IT”S that time of year again. No, not Halloween. Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is about to convene its annual conference. It’s hard to figure out why the party (such as it is) even goes through the motions. There aren”t too many Egyptians who take the three day confab very seriously. There is very little about the NDP that is “national”, “democratic”, or a “party”. It’s a vast (and not terribly effective) patronage machine that has become the vehicle for President Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to fulfill his political ambitions. Even senior government officials have a hard time concealing their disdain. Last year I was visiting Cairo while the conference was taking place and one of those officials referred to it as “the theatrics going on in Heliopolis”.
I attended the event in 2004 and it was generally a yawn, though it was interesting to see the thinly veiled competition between the NDP old guard and Gamal”s group of cronies, who positioned themselves as agents of change. What struck me then and what has since become abundantly clear was that with all the NDP’s talk of “New Thinking”, Gamal et al merely wanted to institutionalise the power of the party under the guise of reform. Look no further than the reforms the NDP has pushed through the People’s Assembly in the last three years. While the government-controlled press and the party have hailed a new era in Egyptian politics, the changes are much of the same or worse. The reformed Political Parties Law, for example, actually makes it harder for Egyptians to organise.
Each year there are rumours that something big is going to happen. In 2004, old Hosni was going to announce the appointment of a vice president. Didn’t happen. I can’t remember what was supposed to be the earth-shattering announcement of 2005, but I know it didn’t happen. Last year, the cognescenti believed that Gamal was finally going to oust the party’s secretary-general and quintessential old guard standard-bearer, Safwat Sherif. Didn’t happen. Rumour has it that since Mr Sherif didn’t get the ax last year, he’s going to get it this year. Hosni is 79 and more and more people are expecting that he will not wake up one morning some time soon. (As an aside, I have heard that his dad lived to 105, which upon hearing this possible fact, sends my Egyptian friends into a deep funk.) What we are observing in Egypt is the opening act of the post-Hosni Mubarak drama.
Whatever happens in Egypt, it’s unlikely to usher in fundamental change. The regime hasn’t cracked. The internal security forces are systematically taking down any and all elements of dissent—the Muslim Brothers; journalists; editors; bloggers; and last spring, judges. The very fact that the leadership believes that it can go after its opponents openly and brutally with impunity is a clear indication that it feels secure. Moving forward, the police will ensure that activists are repressed and average Egyptians are intimidated. Big business will continue to profit from unprecedented foreign direct investment (Egypt’s a hit with the “emerging markets” crowd). And the army is not going to let the regime they founded unravel. In other words, status quo. So whether it is Hosni or Gamal, what’s the difference?
One more note on Egypt. Saad Eddin Ibrahim visited New York last week. Mr Ibrahim is the founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo and has become an iconic figure among those in the West interested in democratic change in Egypt and the Arab world. He was arrested in the summer of 2000 and spent the better part of the following three years in an Egyptian prison for his activism. Mr Ibrahim has paid a heavy price for his beliefs—his health deteriorated irreparably during his incarceration—and I admire him greatly.
Mr Ibrahim seems convinced that aid conditionality, specifically withholding portions of Egypt’s annual allotment of military aid will force the Egyptian leadership to undertake progressive political change. A number of smart people have made this argument, including my friends and colleagues Max Boot and Marc Lynch, but I am not necessarily sure. Mr Ibrahim is correct when he identifies the $1.3 billion in military aid as a sensitive subject for Hosni Mubarak, who wants to keep his officers happy. Should Congress cut the aid, it seems to me that in the interest of keeping the military happy, the Egyptians will make up the shortfall at the expense of other budget items.
Conditionality also has a spotty record of success. To be sure, one of the things that persuaded Mr Mubarak that keeping Mr Ibrahim in prison was more trouble than it was worth was the Bush administration’s refusal to support an Egyptian request for $130m in supplemental security-related aid after 9/11. The administration has also held up negotiations for a US-Egypt free trade agreement over, among other things, the imprisonment of opposition politician Ayman Nour. Yet Mr Nour languishes in prison and, if anything, the political space for activists has narrowed since Washington took that decision. Mr Ibrahim himself can’t go back to Egypt for fear of another round of imprisonment for reportedly encouraging George Bush to cut military aid going to Mr Mubarak.
My own sense is that America might be better off with a policy based on incentives, but this is a very tough and politically difficult position to sell. I am deeply ambivalent. After all, the Egyptians should have to answer (in some way) for their predatory policies, but I am not sure cutting aid is going to do much to bring Cairo to heel. In fact, it might just do the opposite.