• Reports
  • November 4, 2005
  • 7 minutes read

Reform without reformers

Reform without reformers
Is the influence of the NDP’s pro-reform wing ebbing, asks Omayma Abdel-Latif
Hossam Badrawi, head of the outgoing People’s Assembly’s Education Committee and an NDP candidate, appeared in no mood to mince his words when asked to speak about the elections during a seminar last week. In what was interpreted as an acknowledgment of the growing frustration within the party’s reform camp, Badrawi told the audience that in selecting candidates the NDP had focussed on maintaining its majority at the expense of reform. Reformers within the party, said Badrawi, believed the elections presented an opportunity to progress along the reform path.

“This could have been achieved,” he said, “by making space on the candidates’ list for women, Copts and new faces. Instead, the opposite view prevailed amid warnings that such an approach would jeopardise the party’s majority in parliament.”

Badrawi’s words offered an intriguing glimpse into how decisions are made within the NDP.

His take on events is shared by Abdel-Moneim Said, the head of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a member of the NDP’s Policies Committee. Writing in Al-Ahram on Monday, Said — generally considered one of the ideologues of the progressive wing of the NDP — made a clear distinction between what he described as the party’s “new trend, full of self- confidence and able to compete with other political forces” and the old guard who “freak out when the country decides that the ballot box is the sole source of legitimacy”.

In recent weeks the ongoing argument within the NDP over who should and should not represent the party in parliamentary elections has spilled into the open, with the public witnessing squabbles between leading party members over a number of contentious issues — handling the NDP dissenters, the selection of candidates tarnished by allegations of corruption, the absence of women and Copts from the party’s candidate list and, perhaps most divisive of all, the party’s position on engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood politically.

Last week Nahdet Masr, an independent daily close to the Policies Committee, ran a front page story about “a sweeping crisis” between Kamal El-Shazli, minister of parliamentary affairs and Fathi Sorour, the parliament speaker, over the candidacy of one of Al-Shazli’s relatives who is standing against Sorour in Al-Sayeda Zeinab. The paper alleged that El-Shazli was seeking to unseat Sorour and replace him in the newly- elected parliament. The same paper also reported on Gamal Mubarak’s efforts to mediate between Zakariya Azmi and Safwat El-Sherif, the NDP secretary-general.

Such reports paint a picture of a fractured party in which, having suddenly found themselves marginalised, the NDP’s reformist wing is growing increasingly restless. The influence of the group surrounding Gamal Mubarak, say some observers, having peaked with the presidential elections when they were left to run the show, is now steadily declining.

The parliamentary elections, says one analyst, could fatally weaken the position of the Gamal Mubarak camp as the party’s old-guard re-asserts its power.

“The party’s seasoned autocrats have managed to convince the president that they have a better understanding of the election map and should be given the lead this time,” says Hassan Nafaa, professor of politics at Cairo University.

Although Nafaa believes that ideologically the lines are blurred between the party’s old and new guard, the weakening of what he describes as the Gamal Mubarak clique underlines that the party had never been genuine in its embrace of a reformist agenda. “The old autocrats want business to continue as usual, with vote-rigging, excessive use of state apparatuses and ruthless police powers to intimidate voters. These elections might prove a hard test for them.”

Other analysts, though, believe the struggle over leadership of the party is far from over, with neither wing yet able to claim victory over the other.

Nafaa believes the parliamentary elections remain the litmus test of the NDP’s commitment to reform: “If they result in the NDP winning the kind of majority it has claimed in previous elections then one can safely assume that any democratic transition through peaceful means has come to an end,” he warns.

Even analysts close to the NDP have been critical of the old guard’s obsessive focus on numbers of seats rather than the process as a whole. Gamal Mubarak appeared to succumb to this logic when, during an election rally in Beni Sweif, he said, “the party was fighting to win every seat in parliament and all political parties are entitled to do the same.”

In a week when a stream of conflicting statements have been made by leading party figures confusion also reigns over the NDP’s position vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood. The independent press has claimed that a deal has been struck between the Brotherhood and the pro- reform wing inside the NDP under which the Brotherhood has been allowed to come out of the closet and hold public rallies in exchange for downplaying criticisms of the regime during the elections.

On Sunday, at a press conference in his constituency of Al-Bagour, Menoufiya, El-Shazli described the Brotherhood as a “political force that cannot be ignored” — the first time a high- ranking NDP official had voiced such a view of the group generally considered to be the NDP’s main competitor. El-Shazli went on to predict that the Brotherhood would win up to 35 seats in the coming assembly.

El-Shazli’s flirtation with the Brotherhood was a day later replaced by staunch criticism, when Safwat El-Sherif accused them of inciting sectarian strife in Alexandria.

Many observers are perplexed at the suggestion that it is reformers within the NDP who have engineered the thaw in relations between the party and the Muslim Brotherhood. Not so Said, who argues that the changes the pro- reform camp have already injected into Egypt’s political life means that yesterday’s taboos — including the thorny issue of the Brotherhood’s integration in the political system — are now open for debate.

Towards the end of another public rally in Abdeen, Gamal Mubarak concluded his introduction of the candidates by saying that they will be part of “the parliament of the future” which will complete the reform agenda. Badrawi is far less sanguine. The next parliament, he believes, will contain fewer pro-reform members than the outgoing assembly.