mohamed Kamal appointed the party’s secretary for education and awareness. Kamal sees the shuffle as “a good step” toward the reinvigoration of the party.
“It gives new opportunities to a larger group of younger party members to join the secretariat. New blood means people with fresh ideas as well as the political experience these people have gained in the party over the past few years,” he explains.
The shuffle is a continuation of an overhaul that began at the party’s eighth congress in fall 2002 under the slogan of ‘New Thinking.’ That year saw the rise of Gamal Mubarak as the leader of the party’s reform camp and its chief policy architect. The younger Mubarak has since invited several hundred distinguished intellectuals and business leaders to join the secretariat’s higher council and subcommittees.
“The shuffle is part of the reform process that has been taking place within the party over the past three years,” says Kamal. “We have done some analysis also on the last elections and we came to some conclusions about the performance of the NDP; the party did not meet our goals in the elections. I would say this assessment and the results of the assessment are reflected in the formation of the new general secretariat of the party.”
But the reforms introduced in 2002 failed to win the party a stronger showing in last fall’s parliamentary elections as its official candidates secured barely 33 percent of parliamentary seats. The party’s nearly 70 percent majority in the sitting parliament came after it readmitted dissenters who ran as independents.
“The reform [introduced in 2002] focused to a large extent on the central level and on public policy,” Kamal says. “When you talk about public policy, you do not expect the results of the reform to come overnight or even within a year or two. We can say that the economy today is on the right track thanks to the recommendations of the party and the policies of the government, but the impact of these economic policies has not yet trickled down to the average citizen in terms of higher incomes, lower prices and more job opportunities.
“We have to take the results of [last fall’s] elections in this context,” he explains, saying, “the next stage in the reform process will be to focus more on the local level.”
Kamal suggests the party will move forward with a similar shake-up of its municipal secretariats. “There will be new appointments of the party’s secretaries general at the local level in different governorates with the goal of introducing new blood, fresh ideas. Hopefully, this change at the governorates level will generate changes in each governorate and will energize the party’s local base.”
While he admits that the reforms introduced in 2002 were not enough, Kamal places some of the blame for the party’s results in parliamentary elections on external factors.
“It would be unfair to link the results of the elections directly or only to the reform within the party and to draw the conclusion that the reforms have failed,” says Kamal. “People in Egypt usually do not vote for party platforms but for individual candidates without regard for their party affiliations. Families, tribes, local agreements or deals sometimes are much more important than the party affiliation or party platforms. Having said that, I have to admit that we need more engagement with the party at the grassroots level.”
Abdel Moneim Said, a member of the NDP’s policy secretariat and director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, does not share Kamal’s optimism about the shuffle.
“I personally find changes that take place at the level of the [general] secretariat and the politburo less important,” Said says, stressing that the party lacks a solid platform and committed members. “This was revealed in the last parliamentary elections, where you had 10 NDP members running for the same constituency. This shows that the party is extremely loose on both the ideological and organizational levels.
“There is a new generation that is joining the party’s leadership,” he admits. “However, I think the solution does not lie solely in having a new, younger generation. I believe the fundamental problem lies in the [need] for ‘motivating thinking.’ The heart of the party is still bureaucratic and based on traditional thinking despite the changes that are taking place at the upper level.”
“The party’s new thinking is novel, but it has not transformed into an ideological message it only turns into documents. The thinking never turned into a platform,” he adds.
Predictably, the Brotherhood’s Habib is more critical, contending, “It [the shuffle] was a step in the course of hereditary succession and the postponement of municipal elections was the following step to sanctify the scenario of hereditary succession.”
In late January, Gamal Mubarak again claimed he has no intention of running for the presidency, telling Rose Al-Youssef, “I have said repeatedly for the last few years and particularly last year that I neither intend nor want to run [for president]. And I repeat and confirm today that I do not have this intention or this desire.”
But Said says Mubarak’s elevation to the rank of assistant party secretary-general underscores the fact that Mubarak “plays a positive role and he is one of the forces behind current progress, in addition to the role played by the media, civil society. He has definitely promoted a new spirit inside the party, making it open to criticism, assessment and reform.”
That said, the analyst continues, “his presence also causes a sort of confusion inside and outside the party. He has been working in the party for the past ten years, so it’s logical that he has become assistant secretary general. However, his assumption of that position is always linked to his social position [as the president’s son]. This position always casts shadows over the party’s new thinking and portrays it as if it was an attempt to mount a propaganda campaign for a particular person [Gamal]. This point should definitely be addressed; however, I do not have any solution.”
There is only one problem with Gamal, many analysts say, which that so many people dwell on his last name and not his actions.
While some observers have hailed El-Shazli’s exclusion from the new secretariat as a step to unleash reformers, those hopes sound overblown to Said.
“I believe things will not change that much as long as the message has not changed and the role of the party in society has not been defined, because Mr. Kamal El-Shazli did not stand as an obstacle. The obstacle was the party’s bureaucracy. We are speaking of an entity that resembles a government office. There is a high degree of dependence on families and traditional leverage rather than political leverage.”
He maintains the party should commit itself to achieving genuine democratic reform “without all the ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ that are usually used to suck the spirit” out of any legislative or constitutional amendment.
During the presidential campaign, President Mubarak pledged to introduce fundamental constitutional changes to put a curb on sweeping powers of the presidency, empower Cabinet and the legislature, and ensure full judicial independence. The president has also promised to replace the Emergency Laws with a permanent anti-terror statute.
The new People’s Assembly is expected to begin hammering out the details of those bills later in its current session.
Since the amendment of Article 76 on presidential elections, the opposition has consistently accused the ruling party of ‘thwarting’ legislative and constitutional amendments proposed by the president to tighten its grip on the political system. Some critics have blamed attempts to circumvent genuine political reforms on the party’s Old Guard.
“All I can say is that this time around is different. We gained experience from amending Article 76 and we are talking here about several articles,” says Kamal. “We are talking about major changes in the constitution.
“The other thing is that we have started this process early,” he adds. “The Shura Council and the People’s Assembly are devoting this year almost exclusively to hearings and discussions, so this time you will have more time for debate, more voices will be heard. There will be more engagement.”
Asked about whether the retreat of El-Shazli would give a boost to political reform, Kamal declined to say more than: “All I can say is that the general secretariat of the party is more homogenous and more like-minded than it was in the past. This will definitely help the reform process.
“The debate about political reform continues, and all these issues will be reviewed. I’m optimistic about a lot of things.” et