Reforms From Within?
|Saturday, December 22,2007 11:29|
|By Safaa Abdoun|
The governing National Democratic Party’s (NDP) ninth annual conference in early November saw top party officials meet with members from all over the country to discuss policy, focusing on three main objectives: reorganization of the party’s key positions and committees, the election of a chairman and the evaluation of the party and government’s performance. Old divisions between generations and “guards” were given a makeover, with evidently little change in the resulting balance of power.
Shocking no one, President Hosni Mubarak was elected party chairman after receiving 99 percent of the 6,700 votes cast by delegates. He was the only candidate running for the post.
New Committee, Old Alliances
News came in the form of the new Supreme Committee which was created to coordinate their political organization with constitutional amendments made a year ago. Any political party has the constitutional right to nominate any member of the Supreme Committee for presidency with the condition that he has been a member for more than one year.
The 50 members of the Supreme Committee come from both the policy secretariat and the political bureau, strategically selected to include a balance of three groups from within the NDP: the “old guard,” whose members have been in the Mubarak government for the last two decades, businessmen partial to economic liberalization and Gamal Mubarak as a successor and scholars and current ministers chosen for their experience and expertise.
Though credited with breathing fresh life in to party politics and despite an increased prominence of the reformist’s group within the party, critics contend the reorganization and proposed changes are cosmetic, citing the continued presence of the old guard.
“The government is starting to commit [to] the party’s objectives and its philosophy but it will implement them in its own way — provided financial and human resources, of course,” believes Abou Taleb.
Local press commented on how ministers and NDP officials both used the same economic statistics, goals and objectives in their speeches. “Everything [that] was prepared and set for the conference was put and written in a full collaboration of the government and the party,” notes Abou Taleb.
Party agenda issues included social development and economic reform including policies and goals regarding housing, national security, education, healthcare and services such as water, sewage and transportation. Meanwhile, the party dealt with the nuclear issue by declaring a commitment to sustainable energy by 2022, which will reportedly depend in part on four nuclear power stations being operational by that point.
A number of delegates voiced their concerns about issues like employment and poverty. “When a minister or an official was speaking, people would stand up and say, ‘This is great but we want to drink water,’ and things like that,” he says.
Out on the streets Egyptians had similar concerns. “I am not against the NDP, they seemed to have taken some very good decisions, but we want to see action and change actually happening around us,” says Ayman Ahmed, a driver.
“The [National Democratic] party are making decisions that will only affect them — but how about the people who just want to get through the day and put food on the table?” asked Mokhtar Abdel Kareem, who has a commerce diploma and works at a supermarket in Downtown.
The conference closed on November 6 with a stated intent to shrink the gap between party, government and the people, and enhance the quality of life in Egypt. The question remains whether they will actually be implemented and when the rest of Egypt might start benefiting from the much-discussed economic growth and liberalization.
I n one of its fieriest election rounds in years, the Egyptian Press Syndicate last month voted in Al-Ahram columnist Makram Mohamed Ahmed as chairman. A pro-government journalist, Ahmed was the strongest nominee for the post, raking in 2,389 votes. Pro-Ikhwan Ragaii El-Merghani trailed behind with 1,269 votes.
Ahmed, who takes on the post for the second time, had announced a few days before the elections that he was able to receive a grant from the government that would raise journalists’ salaries by LE 200. Considering that this sum is more than the monthly pay of many journalists, especially those working in party and private newspapers, the going saying at the syndicate now is, El-geneih ghalab el-karneih (the pound has defeated the card).
The announcement came early on the evening of November 17, but the names of the 12 new syndicate board members weren’t released until the next day. The candidates and members of the syndicate had protested when the judicial committee in charge of monitoring the elections tried to take the ballot boxes out of the syndicate headquarters. Things were about to get ugly but the newly elected chairman stepped in and calmed people down, convincing the members of the committee to count the votes on the premises.
The new board is a mélange of different political leanings, the majority of whom belong to the opposition, be it Muslim Brotherhood, Nasserist or leftist. Noted Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama predicted in his column that Ahmed, who sports a volatile temper, would soon either fall out with his board or start up a dialogue that would solve crucial media concerns such as prison sentences for publishing ‘offenses.’ (MJ)
O nce again, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa has sparked a public outcry, not over a fatwa (religious edict) this time, but over his opinion of the 26 Egyptians who drowned late October near Italy while trying to illegally immigrate to the European Union.
