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

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.

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."

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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.

"No one trusts this language of reform anymore,'' says Ahmed Sef al-Islam Hamed, a human rights lawyer and political organizer. "The government is simply trying to avoid international reform pressure with words."

But Mr. Sef concedes that "five years ago, a person like me couldn't dream of speaking as freely as we can now. The red light "on criticizing the president and his family doesn't exist anymore. We can talk about succession, we can criticize the rise of Gamal, and we don't go to jail."

Sef says US demands for reform have been coupled ironically, with public anger over the close relationship between the government and the US in the wake of the Palestinian intifada and invasion of Iraq, creating pressures that Mr. Mubarak's party feel it can no longer ignore or contain by simply rounding up a few political opponents.

"We're braver now. My feeling is that there's a crisis within the kitchen cabinet that really runs Egypt. They're not sure what to do and that's giving us more space," he says.

That opening has been used most visibly to try to derail what some opposition figures believe is a campaign to position Gamal Mubarak as the presumptive successor to his father, who spent much of July in Germany for back surgery and who collapsed during a nationally televised speech last November.

After Egyptian athletes won five medals from the Athens Olympics, the best performance in 50 years, a huge poster went up in Cairo's main Tahrir Square showing Gamal Mubarak congratulating one of the winners. It was later pulled down after an opposition group filed a lawsuit to have the poster removed.

"It's the first time in Egypt's history where the question of who will become president has become an issue before the process started,'' says Sef, who helped file the lawsuit. "Gamal probably won't be president - it will probably be a military man like his father - but we want to begin the process of involving society."

Mubarak has said repeatedly in interviews that Gamal will not replace him, but a number of his allies have gained ministerial positions - seen as a boost for Gamal Mubarak.

The younger Mubarak is part of a new generation within the NDP, many with private-sector backgrounds, who are pushing for the government to liberalize the economy through privatization and reducing requirements for investors.

Brushing aside questions about the country's emergency laws, Gamal Mubarak told reporters that "radical economic reforms'' should come before major political changes, and he said the emergency laws needed to stay in place to "fight terrorism." But the price tag put on a proposal to halve corporate taxes to about 20 percent, shows how badly the economy has done under the NDP.

A party official said the tax cut would take $600 million from the budget, implying annual corporate tax revenues of $1.2 billion in this country of 70 million people. By contrast, Massachusetts, with a population of 6.5 million, takes in about $1.7 billion a year in corporate taxes.

"Getting rid of the emergency laws would do more for reform in Egypt than anything else,'' says Sef. "They would have to release thousands of people, mostly Islamists, from jail if they dumped them. I don't think they want to lose that kind of control."

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