Young man's game

04 October 2002

The farmers of El-Fayyoum are not happy. This lush corner of Middle Egypt is the birthplace of Youssef Wali, who, as minister of agriculture since 1982 and boss of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) since 1985, has taken great pains to look after his rural constituency. Wali was relieved of his party post at the conclusion of the 16-17 September NDP congress as part of a process of purging the old guard of Egyptian politics.

Symbolic of this process has been the rising influence within the party of Gamal Mubarak, the 39-year-old second son of the Egyptian president. The changes are gradual, and sometimes painfully so, but they are potentially far-reaching. The political foundations of Egypt since the revolution engineered by Nasser's Free Officers 50 years ago have rested in the military establishment, which in turn has deep roots in rural areas. The constitution specifies that 50 per cent of the members of parliament must be workers or peasants. Gamal Mubarak has been seeking to represent a different constituency - civilian, predominantly urban and with middle class aspirations. It is a far cry from the machine politics of Wali, whose agents, spread out across Egypt's rural expanses, regularly delivered high turnouts and overwhelming votes in favour of the NDP at election time.

The writing had been on the wall for Wali for some time. In the run-up to the party congress, opposition newspapers unleashed a campaign of vilification against him, taking their cue from the arrest of a top Agriculture Ministry official on charges of taking bribes from a company importing banned pesticides. Wali's two main rivals for the party leadership - Information Minister Safwat el-Sharif and Cabinet Affairs Minister Kamal el-Shazly - also faced some wobbly moments in connection with other corruption scandals, but the real venom was reserved for Wali.

Amid all the hubbub, Gamal Mubarak brought to the conference a programme of party reforms, based on opening up policy questions to wider debate and ensuring that most party positions are elected. He was first appointed to the party's general secretariat in 2000, just before the parliamentary elections at the end of that year. The NDP came out of the elections with its customary impregnable majority in parliament, but only after a shambolic selection process had resulted in 'unofficial' NDP candidates outpolling those officially selected by the party hierarchy. Over the past two years, Gamal Mubarak has worked to ensure that this experience is not repeated.

The congress ended with Gamal Mubarak being designated Secretary-General for Policy, effectively making him the third most senior figure in the NDP. Safwat el-Sharif was made Secretary-General, with Kamal el-Shazly remaining in his previous post as deputy head. El-Sharif and Wali are the two longest-serving members of the Egyptian government, both brought in to the cabinet on the occasion of President Mubarak's first reshuffle, in August 1982. As such, he is still very much part of the old guard and his background in the intelligence services has meant that he has gained a reputation as a somewhat sinister figure, even though he has presided over a modest opening up of the Egyptian media.

In his first statements after the appointment, El-Sharif described Gamal Mubarak as 'the beating heart' of the NDP and made it clear that he fully subscribed to the younger man's vision of seeking to achieve wider participation in policy matters. The three other members of the office of the general secretariat can also be counted as Gamal Mubarak loyalists. They are Tourism Minister Mamdouh el-Beltagui, Youth & Sport Minister Alieddin Helal and Zakaria Azmi, a senior MP and confidant of President Mubarak. Kindred spirits on the general secretariat include Foreign Trade Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali and his senior civil servant Mahmoud Mohieddin, former environment minister Nadia Makram Obeid, Education Minister Hussain Kamal Bahaeddin, businessman Ahmed Ezz and two MPs renowned for their liberal economic views, Hisham Awad and Hossam Badrawi.

The main thrust of the Gamal Mubarak message is that Egypt needs to press forward with free market-oriented economic reforms, and that this must be underpinned by political reforms harnessing the talents of the new generation. An underlying theme is the widely held belief that Gamal Mubarak is the leading candidate to succeed his 73-year-old father, whose present term will expire in 2005. The young politician has repeatedly stated that he is not seeking an executive position. However, his energetic efforts to reform the NDP suggest that he is looking to create a new, democratic basis of legitimacy should the day come for him to stake a claim for high office.

He has been at pains to avoid giving the impression that he is being simply groomed to 'inherit' the presidency, along the lines of Bashar Asad in Syria. These efforts now appear to be paying off, as the idea of Gamal Mubarak deserving the chance of becoming president because of his achievements and personality, rather than just his parentage, is gaining currency, at least among the liberal intelligensia. 'Why shouldn't Gamal be president?' asks one prominent Egyptian executive. 'He is honest, hard-working, intelligent and has a clear idea of what policies he wants the government to adopt.'

There are also not a lot of alternatives. Intelligence head Omar Sulaiman is sometimes mentioned as a possible candidate, and he has adopted a higher profile in recent months, handling the task of imposing political and security reforms on the Palestinian Authority. It would also come as no great surprise if Egypt's next president came from the military establishment, although this would not sit easily with Mubarak's stated aim to create a more democratic system.

With the NDP congress out of the way, the focus of Egyptian internal politics has shifted back to the issue of the make-up of the government. There has been much talk of a late-autumn reshuffle. Prime Minister Atef Obeid has hung on in the post through a succession of economic setbacks since his appointment in October 1999. There have been some bright spots in the Obeid premiership, however. Some of the ministers he brought in have performed with credit, notably Petroleum Minister Sameh Fahmy, Communications & Information Technology Minister Ahmed Nazif and Finance Minister Midhat Hassanein.

Obeid also had a hand in the appointment of Mahmoud Abul-Eyoun as governor of the Central Bank of Egypt. The governor has overseen the hazardous task of adjusting the exchange rate to a more realistic level, and has had a major influence in revamping the senior management of Egypt's leading banks. He is now applying some innovative ideas to the important task of bringing down the punitively high interest rates charged for Egyptian pound borrowing. If Mubarak does decide to put the 70-year-old Obeid out to grass, there are a number of serving ministers being talked about as potential replacements.

One of these is Fahmy, who is said to have impressed Mubarak with the way in which he had pushed forward Egypt's crucial gas export programme. The main argument against Fahmy being considered for prime minister is that he has such an important role to play in bringing the gas export projects to fruition and launching a major new investment programme for petrochemicals. Other names being mentioned include Hassanein - who has the advantage of close familiarity with Egypt's budget figures - Industry Minister Ali Saeedi - regarded as a safe pair of hands - and Housing, Utilities & New Communities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Soliman. The final decision rests with Mubarak, who, as is his wont, has given no hints about any plans for a reshuffle.

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