Gomaa stated that those who died were not martyrs, despite the presence of hadiths (Prophetic sayings) stating that people who die laboring are martyrs, as are those who drown, and so go straight to Paradise.
Scholars objected vehemently to his claim, but Gomaa stood his ground, telling local press that those who died “put themselves in danger and the aim of their journey was not given over to service to God . If we look at the motives that pushed them to travel, we see that they are after money because each of them paid LE 25,000 to leave, which means they are not poor.”
Al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, overruled Egypt’s Grand Mufti when its Islamic Research Committee decreed the illegal immigrants who drowned as martyrs. The head of the committee that issues fatwas, Sheikh Abdel Hamid El-Atrash, argued that the dead immigrants “were martyrs because God told us to travel the world in search of a living and anyone who dies doing this is a martyr.”
Attempting to save face, Gomaa explained that, “I did not ignore the humanitarian dimension of the problem  but if I say [those who died were] martyrs that means I am telling them to go ahead and commit suicide.”
Newspapers had a field day when word came out that the Mufti had branded the drowned men “greedy.” In a scathing attack, Mohamed Salmawy, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Hebdo, sarcastically said he agreed with the Mufti that those who died were greedy, since their ultimate aim was seeking jobs that paid them in a foreign currency:
“What’s wrong with the Egyptian pound anyway?  True these youths didn’t see much of it, but never mind. Had these youths been satisfied with what they’ve got, they wouldn’t have arrogantly refused all the opportunities offered to them. For one, they could have continued depending on their families or lived like parasites on society instead of traveling abroad to get a job merely because there was no hope of getting one at home. They also had a choice to turn into extremists and terrorists. They could have also resorted to theft and other illicit, but rewarding ways of making money. And last but not least, they could have turned to drugs to escape unemployment.” Salmawy ended his tirade by announcing that, in addition, he did not “absolve any of these young men of sinister intentions to drown themselves to embarrass the cabinet of the National Democratic Party.”
Gomaa promptly denied claims that he had described the victims as “greedy,” and provided a transcript that corroborated this. He also added that the media had wrongly attributed his words as a fatwa when in fact he was responding to a question a student had asked, therefore quoting him out of context and distorting his meaning.
Clear Skies Ahead
R eeling from fierce criticism from the media for caving in to the government to issue certain edicts, Gomaa and Dar El-Ifta made amends last month after proactively addressing another problem plaguing the nation: the black cloud. The official interpreter of Islamic law in Egypt released a fatwa early last month prohibiting farmers from burning rice and cotton stubble, citing the Prophet’s (PBUH) hadith, “There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm.”
According to a press release issued by Dar El-Ifta, scientific research has proven that children suffer the most from the heavy air pollution caused by such acts as they have difficulty breathing, contract lung diseases and become more prone to asthma and eye infection. In addition, these acts cause the black cloud, the thick layer of smog that hovers over Cairo and neighboring cities annually during the fall season after the harvest.The edict condemns any person involved in these practices, arguing that, “They are causing destruction to the earth without any justification and this is a major sin which the Qur’an forbids.”
Dar El-Ifta also appealed to the government to step in and facilitate alternative options to dispose of the byproducts in a safe and environmentally friendly manner. The government is currently developing projects to recycle rice waste into fertilizers.
The black cloud has been appearing in Egypt since 1999 and the government has taken several measures, including laws and fines, in order to prevent farmers from burning the stubble after the harvest, but to no avail. It is only this year that a religious entity has intervened.
The Floods Are Coming
M ustafa Tolba, former assistant to the General Secretary of the UN’s Environment Program, made waves last month when he confirmed the World Bank’s concerns that Alexandria and the Delta are on their way to disappearing underwater.
The World Bank report says that the Mediterranean could rise by about five meters, causing massive devastation to the area. Despite government efforts to erect sea walls to protect Alexandria’s beaches and the archaeological treasures in Rosetta, the Mediterranean has been rising annually for the last decade, flooding parts of Egypt’s shoreline.
Speaking to the local press last month, Tolba stressed that emergency evacuation plans have to be prepared for the areas in danger, namely the North Coast and a quarter of the Delta. By the end of the century, the said area would be home to a third of Egypt’s population, expected to be 160 million at the time, outlined Tolba. It would also be responsible for 12 percent of the nation’s crop produce and 40 percent of its industry, he estimated.
