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Last Updated: Monday, 29 September, 2003, 01:38 GMT 02:38 UK
Egypt ruling party pledges reform
By Heba Saleh
BBC Correspondent in Cairo

Gamal Mubarak
Gamal Mubarak is widely seen as an heir-in-waiting
The ruling National Democratic Party in Egypt has wrapped up a three-day party conference in which it made an unprecedented pledge to promote political reform as one of its central objectives.

Held under the slogan "New Thought, The Rights of the Citizen," the conference appeared to consolidate the rise in national politics of President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal, who heads the party's Policy Secretariat.

"The time has come to say that human rights include political and economic rights. If we do not consolidate the concept of [political] participation, we cannot solve the problems ahead," NDP members were told by Gamal Mubarak.

Delegates at the conference adopted in its entirety a broad package of policies proposed by the younger Mr Mubarak - something which is bound to further fuel the speculation that he is being prepared to succeed his father.

Both the Egyptian president and his son have repeatedly denied that there are any such intentions.

Party law review

But talk of political reform has never before come naturally to the NDP, a party which has often been accused of rigging elections to secure its overwhelming parliamentary majorities.

The NDP now says it wants to remove the constraints hampering the political activities of other parties in the country.

"There is thinking about reviewing the law on political parties to give more freedom for new parties to be established and more freedom of action to those which already exist," said Mohamed Kamal a member of the Policy Secretariat.

So far the scope of the proposed reforms has not been made clear.

The party also says it wants to improve the relationship between citizens and the police - an important issue in a country accused by human rights groups of the systematic use of torture in police stations.

Modernising force?

Gamal Mubarak's policy secretariat was formed a year ago with the apparent ambition of breathing life into the sclerotic NDP traditionally just a lifeless fig leaf lending legitimacy to government decisions.

He is credited with bringing fresh blood into the party in the shape of the young, western-educated economists, businessmen and academics who now participate in drawing up party policy alongside government ministers.

Despite having ruled the country, at least in name, for more than 20 years, the NDP had never before formulated policy

Gamal's supporters say he has been modernising the party and in the process empowering a new generation of capable Egyptians.

The young reformists surrounding him are self-styled pragmatists who promote liberal economic policy and a greater role for the private sector in providing essential services such as health and education.

But despite the mounting importance within the party of Gamal's group, the same party bosses who have run the NDP for most of its life are still at the helm.

Opposition politicians say the continuing presence and influence of the old guard is proof that Gamal's Mubarak's reforms are cosmetic.

"There may be well-intentioned people in the NDP," said Rifaat El-Said, leader of the left-wing Taggamu party.

"But what they are now doing is like handing someone sitting on a branch a saw and asking him to cut the branch off. For real change to occur you need a new mentality which means changing individuals."

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