World – Paradox of power in ailing Egypt
In Cairo”s industrial suburbs, workers at Magdi Tolba”s clothing factory turn out 40,000 garments a day, mostly destined for well-known stores in the west.
Despite warnings from President Hosni Mubarak the economy was likely to suffer in the global economic downturn, Mr Tolba believes Egypt remains a “land of opportunity”.
“We have certain advantages that do not exist anywhere else,” he says. “Geographically, we are in the middle of the world. We have safety, we have political stability.”
Yet it”s political stability at a price. The octogenarian President Hosni Mubarak has ruled for 27 years, repeatedly extending a state of emergency imposed after the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
Given that he has been in power since the early 1980s critics have questioned the choice of slogan for this annual National Democratic Party conference this weekend – “New Thoughts for Egypt”s Future”.
It”s the same old rhetoric, said Abdul Galil Mustafa , a senior member of the opposition movement Kefaya.
He believes President Mubarak is preoccupied not with reform, as he set out in his keynote speech on Saturday, but with securing his son Gamal as his successor.
“It”s amazing somebody who has been responsible for controlling this country for almost three decades is talking at this moment about the future,” Mr Mustafa said.
He questioned official figures which suggest the economy has grown almost 7% in the past financial year.
“Go anywhere in Egypt and you”ll discover the kind of poverty that the majority are suffering. We have serious problems meeting even the basic needs for survival,” he says.
“This regime has done nothing over the past six or seven years except bring people into government that will help fix this man in his father”s place. It”s all about the future of this Gamal, not the future for Egypt.””
Criticism grew louder in the run-up to the NDP conference, as it became embroiled in allegations of corruption and cronyism.
“Popular perceptions of the NDP have never been worse,” said Amr Hashem Rabie from the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
In 2004, under Gamal Mubarak”s direction, a “technocrat” government consisting largely of wealthy businessmen was appointed. It reduced trade tariffs and sold off state assets, to the dismay of many Egyptians.
“The obvious coupling of wealth and authority hurt the party”s image as the guardian of public welfare,” said Mr 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.”
President Mubarak”s current six-year term ends in 2011. Ordinarily, that would trigger a cross-party contest for the presidency. Yet despite Egypt”s declared status as a democracy, there is no effective opposition to speak of, and demonstration are rarely tolerated.
The best organised group outside the regime is the banned Muslim Brotherhood. But in local elections held earlier this year only 10% of its declared candidates were allowed to stand.
“Approval ratings are difficult to determine in Egypt because there are no reliable statistics,” said MB official Essam Arian. “But most commentators admit that the NDP”s popular standing is now in free fall.”
He says this is down to a series of scandals involving party officials, poor hospitals and schools, and a “chronic disconnect between the ruling elite and the people”.
Embarrassingly for the NDP, one of its most senior figures has become embroiled in a high-profile murder trial.
Construction magnate and NDP policy committee member Hisham Talaat Moustafa has denied financing the killing of Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim
Ms Tamim, said to be his former lover, was found with her throat cut in Dubai three months ago.
“If such things happened in a respectable country, the head of the party would be forced to resign,” said Mr Rabie. “But in Egypt, there are no resignations, no accountability, no change.”
He said the conference pledges were “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”.
The NDP”s secretary-general has come out fighting. Safwat El-Sherif said: “Our party does not allow corrupt people to fill its ranks. We respect the rule of law. The NDP is not a place for wrongdoers to enjoy immunity.”
The party”s critics, he said, “suffer from political blindness and moral delinquency”.
Cairo Cotton Company chief executive Mr Tolba, who has advised NDP ministers, believes Egyptians should try to remain positive.
And he is enthusiastic about the possibility of a Gamal presidency.
The president”s son graduated in business and economics from the American University in Cairo, and is a western-trained banker.
“I would say he”s the right man for the future,” says Mr Tolba. “I wouldn”t evaluate him as the president”s son, but as an expert, an economist who”s listening and working positively.”
He admires Gamal”s willingness to debate openly and listen to criticism and most importantly “after 60 years we”re going to have a civilian president”.
Egyptians are already resigned to the fact that when President Mubarak does finally stand aside, through choice or providence, the decision over who succeeds him will be made for them.
Gamal Mubarak insists he doesn”t want the job but has slowly accumulated power. For the moment there is no sign of anyone else being groomed for the job