Mubarak fosters cult of youth

06 September 2002

When Egypt's ruling National Democratic party (NDP) assembles for its eighth congress on 15 September, the main question on the agenda will be the need to provide political opportunities for the younger generation. President Mubarak, who is also the party's chairman, set the scene at a mid-August meeting with the NDP old guard, telling them that leadership positions must be open to all and cannot be allowed to become the monopoly of particular interest groups.

He rammed home the message on 27 August at his annual encounter with students at Alexandria University, saying that the NDP should set an example through promoting a new generation of leaders and be an inspiration for other parties to be more inclusive. 'Political parties should not be just a newspaper with three or four individuals behind it,' he said.

The NDP, as the party of the state, is a little bit more than a newspaper. But it is very much dominated by a handful of powerful figures. Its core leadership, in place since 1985, is made up of secretary-general Youssef Wali (who is also the agriculture minister) and his two deputies, Kamal el-Shazly and Safwat el-Sharif, respectively ministers of parliamentary affairs and information. The party's internal organisation was last put to the test in the 2000 elections, and was found wanting. The NDP ended up with a crushing majority in parliament, but only because hundreds of MPs that had contested seats as independents joined the party's ranks.

The man entrusted with the task of developing the party's youth wing and modernising the NDP's internal systems has been the president's son, Gamal Mubarak. He has introduced a series of reforms aimed at limiting the powers of the party secretariat and devolving powers to bodies elected at the local level. The big question as the NDP congress approaches is whether the time has come for Gamal Mubarak to become the new secretary-general.

The president's son has built up a solid following within the party's ranks, but it is not clear whether the political establishment is ready for such a radical change, which would inevitably feed speculation about the presidential succession.

Also on the agenda in the coming period is the possibility of a cabinet reshuffle. Prime Minister Atef Obeid, now 70, has been in the post since 1999. His tenure has coincided with a marked slide in Egypt's economic fortunes, and many business people say the time has come for a younger, more dynamic figure to take the helm.

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