Byline: Nir Boms and Michael Meunier, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Egypt has gone through 26 years of single-party rule, during which unemployment has risen to 25 percent. Regime opponents have been jailed, and many promises of political reform have been consistently ignored. Nearly everyone - the United States, Egyptian opposition, even the ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak - agrees that it is time for a change in the Arab world's largest country.
And it is not coincidental that Mr. Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), which convened earlier this month under the banner of "New Thought and Reform Priorities," was quick to embrace the rhetoric of reform. "One-party rule is over,'' the president's son, Gamal, grandly announced to reporters, and President Mubarak himself promised in his closing speech to "spread the culture of democracy." Reforms that are reportedly under consideration include proportional representation for elections, ending criminal sanctions for violations of the press law and giving full legislative powers to the Shura Council, the advisory upper house of Parliament.
The rhetoric of the conference reflected the language of recent Arab reform initiatives such as the Alexandria and Doha Declarations - important manifestos dealing with the issues of freedom, democracy and political reforms. Likewise, the NDP produced a "Rights of Citizenship and Democratization" platform of its own, offering some promising suggestions on political reform, including commitments to human rights and the rule of law, and aspirations to promote wider participation in political life by giving greater responsibility and autonomy to civil-society organizations.
Rhetoric was cheap at the NDP conference that avoided addressing the issues that were critical to Egypt's democrats, among them a constitutional amendment that will prevent President Mubarak from taking a fifth five-year term in 12 months' time, the removal of article II of the constitution that effectively Islamized Egypt, and the demand for an end to the emergency laws that allow for indefinite detentions without trial (the laws were enacted in 1981, following Anwar Sadat's assassination). Paradoxically, the NDP Rights of Citizenship and Democratization document even promoted new restrictions on democracy, such as a requirement that parties regularly inform the authorities of their funding sources.
And despite the new asserted political opening, these new reforms appear to actually restrain the political dialogue and engenders cynicism among some Egyptian democrats. "The political system has ossified,'' says Mona Makram-Ebeid, a former member of parliament, a delegate of the Alexandria Conference for Reform and the secretary-general of the Hizbat al Ghad Party (the Party of tomorrow). Ghad is a new liberal political party that subscribes itself to the brief period of secular liberalism Egypt enjoyed under the Wafd Party, before the era of Nasserism and Pan-Arabism. Ghad, due to its liberal agenda, was denied political status and will not be allowed to actively participate in new "post one party" era ... And Makram-Ebeid is not alone. Earlier this month the government's Political Affairs Committee refused to allow the establishment of two …