EGYPT: Ruling Party in Free Fall

EGYPT:  Ruling Party in Free Fall

 A high-ranking member of Egypt”s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is facing trial on charges of arranging the murder of a Lebanese pop singer. The case, along with a host of other public grievances, has badly tarnished the NDP”s reputation ahead of an upcoming party conference.

“On the eve of its annual party congress, popular perceptions of the NDP have never been worse,” Amr Hashem Rabie, expert on Egyptian party politics at the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS.

On Oct. 18, construction magnate Hisham Talaat Moustafa, a member of the NDP”s powerful Policies Committee, pleaded not guilty to accusations that he financed the killing of Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim, found brutally murdered in her Dubai apartment three months ago. Fellow defendant Mohsen Al-Sukkary — a former police officer charged with carrying out the crime in return for a two-million dollar payoff — also pleaded not guilty.

Although details of Moustafa”s relationship with the victim remain vague, Egypt”s state prosecutor has alleged that the crime was motivated by revenge. Evidence presented reportedly includes recorded telephone conversations between the defendants, video footage from Tamim”s apartment, and DNA samples taken from bloodied clothing.

The trial in the case that has captured the imagination of the Arab world has been adjourned until Nov. 15.

In spite of Moustafa”s pleas of innocence, the case has only reinforced popular perceptions of the NDP as a party of corrupt and morally questionable businessmen.

“If such things happened in a respectable country, the head of the party would be forced to resign,” said Rabie. “But in Egypt, there are no resignations, no accountability, no change.

“The state press claims that Moustafa”s presence in court proves the government is fighting corruption,” he added. “But without pressure from the United Arab Emirates — where the crime took place — Moustafa would never have been forced to stand trial.”

This is not the only recent incident to adversely affect the ruling party”s popular standing.

In August, another business magnate and senior NDP member, Mamdouh Ismail, was acquitted of manslaughter charges for the death of more than a thousand people in 2006, when a ferry he owned sank in the Red Sea. The verdict was greeted with outrage by much of the public, which saw the decision as further proof that Egypt”s ruling elite stands outside the law.

“The ruling merely showed that the government can always achieve its desired verdict by selecting certain judges for certain cases,” said Rabie.

According to opposition figures, these developments have combined with long-standing grievances to bring popular disaffection with the NDP to an all-time high.

“Approval ratings are difficult to determine in Egypt because there are no real elections or reliable statistics,” Essam Al-Arian, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country”s largest opposition movement, told IPS. “But most commentators admit that the party”s popular standing is now in free fall.”

Al-Arian attributes this to the recent scandals involving party officials in addition to “long-standing problems such as poor levels of public service and the chronic disconnect between the ruling elite and the people.”

Established in 1978 by late president Anwar Al-Sadat, the NDP has since become closely associated with Egyptian — and foreign — business interests. This orientation was made official in 2004 with the appointment of “technocrat” Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and a government consisting largely of wealthy businessmen.

These appointments were preceded by the formation of the influential NDP Policies Committee in 2002 headed up by Mubarak”s son, Gamal. With the encouragement of Washington and multilateral financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Policies Committee — also composed largely of prominent businessmen — embraced a neo-liberal economic strategy, which included opening Egypt up to foreign investment, reducing trade tariffs and selling off state assets.

The policy reversal was viewed negatively by many Egyptians, who saw it as a betrayal of the socialist foundations — and the emphasis on social justice — on which the modern state was founded in 1952.

“The obvious coupling of wealth and authority hurt the party”s image as the guardian of public welfare,” said Rabie. “Egyptians saw rich businessmen within the NDP receiving unfair advantages from their close associations with the party, including market monopolies and tax exemptions for their projects.”

With the NDP set to hold its fifth annual party congress early next month, the Tamim murder scandal could not have come at a worse time for the NDP. To be convened under the title “A New Style of Thinking for the Future of Our Country”, the congress will be held in Cairo Nov. 1 to 3.

According to NDP Secretary-General Safwat Al-Sherif, the event will discuss proposals for amending laws currently regulating general elections, local councils, labour unions and personal status issues. Proposed amendments, Al-Sherif was quoted as saying, aim to politically empower women, resolve citizenship disputes, and foster participation in union elections.

Party officials have stated that the congress would also focus on poverty alleviation and development of public services and infrastructure, particularly in education and public health.

In recent statements, Policies Committee chairman Gamal Mubarak noted that the conference would also discuss the effects of the current global financial crisis on the local economy. Some officials have expressed fears that the crisis could severely impact revenues from Egypt”s top foreign currency earners, including tourism and Suez Canal transit fees.

Echoing a common theme of previous party congresses, the senior Mubarak — who is also NDP chairman — reportedly urged participants to focus on the issue of social justice.

“Social justice was at the heart of debates at last year”s NDP congress and will form the lynchpin of debates at the fifth annual conference,” he was quoted as saying in the state press. He went on to instruct conference participants to work for a more equitable distribution of income among citizens and to improve the standard of living in Egypt”s poorest areas.

Critics of the regime, however, put little stock in these lofty aims.

“Empty promises like these are repeated ad nauseum without ever being implemented,” said the Muslim Brotherhood”s Al-Arian. “New party slogans — “A new style of thinking,” for instance — amount to little more than a public relations effort to convince the public of the party”s legitimacy.”

Rabie expressed similar cynicism, saying that the upcoming conference and the accompanying talk about social justice “is only an attempt to portray the NDP as a unified, functioning party with fresh ideas. But given the mounting scandals and poor prospects for real change, the people aren”t buying it this time.” (END/2008)