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Egypt’s ruling party more patronage than politics
Egypt’s ruling party more patronage than politics
Despite a highly marketed effort at modernisation, Egypt’s ruling party is still centred on one man and draws much of its loyalty from its function as a patronage machine, analysts say.
Saturday, November 17,2007 04:40
Khaleej Times

Despite a highly marketed effort at modernisation, Egypt’s ruling party is still centred on one man and draws much of its loyalty from its function as a patronage machine, analysts say.


A stylish image revamp and the emergence of a reform-minded camp in the last five years have done little more than add gloss to the National Democratic Party whose founding members still call the shots.

“At the leadership level there really isn’t much of an internal debate,” Issandr El Amrani, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told AFP.

During its ninth general congress, which wrapped up on Tuesday, 5,310 members elected President Hosni Mubarak chairman of the party in an uncontested vote that was cast and counted in less than two hours. Party Secretary General Safwat Al Sherif was re-elected to his post at Mubarak’s suggestion.

The party has maintained its pyramid structure since its establishment in 1978. The NDP, a re-incarnation of the Arab Socialist Union, the ruling state party created by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1962, has never strayed too far from the one-party model, Amrani said.

“It isn’t as old-fashioned as the ASU but provides the same services, it’s a patronage machine,” Amrani said.

In 2002, a group of savvy young technocrats led by Mubarak’s younger son Gamal stepped out of the shadow of the ossified leadership and sought to shake the party out of its indolence with a package of reform bills and an aggressive economic liberalisation programme.

The new approach inspired some to play a more prominent role within the party.

Ali El Dean Hillal joined the NDP 20 years ago. Today the political science professor and former minister of youth, belongs to the influential policies secretariat headed by Gamal Mubarak.

“It’s a new beginning, it’s a totally different party to when I joined,” he told AFP. “There is a new organisational structure and a new ideological framework.”

The policies secretariat brought with it debate but it did little to shed the party’s image as an extension of the state, through which power and services are gained.

Saleh Abdel Moati, a hospital administrator from the town of Al Tal Al Kabeer near the port city of Ismailia, who attended the Cairo conference, told AFP that joining the NDP helped oil bureaucratic wheels.

“The majority party is tied to the government. This helps things move forward,” said Moati, who prior to joining the NDP belonged to the Labour party. That membership card “did not carry much weight.”

Thousands of NDP members gathered at the Cairo stadium for the conference, some coming from far-off hamlets in the hope that brushing shoulders with the party leadership may bring them a step closer to resolving their constituents’ problems or fulfilling their own ambitions.

But the chance of such encounters were always going to be slim, as the party’s senior members were escorted by walkie-talkied security through private entrances to lounge areas serving cappuccinos, well away from the majority of the 6,700 delegates.

Tarek Shukri Zueir from Beni Sueif, south of Cairo, came in the hope of bumping into his member of parliament, the most likely person to help with bread shortages in his area. He also wanted to talk about the sewage problems, and the price hikes.

His main reason for joining the party five months ago was not so much because of their political programme but more out of despair.

“I want someone to help me get a job as a muezzin,” who calls the faithful to pray, said Zueir who was trained in the delicate skill of prayer-calling at Cairo’s Al Azhar university, Sunni Islam’s main seat of learning.

Young NDP members, whose job during the conference was to usher delegates to their seats, gave different reasons for joining the party, ranging from guaranteed jobs in the IT industry to discounts on Egypt Air tickets.

“It’s just for a while, until I get on my feet and finish my masters degree,” said one young man, asking not to be named. “I need all the support I can get right now.”

Senior party members say change in people’s perception will not happen overnight.

“We are doing the right things, we are going about it the right way,” Minister of Investment Mahmud Mohieddin, and a member of the NDP policies secretariat told AFP in an interview. “It’s time to think positively in a long-term way and abandon short-termism.”

Mohieddin also criticised the impotence of the country’s opposition parties who he believes do not pose much of a challenge.

“It’s no fun being the only player,” he said.

But Ayman Nur, the leader of the only legal party to post a real challenge to the NDP during the 2005 parliamentary elections, is currently serving a five-year jail sentence for fraud, a charge widely seen as politically motivated.

And the only opposition with any teeth, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, is subject to periodic crackdowns. The group won 88 seats in the 2005 legislative elections by fielding candidates as independents.

In January, the New York-based Human Rights Watch criticised the NDP for maintaining a virtual monopoly over political power by denying opponents the right to form political parties.

Any new party must receive authorisation for its formation from the “political parties committee” headed by NDP Secretary General Safwat Al Sherif.

 


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