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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 14:16 GMT 15:16 UK
Egypt's rulers struggle with 'new thinking'
By Heba Saleh
BBC, Cairo

Government building in Cairo
NDP government is seen as an unalterable fixture of Egyptian life
In the run up to its annual conference - which began on Tuesday - Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party filled the airwaves with its advertisements.

Its motto "New Thought" has been emblazoned on billboards around the country.

But the NDP has never been regarded by Egyptians as a real political party, which seeks to attract voters who believe in its political programme.

Mostly it has functioned as a means through which a powerful and unaccountable government has dispensed largesse to its supporters and ensured control of a docile parliament.

Opposition parties accuse it of using fraud to secure its crushing electoral majorities, which have stifled political life in the country.

But in the last three years, the NDP been has been trying to project a modern, reformist image, promising both more political freedoms and economic change aimed at spurring growth and completing the change to a market economy.

New broom

In July, a cabinet reshuffle brought in a new NDP government boasting a strongly reformist economic team.

Gamal Mubarak
The president insists his son is not an anointed heir
The new ministers are believed to be close to Gamal Mubarak, the son of the president and the head of the NDP's policy committee.

A few weeks after taking office the new government took the radical step of slashing custom tariffs and eliminating the notorious bureaucratic hurdles which have long frustrated both Egyptian and foreign investors.

The move was welcomed by the business community, but in a country suffering from high unemployment, and low-living standards, ordinary citizens have yet to see the benefits.

The NDP has promised to unveil more reformist measures at its conference.

These are understood to include tax cuts to encourage business. There is also talk of plans to amend laws which restrict political freedoms. Expectations, however, remain low.

Presidential power

"They've always promised reform and we've always had the same fireworks before the conference starts and then very little comes out," said Hisham Kassem, the chief executive officer of al-Masri al-Youm, a new independent newspaper.

We demand a real change in this point. I mean to elect directly the president among many candidates
Nabil Zaki
Editor of opposition newspaper
"Whenever they introduce any reforms or reform papers, there's never a timeframe for them."

He believes the current promises for political reform are a response to international and more specifically American pressure.

Egypt's legal opposition parties, and even the banned (but extremely popular) Muslim Brotherhood, argue that constitutional reform is the real key to change in the country.

Specifically they want to change the way the president is appointed and to restrict his tenure to two terms.

President Hosni Mubarak has been in office for 23 years and it is thought he will seek another term when his current mandate expires.

Poster child

Should the need arise to choose a successor, under the current system, Egyptians will be asked to vote in a referendum on a candidate presented by the majority party.

Cairo billboard showing Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal with an Egyptian gold medallist
Top billing - Mubarak Jnr appeared with Egypt's Olympic stars
"We demand a real change in this point. I mean to elect directly the president among many candidates, more than one," said Nabil Zaki the editor of al-Ahali, the newspaper of the left-wing Tagammu opposition party.

"I, as a citizen, should be able to choose between the programme of this candidate and the programme of the other one and the third one and so on."

But NDP officials say there are no plans for constitutional change at the moment.

And many Egyptians have not been reassured by a giant-sized poster of the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, that recently went up in Cairo.

Although it was taken down after a few days, the sight of it convinced many people that the younger Mr Mubarak was planning to succeed his father.

"As you know our president denied that more than once," said Mr Zaki.

"But we notice that the son of the president has been involving himself more and more in the political process as if he is preparing himself for the principal job."

'Catalyst for change'

But there are many inside the NDP and even outside it who deny that the succession in Egypt could ever pass from father to son as it did in Syria after the death of Hafez al-Assad.

Ahmed Nazif arrives at his office in Cairo 10 July 2004
The new government team is lead by businessman Ahmed Nazif
"I believe Egypt is a state," said Dr Abdul Moneim Said, the head of the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

"It has a system and institutions, perhaps not always functioning as they should, but the system is much more powerful than any individual."

"I don't think there is a chance that a succession in a Syrian sense could happen."

A member of the NDP policy council, Dr Said argues that Gamal Mubarak's personal status as the son of the Egyptian president puts him in a unique position to act as a catalyst for the changes in which he personally believes.

But Egyptians remain sceptical.

The challenge now facing the NDP is to convince the country that its efforts for reform are genuine and not just a means for promoting Gamal Mubarak or deflecting international pressure.

Economic reformers rise in Egypt
14 Jul 04  |  Business
Egypt's Mubarak appoints new PM
10 Jul 04  |  Middle East
Mubarak denies succession reports
01 Jan 04  |  Middle East
Country profile: Egypt
09 Jul 04  |  Country profiles
Profile: Egypt's great survivor
24 Nov 03  |  Africa

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