Absent opposition haunts Egypt’s ruling NDP

Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) begins its annual conference on September 26, as Crescent goes to press. On the face of it, the conference will no doubt be an impressive political occasion. It is expected to be attended by up to 2,200 party members, and will be chaired by party chairman Hosni Mubarak. His son, Gamal Mubarak, is due to address the conference’s first session in his capacity as chairman of the party’s influential Policy Secretariat, on the coordination that has been taking place between the party and government.

The conference’s agenda includes reports on the party’s achievements in 2003 and its goals for 2004, as well as committees on citizens’ rights and democratization, economic policies, education and scientific research, conservation and urban growth, and the future of Egypt’s transport sector. Party officials have also promised that leading representatives of civil society will be involved in open dialogue on the sidelines of the conference.

Despite the facade of a vibrant political life, however, the main issues that people will be talking about will most definitely not appear on the official agenda: the embarrassing political situations that the party has found itself in in recent months, and the role of the country’s most popular and influential political movement, the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen.

Among the party’s recent embarrassments has been the stripping of nearly two dozen MPs, all NDP members, of their parliamentary membership for failing to do their military service without having any reason for exemption; all were from the NDP.

Meanwhile, another NDP member, is beginning a 10 year jail sentence after being convicted by a Cairo Criminal Court on September 10 of profiteering, forging official documents and facilitating the embezzlement of LE262 million (US$42.5 million). Abdallah Tayel is a former chairman of the parliament economic affairs committee and a close associate of the NDP’s assistant general secretary Kamal El-Shazli, who is also the government minister of state for Parliamentary affairs. He is also expected to face another embarrassing trial, on charges of allegedly embezzling $30m.

On the same day, the leftist Tagammu Party organised a public demonstration calling for the resignation of prime minister Atef Ebeid and his government, accusing them of forcing forcing investors to pay massive kick-backs and bribes in order to have their projects approved.. The Tagammu Party also said that he devaluation of the Egyptian pound, reportedly forced on the government by the US and the International monetary Fund, had deliberately been designed to hit Egypt’s poorest people the hardest, a view that is widely shared among Egyptians.

The conference will be haunted most of all, however, by the knowledge that the party and state still have no effective counter to the growing profile of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun, the Islamic movement which is officially banned, but is effectively the government’s main opposition. During the run-up to the Iraq war, the Ikhwan worked with the government to co-ordinate peaceful anti-war demonstrations, which effectively absorbed and contained popular popular anger. At the same time, they gave the Ikhwan a higher profile and more credibility than they have had for some time.

The government has responded with a wave of arrests of senior Ikhwan members, even as it was engaged in talks with the party’s leadership. Far from hampering the Ikhwan’s work, however, these have added to its credibility, despite some popular anger that the Ikhwan was not more effective in its anti-war activities. This has reached a point where commentators are seeing the Ikhwan as a viable alternative to Mubarak’s regime, and even a party with which the West could work to broaden the country’s political participation and so avert future trouble.

While the NDP goes through the motions of ruling party politics, and Hosni Mubarak grooms his son to succeed him in due course, a lot of ordinary members, in the party either of personal gain (though few can ever hope to gain as much as Abdallah Tayel tried to) or to be able to take part in what little politics is available, will be looking over their shoulders and seeing at their backs a rising tide of public opinion fuelled by Mubarak’s pro-Western policies and embarrassing scandals, and increasingly looking to a ‘moderate Islamic movement’ for leadership.