The Wheels of Change: Despite Official Calls for "A National Dialogue" Many Egyptians Remain Unconvinced That Serious Reforms Will Have Made Their Way on to the Statute Books before the Next Presidential Elections in 2005

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Closing the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) conference on 28 September, President Hosni Mubarak announced that he had decided to "abolish all military orders issued ... under the emergency laws", in place since the assassination of his predecessor, President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Due to loud cheering from his audience, the President was obliged in pause before adding "except those [orders] that are necessary to maintain public order and security".

This moment at the NDP's first-ever party conference epitomised the events of recent months. Under pressure, the government has invoked the spirit of change, but left many confused as to how real its intentions are.

President Mubarak called for a "national dialogue" involving all legal political groups, but it will take more than words and gestures to convince Egypt's beleaguered opposition that significant reform is on the table.

Egypt finds itself caught in the middle of both internal and international pressures, and 2003 has brought those pressures acutely into focus. A general failure to lead the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to any positive outcome coupled with Egypt's discomfort at the US-led war against Iraq brought demonstrators onto the streets, as did the harsh effects of the country's economic liberalisation programme. Twenty-two years into Mubarak's reign, a little renewed lustre is required, especially to ensure a smooth hand-over of power to the next NDP leader.

Memories of 1993, the last time the NDP called for such a dialogue, remain fresh and consequently cynicism abounds. Before those talks, the ruling party insisted that the constitution was non-negotiable, leading to boycotts by some opposition groups and a sterile, unproductive discussion.

Commenting in Egypt's Al Ahram newspaper, the liberal Wafd Party Deputy Chairman, Mahmoud Abaza, warned that "this dialogue will end up failing if the NDP decides that amending the constitution--the opposition's cornerstone of real political reform--is not up for discussion." Abaza's party was among those that boycotted the last national dialogue, alongside the Arab Nasserist Party.

The first signs emanating from official circles did not offer much hope to reformers. In the days following Mubarak's pledge to cancel emergency laws, a committee was set up by Prime Minister Ataf Ebeid to review existing powers and make recommendations for change. The committee was reported to have reviewed 13 orders and recommended that only six could be withdrawn. Those included such apolitical matters as "not delivering some of all of an agricultural crop" and the "unlicensed demolishing of any building". The committee steered well clear of the ban on demonstrations, rules against insulting the president or calling for the overthrow of the regime.

Curiously, the perpetrators of" the 1981 murder of President Anwar Sadat were released from jail in October. In total 1,000 members of Jamaa Islamya, including the man convicted of Sadar's assassination and the party leadership, were released in response to the party's renunciation of violence over the past few years.

The Muslim Brotherhood, however, continue to be a banned organisation despite being the best-represented opposition patty in parliament. In the 2000 elections Brotherhood members circumvented the party's illegality by running as independents, picking up 17 seats. It is through the military courts under the 'state of emergency' regulations that Brotherhood members are usually tried for belonging to the banned group of plotting to overthrow the regime by disseminating propaganda which undermines it.

The government seems to be offering pluralism with one hand while strapping down opponents with the other. As the leader of the Brotherhood, Ma'moun El Hodeibi, has put it: "They ala the ones who approach and negotiate with us in the daylight, and then arrest our members and leadership when night falls. …