Opening Up the Job Market
I n cooperation with the Ministry of Industry and the Ministry of Manpower, the Social Fund for Development (SFD) and the Industry Modernization Center are set to inaugurate the first civil institute to address unemployment and develop human resources.
Hani Seif El Nasr, SFD General Secretary, announced last month that the institute aims to re-channel excess employment in public-sector factories into new projects by developing employees’ skills. The outfit also hopes to create more job opportunities by offering guidance to small business owners.
“The financing of the institute will be generated from the expenses it will charge the individuals, government entities and institutes for their direct human development and recruitment services for different projects,” Seif El Nasr revealed. He added that the institute would test for employees’ skills and personal interests so as to find the best job description for each. “It will also provide training for those who have been [made redundant] due to over-employment in the public sector, as well as others, to switch to different jobs or start up small projects.”
Services include training on how to write resumes and developing interview skills as well as providing a network to link job seekers and employers.
On the Picket Lines
N obody likes real estate tax collectors, especially the Ministry of Finance, it appears. Last month saw a whopping 7,000 collectors from 14 governorates parked in the capital for a week-long protest after the Ministry of Finance refused to bring the Real Estate Tax Office — separated from the ministry back in the 1970s — back under its jurisdiction. Effectively, the angry workers argued, that means they are being deprived of the salaries and pensions offered to their colleagues at the ministry, the public tax collectors. The protestors alleged that while their counterparts at the ministry enjoyed raises and better pension plans, their salaries were stagnant and, what with inflation, are no longer enough to cover living expenses.
The strikers took to the picket lines in an attempt to sway the independent Labor Union to convince the government either to raise wages or put them back under the authority of the Ministry of Finance. Those who couldn’t come to Cairo staged a strike in their respective governorates.
On day two of the protest, President of the Workers’ Union Hussein Megawer came out to calm the crowds and announced that Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali had indeed promised the NDP that authority would go back to his ministry but was awaiting the real estate law to be approved by Parliament in its next term. The collectors threatened that if no promises were fulfilled, they would continue the protests through December, and local newspapers printed demonstrators’ warnings that they would be the “most violent in Egyptian history.”
Although at press time the protestors had broken up their demonstrations and are waiting for the ministry’s next move, local media has picked up on reports that workers are attempting to get back at the ministry by refusing to do their jobs, costing the government millions in uncollected taxes.
R umors flew last month that Gamila Ismail has resigned from the Ghad Party. According to independent daily Al Masry Al Youm, Ismail cited many reasons for her resignation, including “pressure and the inability to continue facing conflicts with friends and colleagues.” Her announcement was made by SMS shortly after her weekly visit to her imprisoned husband and former party head Ayman Nour.
Current Party Chief Moussa Mostafa Moussa responded by saying the announcement was “weird and surprising.” He added that he would not take her resignation seriously until it had been printed or handwritten in a proper letter.
A few months back Nour’s petition for early release on grounds of poor health was rejected by the Administrative Court — an event which followed an hour after the Political Parties Committee’s (PPC, affiliated with the Shura Council) decision to officially recognize Nour’s rival, Moussa, as Ghad chairman. The PPC’s decision was based on a (Cairo) Southern Court ruling passed in Moussa’s favor, bringing to an end the bitter legal battle for control of the party that has raged since 2005. At the time Ismail had vowed to try to reverse this decision, branding it “illegal,” as Moussa was ousted from the Party in 2005 before he began the legal battle to appoint himself chairman.
SENTENCED police officers Islam Nabih and Reda Fathi to three years in prison each for their sexual assault on minibus driver Emad El-Kebir. The attack was captured on a mobile phone video recording that had been taken to humiliate the victim, but turned out to be the evidence used against the officers. Although torture by Egyptian security services is a known occurrence, it is unusual for officers to be convicted of abuses. The video showed footage of El-Kebir screaming for mercy as police officers sodomized him with a wooden stick. The clip was leaked to resident activists / bloggers who then posted it on the Web, creating enough controversy to nail the officers. Critics of Egypt’s human rights policies complain that though the officers were convicted, the judge still chose the lowest sentence possible.