Political reform falters in Egypt

As the year draws to a close, prospects for constitutional reform remain “bleak” in the view of Egypt’s fragmented opposition, who continue to accuse the governing National Democratic Party (NDP) of operating a “police state”.

Despite promises of reform and constitutional amendments put forward by the NDP, the coming year promises to be complicated and troublesome, according to opposition leaders and political analysts.

The domestic political situation was in turmoil as President Hosny Mubarak embarked on a European tour, following shortly on his Euro-Asian one, with analysts describing the political opposition as being “as helpless as ever”.

Close to year-end, Mubarak told Parliament he would stay in power so long as his “heart beats in his chest”, sending shockwaves through the opposition who discounted pledges of political reform as “a scam”.

Mubarak made clear the Constitution would not be subject to constant change, apparently ruling out amendments put forward after fierce debate by opposition MPs pushing the demands of their respective parties.

MP Hamdi Hassan, a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood bloc, predicted its recommended amendments would be discarded. “We did our part, but the results of our efforts are not in our hands, so we should not be made to account for the results, only for the effort we made,” Hassan said in apparent surrender to the NDP majority. “Our failure to bring about change is a failure of the majority NDP itself.”

The content of the promised constitutional amendments remains vague, as the NDP has declined to disclose its plans. “This is unnatural, inconsistent, and wrong — the fact that we are not exposed to the nature of the amendments. This never happens in any European country,” Hassan said.

“For some reason the details of the upcoming constitutional changes remain secret and only the NDP knows their specifics. This is utter manipulation. But then again, eliminating others has always been the philosophy of this regime,” he added.

Over recent months, the opposition has grown in size but not in influence.

Gamal Mubarak, NDP deputy head and son of the president, has staked out his claim to succeed his father, becoming the public face of the party over recent years.

At the last major NDP meeting, it was the younger Mubarak who laid out the party’s long-term road map, leading to increased fears among the opposition that he might be imposed as the next president.

In a further indication of his central role, Gamal Mubarak was the man chosen to announce the country’s nuclear-energy programme, a flagship project for the NDP that was quickly approved by the United States.

Those fears were enhanced by infighting within the main opposition al-Wafd, one of Egypt’s oldest parties, that degenerated into open violence.

Other political parties are still struggling to achieve legitimacy and to carve out a space in the political arena, leaving the field open to the NDP, even though the Constitution now allows multiparty elections.

The government has also refused to release either Ayman Nour, an opposition leader jailed for fraud, or the controversial and popular former MP Talaat el-Sadat, who was jailed by a military court for insulting the army.

The opposition continues to demand a more liberal political climate, in which forces like the Kifaya (Enough) movement, the socialist al-Karama, the Muslim Brotherhood and parties like Nour’s al-Ghad would have a say.

Factors contributing to the rising political temperature include the prospect of a new session of Parliament; the upcoming local elections, in which the Muslim Brotherhood aims to score success; and the promised further amendment of Article 76 of the Constitution, which regulates multiparty elections.

US support
Apparent support from the US for the NDP’s “young reformers”, as President George Bush called them recently, has left opposition leaders feeling isolated in calling for increased democratisation. Initial US support for Nour also appears to have dimmed.

Nevertheless, sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim has said that the US State Department has asked him to put forward the names of those that could succeed Mubarak — such as former NDP member Osama el-Ghazali Harb and Premier Ahmed Nazif.

“The US support for Ayman or democracy in general was never genuine,” said Nagi al-Ghatrify, the current head of Nour’s al-Ghad party. “It was short-term and it was linked to certain endeavours that only the Americans know.”

Observers believe that the experience with the Palestinian Hamas movement has prompted US support for the NDP, for fear the Muslim Brotherhood could take over. “One could say that the Muslim Brotherhood has stifled both political reform and the US support, just by being there,” al-Ghatrify said. —