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Egyptians talk democratic reform

Egypt's ruling party conference last week yielded no major changes. But formerly taboo issues are being aired.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 27, 2004


After 26 years of single-party rule in which Egyptian unemployment has risen to 25 percent, regime opponents have been jailed, and frequent promises of political reform have been ignored, almost everyone - the US, Egyptian opposition, even the ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak - agrees that it's time for a change in the Arab world's largest country.

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Mr. Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) provocatively called its annual conference last week "New Thought and Reform Priorities." Speaker after speaker, from the president's telegenic son Gamal Mubarak to Mohammed Kamal of the NDP's policy committee, addressed the theme of change and renewal.

"One-party rule is over,'' Mr. Kamal told reporters at the start of the conference. "All the doors are open," he says. And even President Mubarak said in his closing speech he would "spread the culture of democracy."

That and other declarations set off a buzz among Egypt's weak and generally demoralized democratic opposition, who reasoned the government would have to do something concrete - perhaps easing the restrictions on political parties - to at least give its promises a gloss of legitimacy.

The conference left Egyptians with only a few proposals and no real change to the political and emergency laws that have allowed the NDP to rule unchallenged since 1978. But a combination of US pressure and a faltering economy are allowing previously taboo subjects in Egypt to come to the fore.

Should the constitution be amended with presidential term limits to prevent Mubarak from taking a fifth five-year term next fall? If the ruling party is admitting past mistakes, why shouldn't it be removed from power? And why are emergency laws enacted after Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981 - which allow for indefinite detention without trial and cast a pall of fear over political activists - still in place?

While democratic gains are still a long way off in Egypt, the simple fact that the government is addressing the issue - which amounts to a tacit admission that it hasn't performed either in building democracy or in improving the lives of average Egyptians - gives opposition groups an opening.

Closely controlled elections and a referendum on the president are scheduled for next year, and opposition groups are seeking to stir at least a political debate on Egypt's future.

"The political system has ossified,'' says Mona Makram-Ebeid, a former member of parliament and secretary- general of the Ghad Party, a new liberal political group that has unsuccessfully lobbied for legal status. "The NDP can't really change. It's a party of political opportunists."

Ms. Makram-Ebeid believes the government may be coming to recognize that by stifling national political discourse, it's simply strengthening the Islamist opposition.

"Controlling the political parties is the best way to strengthen the Islamist movement,''she says. "For average Egyptians, they see that the government is corrupt and the Islamic movement is the only thing that gives them hope."

While the government says it is responding to calls from within Egypt, most opposition figures think the government is feeling pressure from the Bush administration, which says democratic reform in the Arab world is one of its top priorities. Egypt receives about $2 billion a year in US aid - the third largest recipient, after Israel and Iraq.